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The Roads Must Roll

Robert A. Heinlein


  By Robert A. Heinlein

  "Who makes the roads roll?"

  The speaker stood still on the rostrum and waited for his audience to answer him. The reply came in scattered shouts that cut through the ominous, discontented murmur of the crowd.

  "We do!" - "We do!" - "Damn right!"

  "Who does the dirty work 'down inside' - so that Joe Public can ride at his ease?"

  This time it was a single roar, "We do!"

  The speaker pressed his advantage, his words tumbling out in a rasping torrent. He leaned toward the crowd, his eyes picking out individuals at whom to fling his words. "What makes business? The roads! How do they move the food they eat? The roads! How do they get to work? The roads! How do they get home to their wives? The roads!" He paused for effect, then lowered his voice. "Where would the public be if you boys didn't keep them roads rolling? Behind the eight ball and everybody knows it. But do they appreciate it? Pfui! Did we ask for too much? Were our demands unreasonable? 'The right to resign whenever we want to.' Every working stiff in other lines of work has that. 'The same pay as the engineers.' Why not? Who are the real engineers around here? D'yuh have to be a cadet in a funny little hat before you can learn to wipe a bearing, or jack down a rotor? Who earns his keep: The 'gentlemen' in the control offices, or the boys 'down inside'? What else do we ask? 'The right to elect our own engineers.' Why the hell not? Who's competent to pick engineers? The technicians? - or some damn, dumb examining board that's never been 'down inside', and couldn't tell a rotor bearing from a field coil?"

  He changed his pace with natural art, and lowered his voice still further. "I tell you, brother, it's time we quit fiddlin' around with petitions to the Transport Commission, and use a little direct action. Let 'em yammer about democracy; that's a lot of eye wash - we've got the power, and we're the men that count!"

  A man had risen in the back of the hall while the speaker was haranguing. He spoke up as the speaker paused. "Brother Chairman," he drawled, "may I stick in a couple of words?"

  "You are recognized, Brother Harvey."

  "What I ask is: what's all the shootin' for? We've got the highest hourly rate of pay of any mechanical guild, full insurance and retirement, and safe working conditions, barring the chance of going deaf." He pushed his anti-noise helmet further back from his ears. He was still in dungarees, apparently just up from standing watch. "Of course we have to give ninety days notice to quit a job, but, cripes, we knew that when we signed up. The roads have got to roll - they can't stop every time some lazy punk gets bored with his billet.

  "And now Soapy-" The crack of the gavel cut him short. "Pardon me, I mean Brother Soapy - tells us how powerful we are, and how we should go in for direct action. Rats! Sure we could tie up the roads, and play hell with the whole community-but so could any screwball with a can of nitroglycerine, and he wouldn't have to be a technician to do it, neither.

  "We aren't the only frogs in the puddle. Our jobs are important, sure, but where would we be without the farmers - or the steel workers - or a dozen other trades and professions?"

  He was interrupted by a sallow little man with protruding upper teeth, who said, "Just a minute, Brother Chairman, I'd like to ask Brother Harvey a question," then turned to Harvey and inquired in a sly voice, "Are you speaking for the guild, Brother - or just for yourself? Maybe you don't believe in the guild? You wouldn't by any chance be" - he stopped and slid his eyes up and down Harvey's lank frame - "a spotter, would you?"

  Harvey looked over his questioner as if he had found something filthy in a plate of food. "Sikes," he told him, "if you weren't a runt, I'd stuff your store teeth down your throat. I helped found this guild. I was on strike in 'sixty-six. Where were you in 'sixty-six? With the finks?"

  The chairman's gavel pounded. "There's been enough of this," he said. "Nobody who knows anything about the history of this guild doubts the loyalty of Brother Harvey. We'll continue with the regular order of business." He stopped to clear his throat. "Ordinarily we don't open our floor to outsiders, and some of you boys have expressed a distaste for some of the engineers we work under, but there is one engineer we always like to listen to whenever he can get away from his pressing duties. I guess maybe it's because he's had dirt under his nails the same as us. Anyhow, I present at this time Mr. Shorty Van Kleeck-"

  A shout from the floor stopped him. "Brother Van Kleeck!"

