A Political Turn: Highways and Mass Transit in American Mobility History

Michael R. Fein Ph.D., Johnson & Wales University - Providence

This book chapter appears in: Mobility in History: The State of the Art in the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility, Gijs Mom, Gordon Pirie, Laurent Tissot, Eds.


Mark Rose’s Interstate: Express Highway Politics (1979) and Bruce Seely’s Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers (1987) signaled the opening of U.S. highway politics as a field for sustained scholarly investigation. In Interstate, Rose examined the political competition among interest groups, such as truck operators, that produced the landmark 1956 highway legislation. Seely’s focus was the road engineers themselves, led by Thomas MacDonald, whose uncanny ability to present themselves as ‘apolitical’ experts paradoxically allowed them to dominate the highly politicized drafting of the main contours of American highway policy. Together these two texts opened a range of questions in U.S. transportation policy, and in the grinding politics through which citizens, interest groups, experts and politicians directed the development of America’s transportation infrastructure.1 Rose’s and Seely’s mode of analysis appeared particularly well suited to capturing the complex ways in which transportation systems and societies shape each other, and, since then, a wave of new highways and transit scholars has built on their insights. This development constitutes a political turn in mobility history, with recent scholarship placing politics, political actors, and political ideology front and center. In 2006, the publication of the deliberately policy-oriented and admirably wonkish text, The Best Transportation System in the World: Railroads, Trucks, Airlines and American Public Policy in the Twentieth Century, co-authored by Rose, Seely and Paul Barrett, indicated the durability of a political approach to American mobility history.