…By Understanding Context and Reconciling Kerouac with Our Inner Chicken

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What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To get to the other side.

—Anonymous (first printed in 1847 in Knickerbocker Magazine)

“To build or not to build a road . . . how do we honor the landscape?”


If that question were easy to answer, you wouldn’t see the earnest torrent of text from me and my colleagues addressing it. These diverse perspectives inform discussion and aid decision-making, but also illustrate the complexity inherent in making decisions about road building. None of us has any formula solutions or magical answers; the best we can hope for is a thoughtful, intelligent compromise based on an inclusive, shared understanding of the issues, values, and concerns at play.

As a latecomer to this dialogue, adding substantively to the overview was challenging; my colleagues have been quite thorough in their inventories, insights, and analyses. But there are a couple of nuances to the conversation that I think bear further consideration. Both, unfortunately, render decision-making about roads even more complex.

The first nuance is that “a road” is not one thing; it is a vast suite of possibilities.

The second nuance is that our psychic responses to roads—that oft-cited “strange and necessary connection between place and mind”[1]—are enormously variable and dependent on context.

Proponents of road building are concerned with facilitating passage to final destinations. But roads are much more than mere conduits for traffic. They are byways for our emotions, passages for our psyches, corridors for our dreams. At the same time, they are obstacles to our mobility, blights on our landscapes, and pavement on our Paradise. They are ostensibly designed to improve mobility, democratize transportation, and reduce travel time, but they often do precisely the opposite. They range from reviled generic corridors crisscrossing the “geography of nowhere,” to iconic conduits that metaphorically transport nothing less than our national identities (like the Trans-Canada Highway, Route 66, or the Autobahn).

They may be concrete constructs (literally and figuratively), like the poured cement ribbons of the Autostrada, or powerful and compelling abstract notions, like the undiscovered, unknown, endlessly beckoning roads frequented by the searching spirit of Kerouac. They may be miniscule, like the overgrown access roads to a deserted logging camp, or monumental, like the ubiquitous and divisive interstate highway system of the United States. They may be scenic and inspirational, like California’s Pacific Coast Highway or the meandering coastal roads of the Otago Peninsula, or they may be soulless, concrete-lined conduits, like the anonymous, six-lane, walled arterials of suburban Mississauga. They may be organic, historic, and persistent, like the Mohawk Trail or the Via Appia, or ephemeral and shifting, like the ice roads of the Canadian Arctic. They may change in character along their length and over time. Our decisions about road building must try to capture and account for this dynamism and diversity.

Regardless of their origins, character, endurance, dimensions, location, or power to compel or repel, roads (like all linear corridors) possess a set of fundamental ecological characteristics that affect the surrounding landscape (see the box Insights from Landscape Ecology, below). Despite this insight, very few anthropogenic transportation corridors (canals, railways, or roads) are built in a way that inherently respects, honors, or enhances the landscape. Such noble attributes have to be carefully designed. And often, when faced with inevitable economic, time, and resource constraints, our respect for the landscape is quickly traded off against the perceived utilitarian and economic benefits of the transportation corridor in question.

Determining what makes a good road is an inherently value-laden process,[2] and these value judgments are by no means universal.[3] I propose that they are not even consistent at the individual level, tied as they are to our own ever-changing frames of reference. If you ask a commercial long-haul trucker what constitutes a good road, his or her response will be very different than that of an avid cyclist, a parent dropping children off at school, a midnight grocery shopper, an early morning birder, or a Sunday driver—even though all these guises could conceivably be embodied at different times in the same individual. What kind of road is it? Where is it located? What kind of landscape is it passing though? What species are being considered in the assessment? Is it in my backyard or someone else’s? Who is making the assessment? Where, relative to the proposed route, do I live? Work? Shop? Recreate? How will I use it? Is a speedy arterial acceptable if it is out of sight and out of earshot, but unacceptable if it’s in my own backyard?

Many of us have an inner Kerouac, urging us to follow the endlessly beckoning roads that will take us to a world of undiscovered possibilities. In the United States and Canada, this urge to roam is deeply embedded in our national identities, and taking to the road is perceived as both a right and a rite of passage. The restless traveler within us is anxious to be anywhere else but here, so any road that takes us away from the mundane is a good road.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum, we also have an inner chicken—the proverbial one that crossed the road with the sole objective of getting to the other side.[4] In chicken mode, we are focused on our proximate environments and simply interested in getting across the road—which becomes, instead of a highway to adventure, a problematic barrier that interferes with our ability to move about and function within our own immediate surroundings.

