road for basham

Road building techniques have evolved over time, and new technologies promise new innovations.

It doesn’t matter where you’re going, you’re getting there using a road. This isn’t a recent development; humans have been hitting roads since before ancient Sumerians started paving their city streets more than 5,000 years ago.

Early roads solidified steep and mud-prone paths into causeways allowing for quicker and easier travels for heavy vehicles like ox and donkey-drawn carts. These ancient routes were relatively simple constructions of layered stone, consisting of large stones on the bottom to reinforce the smaller stones towards the surface.

Improved roads led to an unprecedented amount of rapid travel throughout the area, and Mesopotamia soon became the site of burgeoning cultures the likes of which the world had rarely seen before. It wasn’t long until the rest of the world began to take notice of the benefits of smooth, solid roads.

Almost all at once, people across Europe and Asia began rapidly turning countryside paths into more solid structures. The Romans played a large part in the spread of roads throughout Europe, as they relied on dry load-bearing roads for the rapid movement of armies through their empire.

Many of the secrets of Roman road engineering, which involved modifications to earlier designs including stone size and shape, were relatively advanced and were lost during the Dark Ages. Their constructions lasted much longer, however, and in some areas these cobbled streets can still be seen. The roads we use today are inherently different than the roads of the past, however they probably play an even greater role in our daily lives.

It has taken us thousands of years to perfect modern roads. Rather than rely on a layer of large, heavy stones to solidify roads, today’s roads use the native soil in an area to “hold up” the top layers. Most roads in the states are composed of layers of asphalt, concrete and tar, which form a solid protective surface over compacted soil. This type of road became most popular with the advent of the automobile, which found stone and dirt roads too bumpy, dusty and unstable for routine use. In order to account for the rising car addiction in the country, we soon set about refurbishing our roads to accommodate their specific needs. 

This led to the current 4 million miles of smooth yet grip-forming roadways winding through the United States alone. Unfortunately, we pay a high price for this convenience. Studies have determined that around 20 percent of the land in the U.S. is impacted by roads, and it is believed that every day around a million vertebrates are killed on roads in this country. The toll on invertebrates is likely incalculable. At the same time, roads fragment natural habitats while leaking pollutants into them. The placement and construction of our roads will need to change in order to try and reduce the environmental impact of these necessary evils.

Thankfully, some brilliant scientists and developers are already working to solve these problems. Building “wildlife corridors” underneath or above highways has been shown to help reconnect spaces on both sides of a road, while also greatly cutting down on wildlife roadkill.

New materials are also being considered for the roads of the future, including built in solar panels, pressure plates and tiny turbines designed to capture the gusts of wind made by passing cars.

These technologies hope to turn our roads into electrical generators. There are even road types in development that may be able to self-repair, or melt ice and snow without any outside assistance. I am confident that these and other designs will soon lead to an interesting new world for travel on the road.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.