Tag Archives: cars

Taking a Toll

From Merriam-Webster: highway robbery, n., 1: robbery committed on or near a public highway usually against travelers.

NJ-turnpike-Toll-BoothsIf you live on the East Coast of America, the concept of a free ride is an empty one. Toll roads exist in about half the states, with the original pay-to-pass having been built between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa., in the 1790s.  Currently, in every state that touches the coast, or connects to a state that does, drivers must ante up. New Jersey, at some point, decided that, given its strategic location, it could haul in bucket-loads of cash by providing high-speed roads that would take people to where they really wanted to be.

If you want to travel the length of New Jersey – since that’s mostly what it offers – on the New Jersey Turnpike, it will cost a passenger car $13.85. The Garden State Parkway is another means of traversing, but for $15.75; the GSP is a little deceptive, since it stops you periodically for tolls – maybe giving you a chance to get off before you run out of money. And this sporadic payment plan makes it difficult to know what it is actually costing.

NJ turnpike system

I know from experience, the tolls can create a secondary (to the traffic) panic when you are exiting the booth and your one-way ride has already cost $27, and you have nothing to show for it. If you cross borders into and out of New Jersey, it can be as costly as a hold-up during a Wild West stagecoach ride.

You can enter New Jersey for free, but to leave you must pay the piper. Going from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, the fee varies slightly, perhaps based on the specific bridge’s construction expense; sometimes it costs $5 or $4, and sometimes only $1 – so pick your bridges carefully. Pennsylvania is a bargain compared to New York, where, merely to cross a bridge or enter a tunnel and exit New Jersey, get ready to pony up $13 for the privilege. In a quick calculation, if you live in Cranbury, N.J., and you drive into Manhattan every workday (you would have to be insane to do this), your weekly bill for tolls would be around $150. Ka-ching!

The well-known Pennsylvania Turnpike was constructed in the 1930s, and is probably the most expensive ride across a state, if you take it from New Jersey to Ohio – a whopping $35. On the New York State Thruway, from New York City to the other side of the state, you can pay around $25.

familiar sign

In 1993, E-ZPass, an electronic toll-collection system, debuted on the New York  State Thruway, just two years after Colorado’s E-470 came up with the first of its type. E-ZPass is now used in 14 states. With this method, you can be pinched without even opening your pockets; it just deducts your ride from your electronic E-ZPass account. This can provide a kind of out-of-sight-out-of-mind stress avoidance – that is, until you look at your monthly statement. Just add up 20 crossings via a tunnel and the stress is there in spades – thankfully, you are not in your vehicle when you see the bill, since road rage might ensue.

Of course, there are alternatives, but some of them make you happy to pay. My theory is that U.S. Route 1 in New Jersey is purposely left untended, pothole-riddled and ugly just for that very reason.

However, there are many state and county roads throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, and surprisingly, they are interesting rural byways – especially the old parkways that were once toll roads but are no more. They are the only means of seeing what is truly wonderful about these states – in terms of driving. There is no placeness on interstates, since they are all about moving you through, quickly and without distraction. The toll roads will not give you views of the good stuff, the way the back roads do.

Come on and take a free ride.

hhwy-toll-plazas-toms-river-tolls_11242827132

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The Road Not Taken

road to nowhereWe do not think of roads in pieces but as ongoing lengths – we even refer to them, in stories and songs, as ribbons of highway. It is almost as if, if you kept driving, a road would keep appearing under you, as needed, fabricated out of whole cloth over empty land to ensure your continued travel. When we think of roads in sections, it is usually the landmarks to the roads’ sides that we refer to – seldom (other than potholes or known construction barriers) do we consider the roadway itself. Like electricity when we flick a switch, it’s just there. And, in most places, where one road ends another comes off it. A road does not, it seems, in and of itself, have placeness, though its environment may.

That is why a so-called “road to nowhere” is so jarring, and intriguing. For, by the very nature of its stopping, literally dead in its tracks, it seems to go against “nature,” but also, by its causing us to stop dead in our tracks as well and to demand consideration of the absence of its “roadness,” it creates placeness.

Famous, of course, is the “road to nowhere” that was built to connect to the “bridge to nowhere” envisioned as connecting Ketchikan to Gravina Island, in Alaska, the scandalously wasteful, pork-barrel nature of which may have added fuel to the disenchantment with and ridicule of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate and voice of right-wing Republicanism (a road that, itself, seems happily to, finally, have gone nowhere, although the trip took longer than the projected 15 minutes).

