The forgotten history of highway photologs

A 1969 Federal Highway Administration photologging van prototype - NATIONAL COOPERATIVE HIGHWAY RESEARCH PROGRAM

The forgotten history of highway photologs
MIT Technology Review, June 28, 2023
Field Notes
by Jon Keegan

“Decades before Google Street View, state government vans were photographing each mile of roadway, capturing a rich visual history of America’s roads and highways.”

 

On May 10, 1985, a tricked-out van drove south on US Route 1 in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, on a sunny spring day. Every .01 miles, a 35-​millimeter movie camera mounted on the dashboard captured an image out of the front of the van, along with a digital readout displaying the date, route, mileage, and bearing.

 

A typical photolog camera and recording equipment in a van - NATIONAL COOPERATIVE HIGHWAY RESEARCH PROGRAM
A typical photolog camera and recording equipment in a van
NATIONAL COOPERATIVE HIGHWAY RESEARCH PROGRAM

Highway departments in almost every state had such “photolog” programs, some dating back as far as 1961. Each year, these vans would drive thousands of miles of state roadways in both directions. States ran these programs because they wanted an up-to-date visual record of each section of road, intersection, overpass, and bridge. The effort also captured some beautiful scenes from the past, featuring long-closed shops, hilariously low gas prices, classic cars, and often people just walking by the side of the road.

 

 

Today, Utah’s photologging vans include dual 360degree lidar sensors capturing detailed 3D scans of the roads and surrounding area.
Today, Utah’s photologging vans include dual 360degree lidar sensors capturing detailed 3D scans of the roads and surrounding area.

Over the years, such data-collection runs added side and rear cameras. They were further modernized with detailed 3D scans of the actual road surface, and with higher-resolution cameras. Starting in 2017, Utah’s Department of Transportation set out to record not just pictures of the roads, buildings, cliffs, and utility poles on the sides of the roadway but the actual geometry of the objects, using vans equipped with dual 360-degree lidar sensors. A public portal developed by Utah’s Department of Transportation uses colorful visualizations of this 3D data to let you virtually drive any major route in the state.

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About the Author:

Jon Keegan is an investigative data reporter with a background in visuals. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Markup and MIT Technology Review.

See also:

  • Utah Department of Transportation: Roadview Explorer 5. For info on how to use visit: Roadview Explorer 5 Manual – Web-Enabled Data Viewing Software.
  • Pennsylvania Department of Transportation: PennDOTs pavement survey.
  • Highway Photologs: Highway departments all around the country had “photolog” programs, some dating back as early as 1961. Each year, specially tricked out vans would drive each mile of state road snapping photos to document the status of roadways. Beautiful Public Data, Jon Keegan, September 10, 2022.