Before Public Roads, Private Companies Did It Better
By Joe Jarvis - August 15, 2018

American Roads Started as Private Businesses

Even the U.S. Department of Transportation has to admit, the first major U.S. roadways were not built by the government:

The privately built Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road was the first important turnpike and the first long-distance broken-stone and gravel surface built in America according to formal plans and specifications. The road’s construction marked the beginning of organized road improvement after the long period of economic confusion following the American Revolution.

The road opened the territory northwest of the Ohio River and provided cheap transportation between the coast cities and the new Republic’s “bread basket” region surrounding Lancaster.

In the early days of the United States, the government certainly saw the benefit of roads. But most politicians didn’t think it was their place to raise taxes to pay for them.

State governments laid claim to all unoccupied land. So state governments would grant charters to private companies to build, improve, and maintain roads on “public” land.

The companies sold stock in the routes to investors, which funded the development of these roads. Tolls made the companies profitable so they could pay back investors.

The government’s only role was granting ownership of certain public pathways to these companies, under the condition that they improve them.

The best roads at the time were privately funded, for-profit businesses. Travel for leisure was not as common. People tended to work at home, or close to where they lived. Therefore merchants moving their goods to market paid most of the tolls. This surely brought down the price for other travelers.

Of course, the price of the toll would make it into the price of the goods. In that sense, everyone contributed to the roads. No taxation necessary.

Great Britain Started the Trend and brought it to America

During the 1700s, the British started experimenting with paved roads for the first time since the Romans built some roads after conquering the island.

During this same time period, the growth of turnpikes was resulting in much improved road conditions across England. Private individuals built roads themselves and then charged for their use, usually blocking passage by setting a long pole (pike) across the road. Once the toll had been paid, the pole would be swung (turned) out of the way, allowing the travelers access to the road (turnpike). By 1829, 3,783 different turnpike companies operated 20,000 miles of highway throughout England. However, during the latter half of the 19th century, canal building and the growth of railroads outstripped the turnpikes, and roads in general became less important until the turn of the century.
As European settlers migrated across the Atlantic to the U.S., they found themselves faced with an almost total lack of roads… in Europe they had at least had the Roman roads to use as a foundation for rebuilding. In America there were only Indian trails, and while they were long and quite extensive, they were also very narrow, allowing only for single file passage of foot traffic. Like their Inca counterparts, the natives of North America did not invent a wheel, and so did not develop roads that would accommodate wheeled vehicles. Initially, America’s early roads were no more than widened Indian trails which had been leveled and filled, most of them full of tree stumps that tripped horses and halted wagons. The expression, “I’m stumped,” derived from this era, when vehicles were frequently hung up on tree stumps and could go no further until they’d been freed… America, like England, went through a period of turnpike development, and for many years, turnpikes were the best roads in the U.S.
Toll roads solved many of these problems. The roads naturally served larger population centers, since that is where there would be enough travelers to pay back the tolls. And they were ultimately paid for by the people who traveled the roads or bought the goods moved on the roads.

The governments in the U.S.A. were actually not responsible for building roads until “1891, when New Jersey became the first state to take responsibility at the state level for improving roads and formed a State Highway Department. Massachusetts followed this example in 1892, and by 1917 all the states had adopted similar programs.”

But the truth is, states only started caring about roads when everyone else stopped caring. Railroads and canals became the transportation of choice during the Industrial Revolution. And roadways would remain lightly traveled until the automobile became popular.

In the Future Who Will Build the Roads?

Could you imagine a post-road world? Not a Post Road for mail, a world after roads.

The U.S. government’s vast investment in highways has really altered the development of transportation.

It is hard to tell what better methods of transportation would be invented, used, and improved if government funded roads were not available.

But you can bet that it would be more efficient, since companies, investors, and users would be responsible. The government doesn’t have much incentive to keep costs down, improve road conditions, reduce traffic, or serve market demands.

And then in a post-road world, roads could be reclaimed for walking, bike riding, and short distance travel with less serious vehicles. Think of how wonderful cities and neighborhoods could become. Think of the vast improvement in the quality of life. Think of the reduction of roadway deaths and injuries.

Comment and tell me what you think transportation would look like today without publicly funded highways. And tell me your vision for the future of transportation.

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