Most assessment processes seek to optimize the implicit tradeoffs in some democratic, inclusive, participatory manner. To paraphrase George E. P. Box, “all [assessments] are wrong, but some are useful.”[5] The most useful among them will attempt to capture and account for this shifting spectrum of values.

Because they are linear constructs, roads pass—and facilitate passage—through an ever-changing landscape. The contextual juxtaposition of road and landscape is largely responsible for our reaction to it. Much of the discord generated by roads is a result of the imposition of thoughtless or inappropriate infrastructure on spaces and places that already have established ecological and social functions and an inherent sense of place.

So—frustratingly—the answer to the question, “To build or not to build a road?” depends almost completely on context and frame of reference.

Assuming we have seriously considered—and summarily rejected—the option of not building a road in the first place,[6] we must understand the huge diversity of form in roads and embrace both the challenges and possibilities inherent in adopting road designs that are contextually appropriate. Similarly, we have to acknowledge the multiplicity of values that each of us has toward roads, depending upon our frame of reference, if we are to deal intelligently with their design, management, maintenance, and enlightened reinvention.

Insights from Landscape Ecology

Landscape ecology provides us with some basic tools that can help us to establish the context of roads within the surrounding landscape. Through the eyes of systems ecologists, roads, like all linear corridors, have a set of distinct system parameters that define their ecological role and function: they exist simultaneously as conduit, barrier, habitat, filter, source, and sink.* The magnitude of these different system parameters varies depending upon the road’s physical attributes, its location, and its ecological context, but all roads fulfill all these roles in one way or another:

Figure courtesy of Thorne (1993)

At the more permeable, low-speed end of the spectrum, road corridors can be habitats. Quite apart from the legitimate expectation that human habitats can and will be established alongside certain compatible roads, roadside verges can also serve as habitat for a plethora of plant and animal species, both native and introduced. Our roadside maintenance practices (mowing, grading, salting, and spraying) strongly influence what habitats we find there, as well as their stability and persistence.

The most obvious role of a road is that of conduit. By their very nature, roads are designed as conduits for transportation, occasionally accommodating pedestrians, cyclists, and slow-moving conveyances in the corridor, and sometimes incidentally serving as dispersal routes for animals, but most often designed to accommodate high-speed, motorized traffic. In theory, controlled-access roads are made into efficient conduits by limiting non-vehicular access, removing impediments to speed, eliminating slow-moving traffic, and minimizing distances between key destinations via straight-line alignments. But at the same time, such roads effectively cease to exist as conduits for anything except the motor vehicles for which they were designed.

It’s therefore easy to see how an efficient conduit for motorcars is also a very effective barrier, not only to living organisms (animals, plants and their progeny, seeds, and propagules), but to other organic and inorganic ecosystem components (water, nutrients, organic matter, inorganic solids). High-speed highways demand unimpeded roadways with no cross traffic and no impediments to forward motion, necessitating the construction of controlled access rights of way with barriers, fences, and unidirectional ramps compatible only with motorized vehicles moreover, only motorized vehicles going the way of the highway itself.

The linear transect of a road corridor is also a filter, particularly to organisms moving perpendicular to the trajectory of the road. The effectiveness and selectiveness of the filter depends upon the vagility (ability to move) of the organism in question, as well as its behavioral response to the road right of way. To an airborne bird, a road poses little or no obstacle of any kind, whereas to a snail or an earthworm, an expanse of hot gravel or asphalt on a sunny day is effectively the end of the world. So, too, is a grade-separated thoroughfare to an elderly pedestrian or a child on a bicycle. By accident or design, the permeable sections of a road (places where certain organisms are able to cross) can dramatically affect dispersal patterns and migration routes of organisms on either side and can establish conduits of a different kind perpendicular to the direction of the road. These conduits may be inconvenient (e.g., poorly located pedestrian crosswalks), inappropriate (e.g., opportunistic crossing areas at gaps in fences or barriers), and dangerous (e.g., concentrating animal movement to narrow routes, attracting predators).

