Infrastructure to the 20th Century
Photo credit: Tetiana SHYSHKINA on Unsplash

The Roman Empire is often seen as having made a pivotal contribution to society. This blog explores infrastructure from Roman times through to the beginning of the 20th century. In all this time, the roles of the public and private sectors have ebbed and flowed, which might help shed light on why some things are the way they are today.

What have the Romans have ever done for us? cries Reg in the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In the hope of rousing a revolution against the empire, Reg is frustrated by the list of contributions suggested by those around him and is forced to modify his question. The Romans are widely attributed to leading the provision of infrastructure and maybe these origins caused infrastructure to be seen as a civic responsibility.

Fast forward to the 19th Century. Private firms were frequently the first movers in the 19th Century, especially as they became the main developers of railways, telegraph, gas, electricity, and water services. Usually, these services became monopolies and were also quite intrusive as the companies laid lines, pipes, and mains over existing streets and buildings without much regard for property rights. This drove a need for close regulation, and in some cases, services were reluctantly taken over by the local or central government.

Turnpike Trusts in the United Kingdom are an example of the public/private divide in infrastructure provision. These trusts were effectively toll road organisations that started in the 1700s and charged tolls to road users. The responsibility for roads had previously been with Parishes, but they were only able to fund road developments through property taxes. Turnpike Trusts were permitted by act of parliament and the model brought about a four-fold increase in road development between 1730 and 1800. Overall, 1,000 Turnpike Trusts were established, and these accounted for some 20,000 miles of road in Britain, being “one of the most expansive road networks in history”. Beat that, Romans.

While the private sector-led the way in infrastructure development in 19th Century Europe, governments were quite happy for this to happen for a couple of reasons. The first of these was to link remote regions for reasons of political and social unification. The second interest was the military, especially for moving troops by rail and messages over the telegraph. All this led to a variety of models for infrastructure provision right up until World War I. The most enduring of these has been the French concession, originally developed to expand water services and the financing of the Suez Canal, but at the time it was simply one of a number of possible approaches.

The different ways of providing services elicited differing responses from society regarding their “publicness”. For services perceived as being private, there had been a tendency toward private provision and vice versa. Public goods had often been provided free of charge, even though they could be provided on a user pays basis. Making access subject to payment was often seen as a “denial of rights”, so where there was any doubt about whether a service was a public or private activity, the default choice was for the service to be provided publicly and funded from taxes. This helped establish the publicness of infrastructure in Europe.

While younger than Europe in a developmental sense, the US caught up fast. The forces of the Industrial Revolution and the founding principles of the U.S caused differing attitudes to private sector involvement in the US compared to Europe. Such involvement was viewed as being aligned with notions of individual effort to reduce the risk of undue political interference. Thus, the great steel, railway canal and other major building efforts were led by industrialists and financed by private financiers such as JP Morgan.

So from the Romans to the start of the 20th Century, there was a mix of public and private involvement in infrastructure. Europeans came to believe that infrastructure should be primarily a public endeavour, whereas in the US infrastructure was led privately. These differences would set the scene for the 20th Century. The 21st Century is also influenced by these forces but is taking its own shape, which will be explored in future posts.