But Who Will Build the Roads? 19th Century Edition

In the United States and much of the developed world today, most roads are publicly provided, i.e., they are built and operated by governments. This is not exclusively true, as many private toll roads exist, but the vast majority of roads are owned and operated by governments. Must it be this way?

A recent working paper by Alan Rosevear, Dan Bogart, and Leigh Shaw-Taylor looks at a very important case study: Britain in the 19th century. Britain is important because they were the leading economy in the world at the time, at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. How were roads built and improved in England and Wales at this time? Here’s what the authors have to say in the abstract:

“non-profit organizations, known as turnpike trusts, built more new roads by attracting private investors and capable surveyors. We also show the Government Mail Road had the highest quality. Nevertheless, most turnpike trust roads were good quality, indicating their practical achievements.”

In the conclusion of the paper, they further add:

“Our analysis demonstrates that turnpike trusts were responsible for building 4,000 miles of new, good quality road in England and Wales, much of it between 1810 and 1838. On a directly comparable basis, the not-for-profit trusts built thirty times the mileage than had been built with direct Government funding during the early 1800s.”

To be clear, this paper is not a completely new discovery. It was already well-known that private companies built roads in Britain, as the authors make clear in their literature review. Similarly, there were many private turnpikes and toll roads in the US in the 19th century, as summarized in an encyclopedia entry by Klein and Majewski.

The Rosevear et al. paper adds new important details. First, they document the extent of private road building and improvements in the 19th century. Second, they show that these roads were generally of good quality, or at least they were of good quality for the time. Prior research had not documented these facts, thus making this a very important advance in our understanding of this time period. But perhaps more importantly, we see the possibility that many more roads today could be privately built and funded with user fee, especially considering that we are much, much wealthier today than 19th century Britain, we have more extensive and functional capital markets for raising the funds, etc.