By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
The story of the pre-Columbian Mississippi Period (1000
Since many North American indigenous societies also built and inhabited towns, America was not an entirely rural continent before the arrival of Europeans. Nevertheless, when Europeans set out to colonize their “wilderness,” they arrived with a practical and ideological commitment to recreating cities of the sort with which they were familiar on their home continent. The result of their ambitions was the rapid founding and development of European-style cities, the vast majority of which clustered on large bodies of water, either directly on the Atlantic Ocean or on the seas and river estuaries adjacent to it. The pace of city expansion was closely linked to the levels of support for cities among colonists and an economic environment that stimulated urban growth. Some cities grew faster than others, but by the middle of the 18th century even Virginia and Maryland, the most rural colonies, had towns that played a critical cultural, political, and economic role in society. By the revolutionary era, the centrality of North America’s seaports was cemented by their status as crucibles of the conflict. The issue of which seaport was the new United States’ premier city was contested, but the importance of cities to North American society was no longer debated.