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Public Roads - Nov/Dec 1997

...From Dense Ignorance and Otherwise A (Not Entirely Serious) Look At America's 100 (Plus) Years War With Europe

by Richard F. Weingroff

In the introduction to the report on the 1990 European Asphalt Study Tour, then Federal Highway Administrator Thomas D. Larson declared, "We have a lot to learn from Europe about asphalt pavements and about pavement philosophy in general. European pavements are better than ours, and it's no accident." Just as the Soviet Union's Sputnik had shocked America's educational, political, and scientific institutions in 1957, Dr. Larson's claim shocked the American highway community, which had long thought the United States was the world leader in highway technology. At the same time, it delighted the media. (Reader's Digest said, "As Europe forged ahead on road technology in the 1980s, America actually slipped backward.")

In reality, Dr. Larson's statement was simply the latest skirmish in a 100-plus years war between Europe and the United States for bragging rights in the highway world.

The war began at the dawn of the Good Roads Era in the 1890s. The U.S. Department of State asked its international consuls for information on roads in other countries. The State Department's nearly 600-page report in 1891 confirmed what good roads advocates had been saying: In country after country, roads were in better shape than those in the United States, often with the national government helping keep them that way.

In France, the State Department found the world's best roads. They had been "inaugurated by the First Napoleon and carried forward to its satisfactory and splendid conclusion by the late Emperor, Napoleon the Third." The French consul added, "It is the opinion of well-informed Frenchmen ... that the superb roads of France have been one of the most steady and potent contributors to the material development and marvelous financial elasticity of the country."

The consuls' reports inspired America's good roads boosters, even while putting the nation in an underdog position at the start of the 100-plus years war. In 1892, one of the movement's leaders, Gen. Roy Stone, stated, "The investigations made by our State Department ... at least made it clear that this is the only civilized country in the world without good roads and that the want of such roads is not only a grievous tax upon the whole people, but the greatest hindrance to their progress -- intellectual, social, moral, and political."

In 1892 and 1893, as Congress considered whether the federal government should play a role in road improvement, the consuls' reports were a factor in the debates. Congress rejected, however, the national involvement in road building that was common in other countries. With creation of the U.S. Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) under Gen. Stone on Oct. 3, 1893, the federal government settled on a primarily educational role.

Maurice O. "Mo" Eldridge, deputy director of the Office of Public Road Inquiries in the early 1900s, was an indefatigable writer and speaker on the subject of good roads.

Lectures at good roads conferences throughout the country were among the ORI's common educational tools. One of the most popular speakers was the ORI's Maurice O. "Mo" Eldridge, and one of his popular speeches was on "The Highways of Europe and America." In the version delivered on Nov. 12, 1901, in Greenville, Tenn., he said the roads of Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Norway, and Sweden "cannot be surpassed." In France, "all roads receive perpetual attention; in America most roads receive perpetual inattention." As a result of this inattention, he said, "our country people ... suffer great disadvantages, ambition being checked, education hindered, energy weakened, and industry paralyzed."

Logan Waller Page, who headed the U.S. Office of Public Roads (OPR) from 1905 until his death in 1918, was a Francophile on roads. He studied in France's School of Roads and Bridges and brought some of the French testing equipment to America as part of the OPR's road materials laboratory. In a September 1909 speech, he used France's strong national role to imply the need for a similar federal role in the United States."It is significant that the most perfect road system, conceded to be such by all authorities on highway construction, is that of France, admittedly the most highly centralized of all the road systems.... Certainly, the inference must be plain that centralization makes for economy and efficiency in the administration of the public roads," said Page.

When Page presided at the Second National Good Roads Federal-Aid Convention in March 1913 in Washington, D.C., one of the first speakers he introduced was M. de Pulligny, France's chief engineer of roads and bridges. In addition to telling the Americans about road building methods in France, he commented on America's road technology in a way that must have tweaked the pride of the Americans.

At the beginning of the 20th century, France was the acknowledged leader
in building good roads.

"Here in the United States, it seems to me that you ... began with complete liberality, not to be impolite enough to call it anarchy, and perhaps you are now on the road toward a little centralization," de Pulligny said.

Not surprisingly, when Congress established a Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads in 1913 to make recommendations on federal involvement in road building, the committee asked the State Department to again compile information on road practices in other countries. The committee found that all the countries examined, except Germany and Canada, granted some form of national aid. Naturally, the extensive review of France's "highly centralized" system was the longest part of the committee's report and did include a caveat.

