Roads: Connecting and Dividing Us

Like many other Americans, I’m taking a road trip this summer. I’ll pack the essentials — healthy snacks to stave off fast food temptations, a fully-loaded iPod, a giant thermos of coffee — and set out on the 10-hour slog from my home in Boston to my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania.

What I won’t need is a map. All but five miles of the 543-mile journey will be spent tracing the long straight concrete ribbon of Interstate 90. .

The scenery will shift slowly from the Boston cityscape, to the layered green hills of the Berkshires, to the rows of grapes and open farmlands that tell me I’m close, but the road remains the same. Without such a direct path, the trip home would take days instead of hours.

But what is the cost of this convenience?

Roads may connect me with the places and people I love, but they also slice large landscapes into small, isolated pieces and cut off wildlife from the things they need to thrive — things like food, habitat and mates.

It’s called fragmentation. And it not only interrupts the movement of animals, it unravels natural services that people rely upon, such as river flow and plant pollination.

With some 4 million miles of roads in the U.S, constructed primarily in the last 50 years, we’ve helped build what Harvard professor of landscape ecology Dr. Richard T.T. Forman calls “the largest human artifact on the planet.”  

Where can we go from here?

Join me on a visit to a salamander tunnel and series of road-stream crossings in Massachusetts to see how ecologists and engineers are driving the future of the American road and how a new computer model is helping them reconnect the most critical places.

(Image: California highway. Source: Ian Shive)

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