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Q&A with Ted Conover: The Inexorable Influence of Roads

From Conover's recent book, Obadiah (right) and Stephen in Mwanza, Tanzania, 1992. Photo by Ted Conover.

From Conover's recent book, Obadiah (right) and Stephen in Mwanza, Tanzania, 1992. Photo by Ted Conover.

This interview is part of a bi-weekly series with sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&A’s.

Ted Conover is a New York-based journalist and writer who has spent his life crisscrossing the world in search of compelling stories.  His new book, “The Routes of Man,” is about roads. Roads are “a powerful force that change the world, including the people on them,” he says. “I traveled six transformative roads, in six countries, with people to whom they mean something.”

By the end of his work on the book, Conover had been to: Lagos, Nigeria; Peru; East Africa; the West Bank of Palestine; Ladakh, India; and China.  He generally follows the margins: borders, roads, conflicting geographies and the homeless.  Conover took a moment to speak with TheCityFix about his latest book.

How did you decide to write a book about roads?

There were at least a couple of reasons. One of them is that words like “global” and “network” are part of the discourse of our times, especially the virtual network of the internet.  I was interested in roads as the fundamental network on which the others are based.

There’s the Web part of the great transformation of our world into a global society, but the road network–the original network that brings the food and computers and actual people, whether migrants or commuters or visiting relatives–underpins it all. With all the hoopla of the Web, I thought that roads were being ignored.

Another reason is that I’m not a scientist; I write best about stories. And roads automatically tell stories. They’re about travel and the passage from one place to another. You can bring the readers close to a road by getting on one yourself.

How did you choose the roads you covered?

Each road has a theme so the chapter about Peru is about the environment versus development. The chapter about the West Bank is about security versus the cost of military occupation… The chapter about Lagos is about whether congestion and overpopulation is the direction all roads are leading us in.

My underlying thesis is that every road does good and bad. They help us grow the economy, but there are also unintended consequences.  With roads, they’re fairly huge–from allowing the use of too many cars to carving up wilderness and killing animals. I thought it would be interesting to look at particular roads and particular themes.

The book is a parable about how difficult it is to get where we want to go.

As more and more people move to cities, how do you think the cultural and economic importance of roads is changing?

Ironically cities–with greater density and greater proportion of paved to unpaved space or land–allow for people to leave their cars more than life outside of the city, particularly in the United States. The excitement of city life and the promise of it give us an opportunity to get away from our cars.  In China, you see how excited people are to be driving there. It’s like a whole country that just got its driver’s license–an environmental disaster in the making. At the same time, their cities are slowly approaching gridlock and already the Chinese government sees we need alternatives.

Cities show the promise of cars being in a transitional state. But until that transition takes place, roads will be how everything gets into the city and it doesn’t seem there is anything on the horizon to supplant roads.

Photo by Ted Conover.

New West Bank settler road, with curvy local Palestinian road beneath. From the book, "The Routes of Man." Photo by Ted Conover.

What does a road mean in China? What does a road mean in Nigeria? How did you see differing perceptions of roads during your travels?

In China, roads are seen as essential infrastructure that was long-delayed. People feel they were denied them so long by communism.  In China, the road is a unifier. Huge amounts of money have been spent to knit the country together to try to bring non-Han (Han is China’s dominant ethnic group) into the fold.  So roads are deeply strategic and nationalistic.

In Lagos, Nigeria, road construction seems less thought out. The city is growing beyond any one authority’s ability to plan for it. The edges of it keep spreading out in this organic and horrifying way.

Lagos is also growing because poor, rural people are moving to the city. For them the roads are pure promise, a way to a better life. The streets there are jammed with carts, vendors and five different kinds of policemen. It’s kind of nuts.

Earlier in your career, you wrote a book about the hobos riding America’s railways. What do you think about the Obama Administration’s vision for high-speed rail?

I hope Obama can persuade everybody. I love freight trains but they are incredibly slow. And existing freight lines aren’t suitable for high-speed rail; they are barely suitable for Amtrak. In Europe, they have a separate system, and I very much believe we need to develop rail as quickly as possible even though it’s expensive.

What do roadways you visited say for a vision of policy/best practices that address mobility?

In a less settled place–like Brazil–over the years it has come to understand the connection between road building and forest burning. To their credit, they have experimented with ways to build different segments of roads out of sequence to try to modulate the effects. I think it’s especially hard for a developing country to be mindful of the right way to build a road, but Brazil is one place where they’ve tried.

A road is such a potent force–that’s what makes them so fascinating to think about because no one really knows, until a road goes in, the effect it’s going to have.

What was the biggest lesson you learned in working on this book?

What’s a road but a two-dimensional path from point A to point B? And yet nothing has ever changed the world more for better or worse than the road. They’re the largest human-made artifact on earth, yet they only have two dimensions.  Despite living with them for all these centuries we are not in control of them.

Did you witness any inventive ways people without cars get around?

One interesting solution occurred in Peru where a trucker stopped for a hitchhiker–a woman who made a living through her food stores up in the Andes mountains. She had taken a bus down to the coast and bought a bunch of crates of grapes. She was hitchhiking to get the grapes home. This is something a woman would have more luck with than a man, but I didn’t see her getting pressured for anything more than a conversation. I didn’t know that kind of thing before I wrote the book–that there were strategies for freelance freight acquisition. This is a way a person far from grapes could get them to her customers.  She was also really great to have along when I started getting altitude sickness at 15,000 feet.

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