Roads Research Paper

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The first roads were built to facilitate the movement of armies over uneven landscapes. Paved road systems reached new levels of sophistication during Roman times but fell into disrepair with the fall of the empire. The dawn of modern road building began with the invention of the automobile, evolving into today’s intricate networks of street and highway systems.

Roads that allow marching men and wheeled vehicles to move easily across indefinite distances have existed for thousands of years. The earliest roads were built for military use, since rulers were eager to move armies as fast as possible to meet hostile forces wherever they might appear. But merchants and other travelers immediately benefitted from roads as well, and over time everyday use for peaceful purposes matched and eventually outweighed their military significance.

Road construction is not easy, for roads must often cross flowing water and/or dry streambeds and usually need specially constructed bridges to do so safely. On dry ground, rain erodes soft earth and forms puddles that quickly turn into impassable mud holes unless builders construct a pavement of flat stones, compacted gravel, concrete, or asphalt. Drains are often needed to keep the road surface intact for any length of time. In addition, since the invention of automobiles and trucks, curves and slopes must be designed to accommodate vehicles moving at high speed. This sometimes requires building tunnels, leveling hill crests, and moving millions of tons of rock.

Early Roads

Babylonian and Assyrian kings built the first road systems historians know of in modern Iraq. They did so for military purposes, beginning when horse-drawn chariots became supreme on battlefields after about 1400 BCE. The Persians later built a so-called royal road that ran all the way from their capital at Susa to the shores of the Aegean Sea, a distance of about 2,857 kilometers (1,775 miles). Xerxes’s army used that road when invading Greece in 480 BCE, and the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that it took ninety-three days to travel its length, an average of about 31 kilometers (19 miles) a day.

Other early empires in China and India also created lengthy road systems, but canal boats in China later became the main means of long distance transport, being cheaper and far more capacious than overland carriage. Roads assumed local, short-range significance in China thereafter, and when camel caravans became normal for long distance trade and raid (c. 200 CE), road building in the arid zones of central and western Asia lost its earlier importance. Wheeled vehicles became marginal wherever camels prevailed, so even the famous Silk Roads that connected China with western Asia after about 100 BCE were no more than a network of unimproved caravan tracks.

Roman Roads

Around the Mediterranean, however, the Roman Empire relied on a system of elaborately constructed roads designed primarily for military use but important for trade as well. Roads were a standard 8-meters (twenty-six-feet) wide, topped with multiple layers of flat stones and gravel to produce a surface on which relays of horses could pull light, two-wheeled chariots as much as 120 kilometers (75 miles a day), while heavy carts were content to travel 24 kilometers (15 miles) a day. At its apex the Roman state maintained about 85,295 kilometers (53,000 miles) of such roads in Europe, western Asia, and North Africa, using them primarily to deliver supplies for army garrisons stationed along the frontiers.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, and the Americas, where human portage was the prevailing form of transport, roads were not needed since human feet could traverse uneven ground just as well as camel hoofs. But, in Peru, Incan rulers constructed a road system rivaling that of the Roman Empire, presumably for military reasons. Two main roads ran from Ecuador southward for about 3,219 kilometers (2,000 miles), one along the coastal plain and a second inland through the high Andes. They were linked by side roads built along suitable river valleys. Incan roads were as much as 7.62 meters (25 feet wide); suspension bridges crossed wide ravines; and flat stone surfaces smoothed the way for human traffic and llama caravans.

In Eurasia, the collapse of the Roman Empire (430 CE) disrupted road maintenance, and traffic soon decayed. The East Roman, or Byzantine, Empire—centered in Constantinople (later called Istanbul)—relied mainly on ships and navigable rivers for transport and gave up the effort to station troops on distant land frontiers, so eastern Europe, too, saw Roman roads deteriorate. Economic revival and population growth after about 900 increased trade, but for a long time no public authority existed that was capable of restoring a road system in any of the separate kingdoms and principalities into which Europe divided. Local cities did something to pave streets and public spaces, but overland hauling remained short range, slow, and expensive. Inland communities were almost self-sufficient for food and other essentials. Seafaring and boats moving along the slow-flowing rivers of the north European plain provided the principal means of transport.

Modern Systems

After 1650 or so the situation began to change when privately constructed, stone-surfaced toll roads, carrying swift passenger coaches and heavy freight wagons, proved profitable in a few unusually busy locations. But Roman-style construction of multilayered stone roads was expensive, so large-scale road building depended on the invention of cheaper methods of construction. After 1750, experiments began in both France and England using relatively thin layers of loose rock and gravel—as little as 224 millimeters (10 inches)—laid on top of ordinary soil raised above the level of adjacent ground and drained by ditches on either side. In England, John Louden McAdam (1756–1836), appointed surveyor general of metropolitan roads in Great Britain in 1827, attached his name to this cheaper way of building roads, and a boom in “macadamized” road construction ensued. But the advent of railroads, beginning in the 1830s, soon eclipsed toll roads for most long-distance traffic.

Other European countries and European settlements overseas imitated the cheaper form of French and English road building very quickly but still saw railroads eclipse toll roads. Only when trucks and cars became numerous in the 1920s did a new era of road building emerge. Concrete slabs and/ or smooth asphalt topping quickly replaced gravel roads, reducing dust and speeding driving. In the 1930s, Italy and Germany pioneered the construction of limited-access superhighways with a median strip to separate opposite traffic flows. This set a new standard for speed and safety and in Germany was also designed for military use. The United States, after 1956, caught up by building an interstate system of limited-access highways that links all major cities in the country; wherever cars and trucks abound similar throughways have speeded traffic. But as vehicles multiplied they often increased traffic congestion. How long our present road system will retain its importance depends on the cost and availability of gasoline and diesel fuel or on the development of alternative technologies.


  1. Bulliet, R. W. (1990 [1975]). The camel and the wheel. New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. Forbes, R. J. (1934). Notes on the history of ancient roads and their construction. Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers.
  3. Hindley, G. (1972). A history of roads. New York: Citadel Press.
  4. Moran, J. (2009). On Roads: A hidden history. London: Profile Books Ltd.
  5. Rose, A. C. (1952). Public roads of the past, 2 vols. Washington, DC: American Association of State Highway Officials.
  6. Rose, A. C. (1976). Historic American roads: From frontier trails to superhighways. New York: Crown Publishers.
  7. Schreiber, H. (1961). History of roads from the amber route to motorway. London: Barrie & Rockliff.

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