appian way

Civilization and Highways

Arguably the greatest road builders in the history of civilization were the Romans. Their highways were constructed mainly for military purposes and extended across much of Europe and into North Africa. Over 50,000 miles of hard surfaced roads were built using their greatest invention, concrete. Construction of the highway system began with the Appian Way in the third century BCE. Segments of this and other Roman highways exist to this day.



Another grand highway system of yore was constructed by the Incas across the highlands of the Andes. The Inca Trail ran for some 14,000 miles across rugged mountainous areas. The system was built for both commerce and especially for messengers who carried information throughout the Inca Empire. The roadway extended from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. Along its course it occasionally exceeded 16,000 feet in elevation. Parts of this 600 year old roadway are currently used by hikers to access Machu Picchu.

inca trail

inca trail

More recent but still historic is the German Autobahn. This was the first controlled access highway. Begun across Germany, mainly in the 1920s-30s, it allowed for rapid transit and at the same time provided an important public works project which helped Germany climb out of the disastrous depression following their defeat in the first world war. Although endorsed and expanded by Hitler, the autobahn had little purpose for the Nazi war machine during world war II. Rail transport was more important in fuel poor Germany. The autobahn became important at the end of second world war as it greatly impressed General Eisenhower who traveled much of it after the war.



Colonel Eisenhower had experience with highways before the second world war. After WW I, he participated in an experiment to transport military equipment across America. They used the Lincoln Highway which stretched from New York to San Francisco. The 3000 mile trip took 62 days. The partially paved highway caused much damage to the vehicles in the form of flat tires, busted axles, and general damage to the drive trains of most of the vehicles.

In 1956 President Eisenhower pressed congress for the construction of a highway system similar to the autobahn. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land…” he wrote in his book At Ease.

Societies benefit greatly by large scale transportation projects. They provide not only for important commercial and military transport but also are important for the jobs created in their development, construction, and maintenance.

It appears we have lost sight of this vision. Several dozen highway projects in here in Arkansas have recently been canceled because of the lack of funds in the federal highway trust fund. Even worse, a bill has been introduced in the 2015 state legislature, HB 1781, which would allow the state highway department to simply walk away from several thousand miles of state highways. We’re abandoning our highways because we don’t want to pay for them. Because we don’t want to pay the taxes, we simply give up on an important part of civilization.

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

3 thoughts on “Civilization and Highways

  1. Brad Duncan

    Bob: Good and Informative Blog! I had known about the Appian Way which the Roman soldiers used to march back to Rome from the Mediterranean Sea after their conquest abroad. I knew about Hitler’s endorsement of the Autobahn but thought his primary if not only interest at the time he endorsed it was for military purposes of handling large vehicles and getting them from Point A to Point B faster. Hadn’t thought about the German Nazis lack of access to plenty and affordable oil to run those military vehicles. Also knew that Ike patterned and championed our Interstate system after Hitler’s Autobahn and Ike’s interest in them was specifically for quicker and more efficient military use. Regarding taxes, the big problem with taxes in this day and time is multi-fold. 1) We have way too many tax dollars going to people who won’t work just to keep them alive and the politicians who champion that waste stay in office by buying those folks’ votes. 2) We have way too many tax dollars going to pet projects of politicians to romance their voters for many things which don’t amount to a hill of beans of value. 3) Food Stamps fraud for folks who need and many who don’t really need assistance financially drains untold billions out of the fed budget. 4) We have way too many tax dollars being spent on anywhere from semi-legitimate to completely illegitimate wants not needs of an ever more greedy American population. Result: When it comes around to funding the semi-legitimate to completely legitimate needs such as more, better and repaired highways, there is not enough left to fully or even respectably fund them and if the folks agree to paying more taxes, the same four bottomless pits of wants and not needs grow even more at a larger rate leaving the available funds for real needs even shorter on available tax dollars. I wouldn’t mind paying more taxes if I knew my hard earned money would be spent wisely for common needs of the people but, due to selfish human nature, that’s probably never going to happen. Sad Documentary but True Documentary!

  2. bob Post author

    sir, much of your tax rant, and justification for resisting paying tax is nonsense. the amount of fraud within social programs is a pittance compared to the rich’s tax fraud and legal avoidance. And I dare say the the cash value of fraud in the defense industry is much greater than that in social programs.

  3. Terry Tremwel

    Yes, highways were historically critical to the development of civilization and the advancement of economies of societies. The fact that the motivations and justifications to build the highways were usually for military purposes does nothing to detract from the vast positive unintended consequences to economies. However, similar to the way that the internet is superseding other telecommunications, mass transit has the ability to supersede highways in specific circumstances, namely when housing density reaches certain thresholds.

    Unfortunately, people in the US are vastly more willing to subsidize less efficient highways because of the ideal of “the rugged individual” than super-efficient mass transit projects (even though, as you point out, even the willingness to support highways is in short supply right now). This works against the mobility of the workforce (a key tenet of capitalism), especially those who have difficulty buying the means of personal transportation. Thus, with more efficient means of transportation in disfavor, we waste much more energy and pollute much more than necessary. Electric vehicles are one means to change that equation at the personal level, though it is less beneficial to society than a comprehensive approach. One such comprehensive approach is articulated by Dr. Stephen Luoni of the Community Design Center of the University of Arkansas.

    Electric buses are one compromise solution for urban centers that would reduce operating costs immediately and provide a payback on the order of 6 years for the small increase in capital invested. The payback period is decreasing rapidly, but the opportunity is an economic positive right now. Reduction in diesel fumes and the benefits to health are immediate and unaccounted in the payback calculation. If school districts realized the savings of electric buses and improved health for children, this should be a no-brainer.


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