American Transportation Policy: Patterns of the Past and Implications for the Present

Thursday, November 6, 2008 - 3:00pm

About the Event

Historians argue that by attending to the lessons of history, we can gain some understanding of how we have arrived in our current situation. As the effort to secure passage of a new surface transportation bill is just beginning, now is a good time to explore some of the patterns in the federal government’s more than two centuries of involvement in the development of the nation’s transportation systems. This presentation will quickly sketch the primary continuing patterns that characterized the federal role and policy presence in transportation during the 19th and 20th centuries. The primary focus will fall on highways, but other key features of the policy landscape will be brought into view. The presentation will conclude with a historian’s view of some of the changes now overtaking key elements, some of them long-lived, of federal policy as we move into the 21st century.

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Bruce E. Seely is a historian of technology who has written and published extensively about the history of American transportation and American transportation policy. He served as the program director for science and technology studies at the National Science Foundation (2000–2002) and has been an active member of the History Committee of the Transportation Research Board since its founding more than a decade ago. He spoke frequently to professional and engineering organizations about the history of the Interstate Highway System during 2006, and recently testified before the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. He earned his doctorate at the University of Delaware in 1982, and joined the faculty at Michigan Technological University in 1986. He became the chair of the Social Sciences Department in 2002 and Dean of the College of Sciences and Arts in August.

Among Seely’s publications are Building the America Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers (Temple University Press, 1987), which received the Abel Wolman Award from the Public Works Historical Society and American Public Works Association; (with Mark Rose and Paul Barrett), The Best Transportation System in the World: Railroads, Trucks, Airlines, and American Public Policy in the Twentieth Century (Ohio State University Press, 2006); and numerous articles. He received the Abbott Payson Usher Prize of the Society for the History of Technology for his article "The Scientific Mystique in Engineering: Highway Research in the Bureau of Public Roads, 1918-1940," Technology and Culture 25 (October 1984): 798-831; and the Railroad History Award of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society for his article, "Railroads, Good Roads, and Technological Change," Railway History Bulletin No. 155 (Autumn 1986). His most recent publications on transportation are “The Secret is the System,” Wilson Quarterly 32, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 47-49, 51-58; “The Beginning of State Highway Administration, 1893-1921: Engineers Take Control,” TR News No. 245 (July-August, 2006): 3-9; and "How the Interstate System Came to Be: A Story of Alternatives," TR News No. 244 (May-June 2006): 4-9.