"The French road system ... requires a very large force of officials and employees. If, for comparison, we consider the same system as applied to the great mileage of roads in the United States, the resultant organization would assume very large proportions," the committee warned.

In 1915, the committee recommended adoption of a federal-aid program. The committee could not agree on the details but warned against both centralization of power in Washington and the potential for "pork barrel" activities by the states if they received federal-aid. The Federal-Aid Highway Program, launched in 1916, created a federal-state partnership with checks and balances to counteract these tendencies.

The First International Road Congress
October 1908 - Paris, France

Membership card issued to every participant at the 1908 International Road Congress.

A membership card was issued to every participant in the 1908 International Road Congress in Paris.

France, with the world's best roads, was the logical choice to host the First International Road Congress, held Oct. 11 to 17, 1908. More than 1,600 people from 33 countries attended the congress, which featured 107 papers.

OPR Director Logan Waller Page headed the 19-member American delegation. For the exhibition hall, OPR provided full-size drawings of the Page Impact Testing Machine, photographs of a racing car traveling at different speeds over a stretch of road in an experiment to determine the amount of dust raised, and a technical description (in three languages) of the OPR's hardness machine.

In an address on opening day, Page thanked France for inviting the nations of the world to "confront the great problems of road building and maintenance.

"The old saying that 'the civilization of a country may be judged by the condition of its highways' is certainly true of France. A country can do nothing more useful than bring its roads to the highest state of perfection. Having accomplished this, nothing could be more magnanimous than to invite all other nations to share her experience. This the Republic of France has done," Page said.

One of the most vexing problems facing the delegates was how to adapt horse-and-buggy road surfaces to the punishing impacts of the automobile. Page's presentation on "The Effect of Modern Traffic on Broken Stone Roads" was one of many papers on the subject. After describing his experiments on the impact of automobiles of road surfaces, Page had to admit, "a perfectly satisfactory solution of the problem has not yet been found.

"Even France was struggling to find an answer. M. Lethier, president général of the congress and inspecteur général des ponts et chaussées (bridges and roads), noted that his country had invested "the enormous sum" of 6 billion francs on its roads "and, in order that this vast principal shall not be wasted, I ask the foreign delegates who admire our landscapes and our roads to help us with their advice.

"Between lectures, participants enjoyed opportunities for work and pleasure excursions, including a reception at the city hall, rides over roads in the Paris area, a trip to Versailles, and a gala performance of the "Comédie Francaise.

"On Oct. 16, M. Lethier invited delegates to consider a proposition to establish a permanent international road bureau, "as proposed by Messrs. Page, Timonoff (Russia), Liebrand (Germany), Tedeschi (Italy), and others." The formation of an international bureau had been Page's greatest hope in attending the congress.

"Upon my arrival," he stated, " I found that such was the almost universal desire." The following day, the delegates approved the proposal, leading to creation of the Permanent International Association of Road Congresses (now called World Road Association). As Page put it, "The hope entertained has come true.

"In closing remarks on the final day of the First International Road Congress, Page said: "in the course of our work my colleagues and I have come in contact with the foremost road builders in the world, and we are sincerely thankful for this privilege. We shall take with us also a deep sense of gratitude for the charming hospitality extended to us and an even greater admiration for France."

France's reputation for good roads was enhanced by America's participation in World War I in 1917 and 1918. In war-torn France, millions of Americans finally saw the "good roads" they had only dreamed about in the United States. And they came home convinced America could do at least as well. Captain Harry S. Truman of the 129th Field Artillery was one of them. While in France, he occasionally had opportunities to indulge his lifelong love of cars, driving, and speed.

"The French know how to build roads and also how to keep them up. They are just like a billiard table and every twenty meters there are trees on each side," Truman wrote to his fiancee, Bess Wallace, from "Somewhere in France" on May 19, 1918.

In the 1920s as county judge of Jackson County, Mo., he initiated the construction of concrete roads modeled on what he had seen in France. He even planted trees along his roads to create the sort of attractive roadside he had admired during the war, Unfortunately, the farmers who lived along the roads mowed the seedlings down; so, Truman's vision of roadside beauty was not achieved.

