(p. 14) Petroski, a professor of both engineering and history at Duke and the author of such books as “The Pencil” and “The Evolution of Useful Things,” brings an eye for the little things: what kinds of guardrails are best, how roads can be made safer through better signage, which paving materials last longest. One of his key lessons is that small thinking can be a virtue, because the history of infrastructure is a series of experimental and incremental improvements.
Local governments tried endless variations of asphalt and concrete before developing paving surfaces that didn’t produce excess dust or deteriorate quickly under rain and snow. They gradually built longer bridges, learning from earlier designs that worked, and that didn’t. They tried out different paint colors for lane markings, finding the ones that drivers could see best.
This little-things perspective is needed at a time when America’s infrastructure agenda is simultaneously characterized by grandiose ambitions and limited budgets. Money is tight, and infrastructure needs are going unaddressed. At the same time, despite funding limitations, politicians have a tendency to fall in love with novel, pathbreaking, expensive projects that frequently go astray, resulting in arguments against spending more on infrastructure.
. . .
Politicians aren’t drawn to megaprojects just because they believe the initial rosy cost projections and therefore underestimate the risk of complications. They also see an opportunity to build their legacy: It’s more fun to say “I built that bridge” than “I retrofitted that bridge.”
For the full review, see:
JOSH BARRO. “Getting There.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 20, 2016): 14.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date MARCH 18, 2016, and has the title “‘The Road Taken,’ by Henry Petroski.”)
The Petroski book under review, is:
Petroski, Henry. The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2016.