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Public Roads - May/June 1998

Public Roads: 80 Years Old, But The Best Is Yet to Come

by Bob Bryant

80thPublic Roads was first published in May 1918. So, that makes the magazine 80 years old. But this is not an old, stodgy magazine. Public Roads maintains the strength, vitality, energy, and enthusiasm of the young - knowing that the best years are yet to come.

In several ways, Public Roads is still very young. Much has happened since 1991 that has fundamentally reshaped and recreated the magazine.

With the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), the leadership of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) decided that the agency needed to broaden the content and audience of Public Roads. The agency needed a periodical that was more in tune with a new era and with the needs and focus of FHWA, including intermodalism - highways as a part of a comprehensive transportation system that includes all modes of transportation in an effort to meet increasingly complex social needs. In addition to articles about advances in research and technology, Public Roads needed to address critical national transportation issues and subjects of interest to highway industry professionals.

Starting with the Summer 1993 issue, Public Roads dropped its subtitle - A Journal of Highway Research and Development - and unveiled a new design, as well as an expanded scope and distribution that reflected its enlarged mission to represent the entire FHWA. Today, although Public Roads maintains a foundation in research and technology, each issue features articles related to the policies and programs of FHWA.

The most visible aspect of the magazine's evolution has been the new design. Some specific design changes included use of full color in some internal sections of the magazine, more photographs and color photographs, and a more lively layout. The idea is to communicate through a balance of text and visual elements. But this new design, which was implemented as Public Roads was celebrating its 75th birthday, was much more than a facelift; it was the outward sign of a "new attitude."

We're pleased that the evolution of the magazine has been well-received by our readers. In a formal readership survey conducted in late 1995, 90.5 percent of the 700 respondents said Public Roads meets their needs well or very well. For 38.6 percent, Public Roads is the primary source of information on highway research and technology, and for 49.6 percent, it is one of three primary sources. Almost 88 percent said recent design changes have made the magazine more interesting, and 83 percent said they now read the magazine more as a result of these changes. Likewise, almost 88 percent said the expanded scope of the magazine made it more interesting, and as a result, more than 84 percent now read more of the magazine. And even though such a large percentage likes the changes we made, almost 28 percent said the key weakness of the magazine is that it is too general, and 21 percent would like to see more focus on research and technology.

The most significant change that we made as a result of the survey was to increase our publication frequency from quarterly to bimonthly, starting in July/August 1997. For the 14.6 percent who wanted the magazine to cover more topics and for the readers who wanted more information about research and technology, we now provide 50 percent more information over the course of a year.

We have received authorization from the Office of Management and Budget to conduct another major readership survey, which will be conducted in late 1998. In this survey, we will measure how our response to the previous survey has been received by our readers, and our goal is to increase the percentage of readers for whom the magazine meets their needs well or very well.

We live in very exciting times that are full of incredible discoveries that are changing our lives and our society. In Megatrends, published in 1982, futurist John Naisbitt described the exponential growth in human knowledge. From the beginning of recorded history, it took thousands of years to double the knowledge of man. Then, it only took a couple of hundred years to double it again. More recently, only a hundred years; then only 50; then only 10; and now in less than a year, human civilization as a whole doubles the available knowledge. The world is changing so rapidly that it is almost impossible to predict with any certainty the amazing advances that will be achieved in just the next 20 or 30 years - within the lifetime of most current FHWA employees.

At Public Roads, we are excited about being a part of communicating the FHWA contributions to building a better, more technologically advanced society. For 80 years, the magazine has been a chronicle of advancements in surface transportation, and we are proud to continue in that tradition.


  1. America's Highways 1776-1976: A History of the Federal-Aid Program, Federal Highway Administration, Washington, D.C., 1976.
  2. Bureau of Public Roads Annual Report, Bureau of Public Roads, Washington, D.C., 1922.

Bob Bryant is the editor of Public Roads.