- The Road to Inequality: How the Federal Highway Program Polarized America and Undermined Cities by Clayton Nall
In The Road to Inequality, Nall examines how the post-1945 development of the American federal highway system led to political polarization between (Republican-leaning) suburbs and (Democratic-leaning) cities and, in turn, how that geographically based polarization influenced transit policy, stunted the mobility of poor and working-class urbanites, and "undermined cities."
Nall's findings are straightforward: (1) Postwar highway construction facilitated outward metropolitan growth into previously rural areas; (2) those who left for the suburbs were disproportionately Republican, especially in rapid-growth metropolitan areas in the South; (3) as Republican suburban growth increased, partisan geographical divisions between cities and suburbs did, too; (4) decisions about highway placement and metropolitan transportation devolved to state and metropolitan planning boards, which leaned heavily Republican; (5) the result was more funding for highways (disproportionately used by suburbanites) at the expense of mass transit (disproportionately used by urbanites); and (6) these investment priorities stunted the physical (and thus economic) mobility of poor city dwellers, exacerbating inequality in America.
Historians of postwar urban America will probably not find Nall's findings especially surprising. His specific focus on highway policy adds depth to the political-science literature about metropolitan inequality [End Page 691] and urban/suburban political division, but it does not fundamentally challenge or meaningfully enrich the histories of those subjects as already written.1 Indeed, The Road to Inequality is not a work of history informed by political science nor a true hybrid between the two disciplines. Rather, it is strictly a work of political science that draws from specific historical data sets and a limited historical literature. If historians do not approach the book with this caveat in mind, they will come away disappointed.
Nonetheless, Nall's methodological approaches are intriguing. He and his team conducted large-scale contemporary opinion surveys to gauge partisan attitudes about residential and commuting preferences and political attitudes about transit investment. He uses the resulting data sets to illuminate how partisans align within metropolitan geographies and diverge in their politics. The sheer scale of that research, as well as its deployment, is impressive (though not historical). Nall also makes use of data that are more historical in nature. Among his most compelling are the gis (Geographic Information System) data that map how highway placement shaped partisan geography. He also pulls information from urban-planning documents, and, interestingly, Rand McNally road atlases that show how intercity travel speeds increased with highway construction, thus facilitating commuting at longer distances over time. He also cites real-estate advertisements from metropolitan newspapers that touted easy access to highways from suburbs, which became a selling point to commuters who worked in the city.
Historians will likely take issue with some aspects of the book, especially Nall's failure to provide context for the dynamics that he observes or to situate them within history's longer arcs. It is, for instance, striking that a book about Republicans' growing physical distance from cities during the past half-century and suburban Republicans' opposition to programs benefiting the urban poor has nothing to say about the larger anti-urbanism that has been central to the party's politics since the 1960s. The book makes no mention of the tax revolts of the 1970s, the stripping of federal urban funding by the Reagan and Bush administrations, or the caricaturing of cities as places of crime and disorder. The implication is that the issues of highways and suburbanization unfolded in the absence of larger (and more important) historical processes. Nall also repeatedly downplays race in a way that almost all serious historians of postwar America would probably find unconvincing. [End Page 692]
In the end, The Road to Inequality is a fine work of political science that offers useful data about geographical political distance, politics, and inequality. Fairly or not, however, historians are likely to find it wanting.