  "O.K.-Brother Van Kleeck, Chief Deputy Engineer of this road-town."

  "Thanks, Brother Chairman." The guest speaker came briskly forward, and grinned expansively at the crowd, seeming to swell under their approval. "Thanks, Brothers. I guess our chairman is right. I always feel more comfortable here in the Guild Hall of the Sacramento Sector - or any guild hail, for that matter - than I do in the engineers' dubhouse. Those young punk cadet engineers get in my hair. Maybe I should have gone to one of the fancy technical institutes, so I'd have the proper point of view, instead of coming up from 'down inside'.

  "Now about those demands of yours that the Transport Commission just threw back in your face - Can I speak freely?"

  "Sure you can, Shorty!" - "You can trust us!"

  "Well, of course I shouldn't say anything, but I can't help but understand how you feel. The roads are the big show these days, and you are the men that make them roll. It's the natural order of things that your opinions should be listened to, and your desires met. One would think that even politicians would be bright enough to see that. Sometimes, lying awake at night, I wonder why we technicians don't just take things over, and-"

  "Your wife is calling, Mr. Gaines."

  "Very well." He picked up the handset and turned to the visor screen.

  "Yes, darling, I know I promised, but ... You're perfectly right, darling, but Washington has especially requested that we show Mr. Blekinsop anything be wants to see. I didn't know he was arriving today.... No, I can't turn him over to a subordinate. It wouldn't be courteous. He's Minister of Transport for Australia. I told you that.... Yes, darling, I know that courtesy begins at home, but the roads must roll. It's my job; you knew that when you married me. And this is part of my job. That's a good girl. We'll positively have breakfast together. Tell you what, order horses and a breakfast pack and we'll make it a picnic. I'll meet you in Bakersfield - usual place.... Goodbye, darling. Kiss Junior goodnight for me."

  He replaced the handset on the desk whereupon the pretty, but indignant, features of his wife faded from the visor screen. A young woman came into his office. As she opened the door she exposed momentarily the words printed on its outer side; "DIEGO-RENO ROADTOWN, Office of the Chief Engineer." He gave her a harassed glance.

  "Oh, it's you. Don't marry an engineer, Dolores, marry an artist. They have more home life."

  "Yes, Mr. Gaines. Mr. Blekinsop is here, Mr. Gaines."

  "Already? I didn't expect him so soon. The Antipodes ship must have grounded early."

  "Yes, Mr. Gaines."

  "Dolores, don't you ever have any emotions?"

  "Yes, Mr. Gaines."

  "Hmmm, it seems incredible, but you are never mistaken. Show Mr. Blekinsop in."

  "Very good, Mr. Gaines."

  Larry Gaines got up to greet his visitor. Not a particularly impressive little guy, he thought, as they shook hands and exchanged formal amenities. The rolled umbrella, the bowler hat were almost too good to be true.

  An Oxford accent partially masked the underlying clipped, flat, nasal twang of the native Australian. "It's a pleasure to have you here, Mr. Blekinsop, and I hope we can make your stay enjoyable."

  The little man smiled. "I'm sure it will be. This is my first visit to your wonderful country. I feel at home already. The eucalyptus trees, you know, and th
e brown hills-"

  "But your trip is primarily business?"

  "Yes, yes. My primary purpose is to study your roadcities, and report to my government on the advisability of trying to adapt your startling American methods to our social problems Down Under. I thought you understood that such was the reason I was sent to you."

  "Yes, 1 did, in a general way. I don't know just what it is that you wish to find out. I suppose that you have heard about our road towns, how they came about, how they operate, and so forth."

  "I've read a good bit, true, but I am not a technical man, Mr. Gaines, not an engineer. My field is social and political. I want to see how this remarkable technical change has affected your people. Suppose you tell me about the roads as if I were entirely ignorant. And I will ask questions."

  "That seems a practical plan. By the way, how many are there in your party?"

  "Just myself. I sent my secretary on to Washington."

  "I see." Gaines glanced at his wrist watch. "It's nearly dinner time. Suppose we run up to the Stockton strip for dinner. There is a good Chinese restaurant up there that I'm partial to. It will take us about an hour and you can see the ways in operation while we ride."