Another American who saw France's roads as a sad commentary on their American counterparts was the inventor Thomas Edison. He knew America's roads from his motor camping trips with auto innovator Henry Ford, tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs.

"I have traveled over four thousand miles of French roads, main and lateral, built hy the central government and also kept in perfect repair, and I note with pain and humiliation the horrible mess that is made by us in our road building, arising from dense ignorance and otherwise," Edison commented in 1919.

Until the 1920s, America's road builders could only dream of equaling Europe's achievements. Then, as the United States embarked on one of the greatest road-building periods in history, the country's road builders began to lose their underdog status.

The attitude toward England offers an example. In 1924, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) tasked consulting highway engineer Austin B. Fletcher to study the rural roads of England. Although he was subjected to rain nearly every day of his three-month visit, "it was possible to get about without particular difficulty." But the comparison was not one-sided as it would have been the previous decade.

"I believe that in speed of road construction, in the matter of road equipment of all kinds, as concerns motor-vehicle regulation, highway financing, and research and experimental work generally, we do not have much to learn from Great Britain," Fletcher wrote.(1)

America's confident new attitude resulted in BPR's initial efforts to help less fortunate countries to develop their road networks. In 1925, after returning from the Pan-American Congress at Buenos Aires, Argentina, BPR chief Thomas H. MacDonald told the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) that the United States must identify ways "in which we may be of the greatest service to these other countries."

"The solidarity of the Western Hemisphere and the opportunity for each republic to work out its own destiny under favorable and helpful conditions is the end sought. Without highway improvement of magnificent proportions, these conditions are impossible. Mutual sympathy and helpfulness is the spirit of Pan Americanism. It is the finer statesmanship," MacDonald said.

Even as "the finer statesmanship' was launched, American pride was hit in the 1930s by a German blitzkrieg in the continuing war for highway supremacy. The Reichautobahnen (National Auto Roads), Adolph Hitler's network of motorways, incorporated the most advanced design principles in the world. America's highway leaders visited Germany throughout the 1930s to see what one writer would later call "a fantasy in concrete."

In 1930, an American road crew builds a concrete highway. Notice the use of horse power.


In the 1930s, one writer described the German highway network as a "fantasy in concrete".

The tours, often accompanied by Hitler's chief engineer, Dr. Fritz Todt, included travel on the autobahn and an overview from one of Germany's luxurious zeppelins.

After taking the tour in 1938, Rep. Wilburn Cartwright of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Committee on Roads, summed up everybody's feeling when he told AASHO in 1938, "When I think of super-highways, I think of Germany." And this stirred him to add that it was "not an idle boast for us to say that we can do better anything that Germany can do well." In short, the United States "should have a highway system second to none."

This view taken in 1938 of the Hague-Utrecht motorway in The Netherlands shows that in addition to Germany, other countries in pre-World War II Europe had excellent highways.

Somewhat less impressed was the BPR's MacDonald. Addressing a meeting of the American Automobile Association after returning from Europe in 1936, he acknowledged Germany's "magnificent conception of a national system of major highways." However, in bypassing the cities, as the autobahn did, he said, "something is lost." In the United States, where congestion in the cities had become the major traffic problem, the focus should be on urban problems.

Just as France's roads had inspired future President Truman during World War I, Germany's autobahn inspired future President Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II. Eisenhower learned the value of good roads as an observer on the U.S. Army's 1919 transcontinental convoy, itself inspired in part by the good roads of France. But after observing how the autobahn enhanced Germany's military effort early in the war and the Allied counterattack at the end, Gen. Eisenhower was convinced that America needed similar "broader ribbons across the land."

But even before Gen. Eisenhower was in a position to establish those broader ribbons, the autobahn provided an opportunity for what today would be called a European scanning tour. The tour was inspired by reports that the autobahn's concrete pavements were superior to those in America. To determine the truth of such claims, Chief MacDonald dispatched two of his top engineers, F. H. Jackson and Harold Allen, to Germany. Their goal was to determine how the pavements were superior and "what features of German design and construction practice, if any, can be adopted with profit by American engineers."(2)

In partitioned post-war Germany, they needed help from the Road Research Laboratory of Great Britain in making arrangements for their 28-day study tour July 15 to August 11, 1947). Ten days were taken up with securing clearances, making arrangements, and conducting interviews. But in the remaining 18 days, they traveled 1,600 kilometers of autobahn motorways, mostly in the American and British Zones. Driving speeds averaged about 55 km/hr with frequent stops to examine soil conditions, the quality of concrete, and structural failures.

