When Hazel, the rabbit at the centre of Watership Down, meets his first road, he thinks it is a river. It’s not surprising. Seabirds sometimes crash-land on shiny roads, mistaking them for the ocean. Hazel, when he investigates further, is scared. ‘Now that I’ve learnt about it’, he says, ‘I want to get away from it as soon as I can.’ Ben Goldfarb shares this sentiment. ‘Roads are, you might say, the routes of all evil,’ he declares in this masterly, readable and troubling survey of what roads do to us and to everything else.
There’s nothing new about roads. Six thousand years ago, before there were wheels, Mesopotamian navvies built mud-brick tracks. Nor is there anything new about road-related problems. Juvenal moaned that Rome’s traffic was ‘sufficient to wake the dead’ and Thomas Hardy mourned ‘the mole’s tunnelled chambers … crushed by wheels’ and the ‘lark’s eggs scattered’ by horse-drawn wagons at Waterloo. What is new is the overwhelming scale of the problem.
Juvenal didn’t know how lucky he was. Traffic noise doesn’t just take our minds off our dactylic hexameters; it kills us. A 2019 report found that noise, by increasing levels of stress hormones, reduced life expectancy by three years in the loudest Paris neighbourhoods. Perhaps, to be effective,