  Gaines pressed a button on his desk, and a picture formed on a large visor screen mounted on the opposite wall. It showed a strong-boned, angular young man seated at a semi-circular control desk, which was backed by a complex instrument board. A cigarette was tucked in one corner of his mouth.

  The young man glanced up, grinned, and waved from the screen. "Greetings and salutations, Chief. What can I do for you?"

  "Hi, Dave. You've got the evening watch, eh? I'm running up to the Stockton sector for dinner. Where's Van Kleeck?"

  "Gone to a meeting somewhere. He didn't say."

  "Anything to report?"

  "No, sir. The roads are rolling, and all the little people are going ridey-ridey home to their dinners."

  "O.K.-keep 'em rolling."

  "They'll roll, Chief."

  Gaines snapped off the connection and turned to Blekinsop. "Van Kleeck is my chief deputy. I wish he'd spend more time on the road and less on politics. Davidson can handle things, however. Shall we go?"

  They glided down an electric staircase, and debauched on the walkway which bordered the northbound five mile-an-hour strip. After skirting a stairway trunk marked OVERPASS TO SOUTHBOUND ROAD, they paused at the edge of the first strip. "Have you ever ridden a conveyor strip before?" Gaines inquired. "It's quite simple. Just remember to face against the motion of the strip as you get on."

  They threaded their way through homeward-bound throngs, passing from strip to strip. Down the center of the twenty-mile-an-hour strip ran a glassite partition which reached nearly to the spreading roof. The Honorable Mister Blekinsop raised his eyebrows inquiringly as

  he looked at it.

  "Oh, that?" Gaines answered the unspoken inquiry as he slid back a panel door and ushered his guest through.

  "That's a wind break. If we didn't have some way of separating the air currents over the strips of different speeds, the wind would tear our clothes off on the hundred-mile-an-hour strip." He bent his head to Blekinsop's as he spoke, in order to cut through the rush of air against the road surfaces, the noise of the crowd, and the muted roar of the driving mechanism concealed beneath the moving strips. The combination of noises inhibited further conversation as they proceeded toward the middle of the roadway. After passing through three more wind screens located at the forty, sixty, and eighty-mile-an-hour strips respectively, they finally reached the maximum speed strip, the hundred-mile-an-hour strip, which made the round trip, San Diego to Reno and back, in twelve hours.

  Blekinsop found himself on a walkway twenty feet wide facing another partition. Immediately opposite him an illuminated show window proclaimed:


  The Fastest Meal on the Fastest Road!

  "To dine on the fly Makes the miles roll by!!"

  "Amazing!" said Mr. Blekinsop. "It would be like dining in a tram. Is this really a proper restaurant?"

  "One of the best. Not fancy, but sound."

  "Oh, I say, could we-"

  Gaines smiled at him. "You'd like to try it, wouldn't you, sir?"

  "I don't wish to interfere with your plans-"

  "Quite all right. I'm hungry myself, and Stockton is a long hour away. Let's go in."

  Gaines greeted the manageress as an old friend. "Hello, Mrs. McCoy. How are you tonight?"

  "If it isn't the chief himself! It's a long time since we've had the pleasure of seeing your face." She led them to a booth somewhat detached from the crowd of dining commuters. "And will you and your friend be having dinner?"

  "Yes, Mrs. McCoy-suppose you order for us-but be sure it includes one of your steaks."

  "Two inches thick-from a steer that died happy." She glided away, moving her fat frame with surprising grace.

  With sophisticated foreknowledge of the chief engineer's needs, Mrs. McCoy had left a portable telephone at the table. Gaines plugged it in to an accommodation jack at the side of the booth, and dialed a number.

  "Hello-Davidson? Dave, this is the chief. I'm in Jake's beanery number four for supper. You can reach me by calling ten-six-six."

  He replaced the handset, and Blekinsop inquired politely: "Is it necessary for you to be available at all times?"

  "Not strictly necessary," Gaines told him, "but I feel safer when I am in touch. Either Van Kleeck, or myself, should be where the senior engineer of the watch - that's Davidson this shift - can get hold of us in a pinch. If it's a real emergency, I want to be there, naturally."