Jackson and Allen found that the concrete pavements were generally free of structural defects but that comparisons with concrete pavements in the United States were difficult because of the "comparatively small amount of heavy truck traffic" on the German roads and Germany's comparatively mild climate. Nevertheless, Jackson and Allen recommended research into ways of reducing the maximum size of coarse aggregate and compacting pavement concrete by mechanical means, as well as how concrete is affected by variations in the chemical composition of cements and the methods of manufacturing cements.

As this early scanning tour suggests, post-war America was in no mood to settle for second best in the highway war. In 1956, America finally claimed victory with the launching of the Interstate Highway Program under President Eisenhower. The United States appeared to have a permanent claim to victory in the highway war with Europe. This coup de grace was, after all, the greatest public works project in history.

"It is bigger than the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Panama Canal, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Egyptian Pyramids, and a lot of other big projects that you can think of, all rolled into one," Federal Highway Administrator Bertram D. Tallamy said in 1957.

Still, it was necessary to keep an eye on our rivals. As early as the 1960s, the highway community be gan to wonder if, perhaps, Europe might be doing something we should know about -- and didn't. "Despite great advances here, United States road builders are a long way from knowing everything there is to know about their art," said Robert O. Swain, president of the International Road Federation, launching a $150,000 European study tour to examine research in 17 countries.

As the United States began to doubt that it really enjoyed permanent dominance in its bragging rights war with Europe, road builders could take some comfort from an event that occurred in long-envied France in 1970. As a headline in The Washington Post on Oct. 28, 1970, put it: Laggardly France Is Finishing First Major Expressway.

Why the delay in France, the legendary world leader in highways? The article's explanation brings to mind France's reputation dating to the 1890s: "The excellence of ordinary French roads since Napoleon's time, as well as political troubles during and after World War II, long delayed construction of superhighways."

But in 1990, with the European Asphalt Study Tour, America acknowledged that even as a world leader in surface transportation, it had much to learn from its rivals. This latest setback in the bragging rights war came at a vulnerable time for American pride after three decades marked by assassinations, Viet Nam, Watergate and a presidential resignation, Whip Inflation Now buttons, oil shortages, the decline of the center city, stagflation, malaise, cholesterol, quality foreign cars, New Coke, soaring deficits, the discovery of the scientific principle that anything that tastes good is bad for you, terrorism, the murder of John Lennon, deregulation of savings and loans (SRL), junk bonds, bailout of SRL's, tabloid journalism, baseball strikes, designer tennis shoes, "Heaven's Gate" and "Ishtar," the competitiveness wars, and a general feeling that each new television season is worse than the one before.

And now, as if that partial list of woes weren't enough to generate an inferiority complex, America lost its supremacy in highways. Do not despair, America! All is not lost!

As Dr. Larson pointed out in a message to employees in May 1992, the report on the European Asphalt Study Tour simply said that selected European asphalt pavements "are physically better than equivalent ones in the U.S." He noted, though, that other criteria must be considered as well, "U.S. highways are better from system connectivity, geometry, and safety perspectives. Overall, the U.S, enjoys the world's premier highway system."(3)

America's war with Europe has spurred the United States on to better highways for more than 100 years. The European Asphalt Study Tour and its successors are simply the latest attempt to learn from practices that, while routine in Europe, are innovative in America. Many of these concepts are being put to use or adapted to American practices.

What America has not done is simply adopt European practice in whole. When the media wonder why the United States highway community does not simply do everything the European way, they might consider the words of Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson, who wrote in 1995: "This is the United States, and we can't always imitate what other countries do differently -- even when it is admirable -- because we aren't them. We are us."


1. A. B. Fletcher. "Impressions of English Highway Practice," Public Roads, February 1925.

2. F. H. Jackson and Harold Allen. "Concrete and Pavements on the German Autobahnen," Public Roads, June 1948.

3. Thomas D. Larson. "Why Our Road Go to Pot: Hit a Pothole? Thank the Feds." Administrator's Note, May 22 1992.

Richard F. Weingroff is an information liaison specialist in the Federal Highway Administration's Office of the Associate Administrator for Program Development.