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Public Roads - Summer 1993

Wow! Public Roads has just turned 75.

by Robert V. Bryant

Its longevity is a testament to its importance to the community of highway engineers and other transportation officials. But in some ways, this issue of the magazine marks a rebirth.

For almost its entire 75 years, Public Roads has been exclusively an in-house research journal for engineers, scientists, and economists, fulfilling part of its original mission to publish the "results or researches, experiments and studies of those connected with (the forerunner of the federal Highway Administration), and of highway officials of the various States."(1)

Now, however, to meet the changing and expanding needs of FHWA and true to "what goes around, comes around" axiom, Public Roads is becoming more relevant for the future by picking up part of its past -- the other part of its original mission which was to be a forum for the discussion of current problems including "the dissemination of such information as the officials of the various States may desire to spread for the benefit of their contemporaries."(1)

The most apparent aspect of the magazine's evolution is the new design unveiled in this issue. Some specific design changes include 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 and through a balance of substantive feature articles and technical articles. But this is much more than a facelift for a 75-year old; the magazine is developing a "new attitude."


Over the years Public Roads has been a part of the Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, and Department of Transportation.


With the emphasis of intermodalism -- highways as a part of a comprehensive transportation system that includes all models of transportation in efforts to meet increasingly complex social needs -- Public Roads must address critical national transportation issues and subjects of interest to highway professionals.

While Public Roads remains a predominantly research-oriented publication, Public Roads is now the magazine of the entire FHWA and has dropped its subtitle -- A Journal of Highway Research and Development.

In this new format, Public Roads fills a void in the transportation community not occupied by academic journals, trade publications, or association magazines. The expanded audience includes technical personnel interested in the latest highway research and technology; international, national, state, and local transportation officials; and others interested in the highway industry. The magazine has a limited free mailing list to universities and government officials. It is anticipated that subscriptions will increase with the expansion of the scope and audience.

A major part of the new scope is the transition to a transportation system that is more fully integrated to meet the more complex needs of society. This transitioning transportation system has three operational requirements. Highways must be integrated into a complete transportation network that includes railways, airports, waterways, etc. Social factors such as environmental quality and traffic congestion must be taken into account in new projects. FHWA must work much more closely with state and local governments to plan the overall impact of new highway projects.

The magazine will also emphasize the commitment of FHWA to continue to be a world leader in promoting highway research and technology transfer.

Being involved at the cutting edge of new technology and new developments is old business for Public Roads. Public Roads was the original publisher of many landmark papers in highway research. A paper published in the May 1929 issue, "Interrelationship of Load, Road and Subgrade" by C. Hogentogler and C. Terzaghi, "laid the foundations of subgrade soil classification and marked a turning point in studies of subgrade soils." (2) During the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, highway researchers were constantly making new discoveries and inventing new instruments to measure what had never been measured before. Information about many of these new instruments -- for example, the Goldbeck Pressure Cell for measuring pressures under pavement, the electric eye and road tube trafQc counters, the Benkelman Beam for measuring minute deflections in pavements under load -- "first reached the scientific world through the pages of Public Roads.(2)

The following account of the history of Public Roads, which made its debut in May 1918, is taken from America 's Highways 1776-1976: A History of the Federal-aid Program.

"(Public Roads) provided the State highway officials with a welcome forum for the discussion of current problems. The first issue brought the industry up-to-date by summarizing motor vehicle licensing laws and fees for registration and operators' licenses. This wartime issue also urged highway builders to conserve scarce fuel by proper attention to the firing of boilers and the careful use of steam in road machines and in quarrying. An entire issue (June 1918) was devoted to the catastrophic road breakups caused by heavy trucking during the 1918 spring thaw. The May 1919 issue dealt with the social and economic benefits of using convict labor on the public roads. When the Government distributed the huge surpluses of military equipment to the States Public Roads ran articles on how to take care of the equipment and convert it to civilian highway use.

"Public Roads published the resolutions adopted by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) at its annual meetings of December 1918, 1919, and 1920, and also the papers read at those conventions. In effect, its was the official journal of AASHO until that organization launched its own publication, American Highways, in 1922. "Within a year of its first issue, Public Roads was an important voice of the young highway industry, with a long waiting list of would-be-subscribers. In fiscal year 1920, the authorized monthly circulation was raised to 4,500 copies, but hundreds of requests for the magazine had to be refused. Budgetary cuts reduced the circulation to 4,000 copies per month for fiscal year 1921, and, without explanation, publication was suspended altogether after the December 1921 issue. The suspension drew an immediate protest from the American Road Builders' Association, AASHO, and other organizations interested in roads and also '... many expressions of regret not only from its engineer subscribers, hut also from the non-technical administrative heads of county highway activities to whom it had been helpful. Not the least gratifying of such expressions were those which came entirely without solicitation from the editors of other technical engineering journals.' (3)

"Public Roads resumed publication in March 1924, with the return of better times. However, the magazine was no longer a forum for the administrative and technical problems of the States, this function having been assumed by American Highways after Public Roads ceased publication. Instead, the new Public Roads was exclusively a house research journal....

"Publication has continued without interruption from March 1924 down to the present, although the frequency of issues has varied widely. Through the years, Public Roads again expanded to include articles on highway research and development from sources outside of the Bureau of Public Roads. Throughout its long history, Public Roads has maintained a high standard of scientific accuracy and literary clarity and, taken as a whole, is a remarkable chronology of the development of highway engineering and economics in the motor age." (2)

Public Roads has been redesigned and rejuvenated to become a magazine more in tune with a new era and the needs of FHWA -- the Public Roads of the 21st century. So, this birthday is a celebration of the strength of tradition and the dynamics of changing times.


The past issues of Public Roads are a chronicle of highway research.



(1) Logan Waller Page. "Salutatory," Public Roads, Vol. 1, No. 1, May 1918.

(2) America's Highways 1776: A History of the Federal-aid Program, Federal Highway Administration, Washington, D.C., 1976.

(3) Bureau of Public Roads Annual Report, Bureau of Public Roads, Washington, D.C., 1922.

Robert V. Bryant has been the editor of Public Roads since September 1992. He works for Avalon Integrated Services as the project manager of an editorial support team in the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Research and Development Operations and Support. For the preceding 22 years, he was an U.S. Army infantry and public affairs officer. His last military assignments were at the Pentagon as acting chief of Army Command (internal) Information and as editor-in-chief of Soldiers, the Army's official magazine.