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My Way or the Highway

Introduction to the Special Section on Roads

Thomas Zeller

Roads matter. They define spaces, spur economic development, provide ways of seeing cities and countryside, and enable generally faster forms of moving around. While the history of mobility and transportation has paid lots of attention to automobiles, trains, and airplanes, fewer scholarly accounts of streets, roads, and highways exist. For one, roads, unlike cars, almost never become individually owned objects of personal consumption. While some iconic highways such as the myth-laden “Route 66” in the U.S. exist, the majority of roads are nameless except for combinations of letters and numbers. As is the case with so many other everyday technologies, most observers only notice roads when they are dysfunctional: during traffic jams, when they contain potholes, during periods of construction and maintenance.