“The Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein

I wrote this essay in August 2011, I thought it was already posted here but apparently not:

Any child with an interest in how the world works would at some point or another in their young lives come up with the idea of moving roads.  The whole highway system as a means to convey people from one place to another just seems inherently inefficient, as well as dangerous.  Wouldn’t it make more sense if the roads just moved along on their own and people hopped on and off as they needed?  This would take public transportation to an extreme, and the technical challenges and financial requirements for such a road system, while formidable, would be more than offset by the cost and pollution produced by the current setup.

When Robert A. Heinlein’s  “The Roads Must Roll” was published in the June 1940 issue of Astounding, the nation’s highways were a much more modest hodgepodge of road networks than the system we take for granted today, with only a few true highways that focused only on the biggest cities.  The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened its first section about the same time this story was published; it was the first limited access road in the country, with the purpose of cutting down the travel time through an otherwise isolated area.  Heinlein’s story envisions a future only a few decades off where instead of highways, giant moving roadways shuttle people from place to place.  They haven’t taken the place of all roads, but it seems they move commuters out to the suburbs and also link together interstate commerce.

In Heinlein’s system, the roads just have to keep moving all the time, and people hop on and off of them at will, and for free.  Since our experience at airport terminals shows us you can only hop onto a moving belt only up to a certain speed, the roads are configured as a series of parallel ribbons moving at increasing speeds, with the outer roads moving at a slow clip and each contiguous road moving somewhat faster until you get to the center road that moves at 100 miles per hour.  This fastest road is where most people ride, and it is wide enough to accommodate restaurants and other establishments to keep riders busy during their trip.

All this is of course completely ludicrous.  Heinlein seems primarily interested in the societal implications of how a road system like this would work, without really worrying too much about the details of the engineering or how people would really use it.  Since the roads never stop moving, a user is completely on his own to know when to get on and off, and since the innermost road is several levels removed from the one that will ultimately be used to hop off, people would seriously need to plan accordingly to avoid missing their stop by a wide margin.  The story only concerns the road moving in one direction, but presumably there must be a parallel road moving in the opposite direction, such that the swath of real estate required for these roads would be considerable, and there is no accounting for variations in terrain.  What happens at the ends of these roads is also not mentioned, do they gradually bend around to point back the other way, such that each road runs on a bi-directional loop?  It seems they must, even though the bend would require a huge amount of real estate, since the other option is some sort of conveyor belt that wouldn’t be able to support the restaurants that are a fixture of the roads. 

Safety is also completely ignored, the users of the system are at the mercy of their own ability to negotiate the deathtraps that these roads would present every second.  There’s a bit of backstory about a road that did fail once (Heinlein implies that it snapped, which would seem to support the conveyor belt idea) but the road mechanics immediately fixed it and got everything going again because at that point the country was so dependent on the roads that they couldn’t be stopped. During the story the fastest inner track comes to a halt due to sabotage, while all the other tracks continue to run.  This means the second fastest track, moving at 95 mph or so, is right along side the now stationary innermost track, causing a few fatalities here and there as people lose their balance and lean into the still-moving path.  This seems to be the first time that Gaines, the regional commander who is travelling on the road at the time, has ever considered this possibility and he ponders how to prevent it from happening again.

What Heinlein focuses on instead is the class of workers who must maintain these roads, since they can never be permitted to stop (although I think Heinlein overstates the potential disaster inherent in any interruption of the roads).   Because the roads are so vast and so ingrained in society, the army of people who must maintain them must also be vast, and well trained and well paid, almost a society unto themselves whose only focus in life is keeping the roads moving.  Potential candidates go through rigorous exams to make sure they can adapt to the military-like hierarchy required to keep such an enormous and crucial system operating. 

Part of the rationale for building these roads seems to be to keep the general public more spread out and not have them all gravitate around the cities.  In the 1930’s large numbers of people were migrating to the cities, and the phenomenon of urban sprawl first appeared.  Future thinkers like Heinlein worried that if this were allowed to continue the cities would spread out until they engulfed one another, using up all the resources in their path (or else no one would be left in the countryside for agriculture, etc).  By creating a society that was built around the rolling roads, this allowed the cities to instead build up parallel to the roads themselves, and since the roads only connected major cities, large areas around them would still be undeveloped and available for other purposes than housing.

Urban sprawl continues today, but probably at a lesser pace then people expected back then.  There is a limit to a realistic distance that commuters will live away from their jobs.  Only rarely do smaller cities spring up within newly created suburbs and take on a life of their own. 

The Roads Must Roll can be considered Heinlein’s first great story.  It was anthologized in the SF Hall of Fame’s first volume, chosen over anything else he wrote at shorter lengths.  The title is immediately evocative of the premise, even if people don’t remember the specifics of the plot (Heinlein’s submitted titles on early stories are consistently clunky and uninspired, he wanted to call this story “Road Town” even though the phrase “The Roads Must Roll” was used several times within the story itself). 

If the premise is a bit naïve by today’s standards, then what sets this story apart?  Most obvious is the rhythm of the pacing, which doesn’t let up for a minute, as though the constant movement of the road machinery is being manifested in the prose itself.  Heinlein even appropriates the Army song “Caissons go Rolling Along” and superimposes new lyrics pertaining to the roads (providing some alliteration and the source of the “rolling” idea, although its hard to imagine anything of that scale merely rolling anywhere).  Otherwise it’s the same thing that imbued all of Heinlein’s stories from this period – wise-cracking, sharp-tongued protagonists who, although they all talk alike, give the story a certain energy.  Unfortunately Van Kleek, the junior officer who has sabotaged the road, is presented as merely unstable, the notion of maintaining the roads has gone to his head and he wants to have the workers take over, although he is willing to destroy the road to get what he wants.  Gaines is able to essentially induce a nervous breakdown in his former deputy and the crisis is over. 

High drama for 1940, maybe not so much today, but there are larger questions that the story raises, even if it doesn’t deal with them directly.  There’s the familiar ground of “who watches the watchers”, which was a favorite theme of Heinlein, centralized authority was inherently a means to centralized corruption.  But more to the point, the New Deal era had engendered in the American public the idea of purposefully using industry and technology to change society.  Previously these things happened more or less by chance and without much overall planning, but at this point in history we could use our newfound knowledge to create vast new infrastructure that would fundamentally and intentionally change the society in which we lived.  Whether that is a good thing or not is a question that is only touched upon in the story. 

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