  "What would constitute a real emergency?"

  "Two things, principally. A power failure on the rotors would bring the road to a standstill, and possibly strand millions of people a hundred miles, or more, from their homes. If it happened during a rush hour we would have to evacuate those millions from the road-not too easy to do."

  "You say millions-as many as that?"

  "Yes, indeed. There are twelve million people dependent on this roadway, living and working in the buildings adjacent to it, or within five miles of each side."

  The Age of Power blends into the Age of Transportation almost imperceptibly, but two events stand out as landmarks in the change: the achievement of cheap sun power and the installation of the first mechanized road.

  The power resources of oil and coal of the United States had - save for a few sporadic outbreaks of common sense - been shamefully wasted in their development all through the first half of the twentieth century. Simultaneously, the automobile, from its humble start as a one-lunged horseless carriage, grew into a steel-bodied monster of over a hundred horsepower and capable of making more than a hundred miles an hour. They boiled over the countryside, like yeast in ferment. In 1955 it was estimated that there was a motor vehicle for every two persons in the United States.

  They contained the seeds of their own destruction. Eighty million steel juggernauts, operated by imperfect human beings at high speeds, are more destructive than war. In the same reference year the premiums paid for compulsory liability and property damage insurance by automobile owners exceeded in amount the sum paid that year to purchase automobiles. Safe driving campaigns were chronic phenomena, but were mere pious attempts to put Humpty-Dumpty together again. It was not physically possible to drive safely in those crowded metropolises. Pedestrians were sardonically divided into two classes, the quick, and the dead.

  But a pedestrian could be defined as a man who had found a place to park his car. The automobile made possible huge cities, then choked those same cities to death with their numbers. In 1900 Herbert George Wells pointed out that the saturation point in the size of a city might be mathematically predicted in terms of its transportation facilities. From a standpoint of speed alone the automobile made possible cities two hundred miles in diameter, but traffic congestion, and the inescapable, inherent danger of high-powered,
individually operated vehicles cancelled out the possibility.

  In 1955 Federal Highway #66 from Los Angeles to Chicago, "The Main Street of America", was transformed into a superhighway for motor vehicles, with an underspeed limit of sixty miles per hour. It was planned as a public works project to stimulate heavy industry; it had an unexpected by-product. The great cities of Chicago and St. Louis stretched out urban pseudopods toward each other, until they met near Bloomington, Illinois. The two parent cities actually shrunk in population.

  That same year the city of San Francisco replaced its

  antiquated cable cars with moving stairways, powered

  with the Douglas-Martin Solar Reception Screens. The

  largest number of automobile licenses in history had been

  issued that calendar year, but the end of the automobile era was in sight, and the National Defense Act of 1957 gave fair warning.

  This act, one of the most bitterly debated ever to be brought out of committee, declared petroleum to be an essential and limited material of war. The armed forces had first call on all oil, above or below the ground, and eighty million civilian vehicles faced short and expensive rations. The "temporary" conditions during World War II had become permanent.

  Take the superhighways of the period, urban throughout their length. Add the mechanized streets of San Francisco's hills. Heat to boiling point with an imminent shortage of gasoline. Flavor with Yankee ingenuity. The first mechanized road was opened in 1960 between Cincinnati and Cleveland.

  It was, as one would expect, comparatively primitive in

  design, being based on the ore belt conveyors of ten years earlier. The fastest strip moved only thirty miles per hour and was quite narrow, for no one had thought of the possibility of locating retail trade on the strips themselves. Nevertheless, it was a prototype of social pattern which was to dominate the American scene within the next two decades-neither rural, nor urban, but partaking equally of both, and based on rapid, safe, cheap, convenient transportation.

  Factories - wide, low buildings whose roofs were covered with solar power screens of the same type that drove the road-lined the roadway on each side. Back of them and interspersed among them were commercial hotels, retail stores, theatres, apartment houses. Beyond this long, thin, narrow strip was the open country-side, where the bulk of the population lived. Their homes dotted the hills, hung on the banks of creeks, and nestled between the farms. They worked in the "city" but lived in the "country" - and the two were not ten minutes apart.