Roads and their verges are also sources. Roadside verges are sources of species for populating adjacent areas. The distribution of many native and non-native species, both plant and animal, has been correlated with the expansion of roads and highways into the hinterland. Because of the topographical changes and hydrological disruptions that accompany road construction, roads may serve as sources for water and nutrients as well.

Finally, roads can be sinks—areas of concentration of species and substances that influence the surrounding context. Roads are notorious mortality sinks for certain animal species (e.g., reptiles like snakes and lizards, because warm roadways entice them to bask and sleep there on a cool day). Other animals (e.g., deer, rabbits) are mesmerized by the headlights of passing cars or are simply not fast enough to anticipate the trajectory of automobiles. Interestingly, this mortality sink role is responsible for the expansion of range of scavenger species like the turkey vulture, which has broadened its North American distribution in response to the ready supply of roadkill on our highways.

* R.T.T. Formon and M. Godron, “Landscape Ecology Principles and Landscape Function,” sec. 5, in Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Methodology in Landscape Ecological Research and Planning (Roskilde, Denmark: Roskilde Universitets Forlag, 1984), 4-15; R.T.T. Formon and M. Godron. Landscape Ecology (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1986); J.F. Thorne, “Landscape Ecology: A Foundation for Greenway Design,” ch. 2, in Ecology of Greenways: Design and Function of Linear Conservation Areas, D.S. Smith and P. Cawood Hellmund, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 23-41.

Featured image credit: Retour en Arizona / Back to Arizona. By OliBac. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons BY 2.0 DEED.

[1] P. Shepard, “Place in American Culture,” North American Review (Fall 1977): 22-32. Cited in Christopher Preston “Environmental Knowledge: Courteous Yet Subversive; Grounded Yet Surprising. Symposium on Anthon Weston’s ‘The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher,’” Ethics, Policy and Environment 14, no. 1 (2011): 91-96, and C.

[2] Christopher Preston, “To Build or Not to Build a Road—How Do We Honor the Landscape? By Keeping Values in Mind,” Center for Humans and Nature, August 2012, https://www.humansandnature.org/build-road—christopher-preston-response-10.php.

[3] Ingrid Stefanovic, “To Build or Not to Build a Road—How Do We Honor the Landscape? By Way of Thoughtful Decision-Making,” Center for Humans and Nature, August 2012, https://www.humansandnature.org/build-road—ingrid-stefanovic-response-7.php.

[4] Of course you have heard it (probably just after you were toilet trained, and you probably groaned even then). That hackneyed, overblown, mimetic, multilingual, enduring, egregiously wonderful bit of fowl humor—that quintessential, archetypal anti-joke—has endured for more than a century and a half, has spawned hundreds of variants, each worse than the former, and encompasses dozens of species, a plethora of ridiculous situations, and a veritable Who’s Who of purported philosophical perspectives on peripatetic poultry, from Buddha through Einstein to David Hume (http://philosophy.eserver.org/chicken.txt). The motley meme has given rise to prolific discourse in books (http://www.davidgoldwich.com/book-chicken.html; http://www.amazon.ca/Why-Did-Chicken-Cross-Road/dp/0803730942), academic articles (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967070X10001113), websites (http://www.whydidthechickencrosstheroad.com/), and even that ultimate badge of populist penetration, a Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Why_did_the_chicken_cross_the_road)—all of which continue to reinforce and celebrate the riddle’s tenacious grip on our collective psyches. How convenient it is for me, then, that such a well-entrenched bit of cultural dross should be such a useful mnemonic aid to help us identify and unpack the implications of building a road.

[5] George Box, “Robustness in the Strategy of Scientific Model Building,” in R. L. Lautner and G. N. Wilkinson eds., Robustness in Statistics, workshop proceedings, (1979), 2. The actual quote is “All models are wrong but some are useful.”

[6] Dana Beach, “To Build or Not to Build a Road—How Do We Honor the Landscape? By Knowing When Not to Build a Road,” Center for Humans and Nature, August 2012, https://www.humansandnature.org/build-road—dana-beach-response-4.php.

  • David T. Brown

    David T. Brown is a founding faculty member of the Department of Tourism and Environment at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Brown’s diverse academic background in ecology, urban and environmental studies, systems theory, sustainability, and environmental policy informs his current work, which includes cultural and natural heritage mapping, sustainable tourism, and the use of mobile digital technologies for environmental interpretation.

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