Regularly, on the way to doing some tasks near Norristown, Pa., we have found ourselves quite suddenly and surprisingly on another such derailed road. You come off an exit from a bridge, rolling down the chute, and then you find yourself facing not the straight lanes you expect but instead a chain-link fence that diverts the road you are on to make a hairpin turn sending you off rather quickly in the opposite direction. But, before you leave the area, you can spy, behind the chain link, the road that might have been: multiple lanes go off a short distance, ending in a jungle of overgrowth – and it is as if one had reached the end of the earth before falling off, or disappearing into the wild. From up above, looking down from an overpass, you can see the abrupt disappearance of highway even more clearly. It … just … stops.

hairpin

Having had our curiosity piqued by this odd sight – a circumcised highway imprisoned like a white-collar criminal, without any indication why – a little research uncovered the backstory. Apparently, a link was imagined between two routes, to ease commuting, and, given the grand name of Schuylkill Parkway, the work was begun. And then funds ran out, right in midstream. And so, today, stands a monument to the “dream” of interlocking paths to make suburban sprawl even more conveniently sprawling, and an indictment of pouring tens of millions of dollars into a useless folly and not having the sense to spend a little more and give it usefulness. Better to let it be pointless is the logic, it seems. And should it ever come back to life as a project, how wasteful it will have been to let everything crack and crumble, with more millions needed to bring it back up to baseline buildable again.

But, if one rolls down that exit ramp, and instead of making that sharp turn and continuing on in the opposite direction, if one were to pull over and park in what would have been the road’s median – well, it is a whole different place to be. Indeed, it is a place. If no other cars are coming, one has the great, eerie pleasure of walking on a wide, deserted highway, as if all the world were gone but you, as in some Twilight Zone episode. But even better is to walk to and squeeze through the chain link, and you are in another world: A road almost never used that, in very short fashion, ends. Here, and in few other places, the highway can be looked at as a piece, as the way you might see light as particles and not rays if you had the tools to do so. It is wide and clear, but a snippet … and, in some way, sad, in the way something that does not achieve its potential is a sad thing. And, if you step farther into the stunted road, you can almost feel the quiet, and you can yourself feel like a thief, or a time traveler, or someone (Twilight Zone, again) whose time-metabolism is different from those on Earth, and that there might be cars zipping all around you, but you are out of sync with them, and thus unaffected. It feels like a place of unintentional but no less powerful art. Not holy, not spiritual, but insistent, and resonant with arslocii vibes and possibilities.

turnaround

It is like a movie set and, in fact, the city or county or state could make some money off this white elephant by making it available to filmmakers to use for car-chase and -crash scenes. Sometimes, a motor-vehicle agency puts out parking cones in this space and performs some sort of test or driving contest; it could be the perfect place to teach driver-ed classes. Or to turn into a recreational area – there is plenty of room for basketball and tennis courts. Or make it a performance venue, or show movies outdoors during the summer. Make this thing that goes nowhere be its own destination. Sometimes, nothingness is the perfect place for anythingness, because there are no restrictions, rules or preconceived notions. Sometimes, the place to start is the place where it all stops.

road end

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Parking Place

Old cities are being suffocated by cars. And I am not just talking about the huge volume of traffic flow. When a city such as ours – built in the 18th century for horses and carriages, and which then expanded, in the 19th century, with modern public conveyances like trolleys, an elevated line, subway and trains – has its 21st-century residents hell-bent on having a four-wheeled vehicle per capita … well, where are they all supposed to go? America is big, but cities have limits. Especially old cities. For a time, in the 20th century in this city, there was a belief that the resident of each house had an unofficial ownership of the space right in front of his/her property, for the purpose of parking. At that time, there was usually just one car per household. Now, it is per adult.

Certainly, for an 18th-century rowhouse, nothing but a Smart car would fit across its breadth. But, even for 19th-century rowhouses, most cars are longer than the distance between party walls. And if you put four to six people of driving age in one rowhouse … well, their four to six cars will take up the entire block. It is a mathematical thing and a spatial thing. And, usually, a rental thing.

What’s a neighborhood to do, especially those permanent residents who leave for work and return in the evening to find no parking spaces on their entire block, possibly for several blocks? Students, sometimes six to a house, have had their vehicles parked most of the day, since they have only one class to go to, and a big SUV to get them to and from it. The scarcity of street parking was making it difficult for homeowners to live here, the curbside space was bursting at the seams. Finally, someone in our neighborhood did something about it: permit parking.

Recently, I awoke to the sound of drilling, and within an hour or two, there was a fence-post-like array of street signage up and down our three contiguous blocks, on the curb-parking side. “2 HR Parking 8 am – 6:30 pm, Mon thru Fri, Except Permit Parking 15.” Additionally, “No Stopping Anytime” signs were placed at a certain distance from the corners. This is a so-full-up area that every conceivable space is used, including sidewalks, if they are not cordoned off in some manner. I look out my windows now, and through the trees I view full-frontal red, white and green signs. And they are large. The funny thing is, though, that most of the difficult parking is at night, not between 8 am and 6:30 pm. But maybe the idea is that the hour or so at the tail end of the “controlled time” is enough to give the permanent residents a chance at a space, if they move quickly. Although, if someone was clever, they could begin parking their non-permitted car at 4:30 pm and be good to go for the night.

My straight-across-the-street neighbor came home one night, after the signs were installed, and said, “Yippee, I can park right in front of my house again!” I asked if he had obtained a permit and he said that he had, and that it cost only $35. Many of the students renting on our street have out-of-state plates and I wonder if they can obtain a permit. Maybe that is the point. Otherwise, it is just a small reminder that they don’t control these blocks. To me, this is more of the theater of city life. I and a few of the residents on our side of the street have driveways – a luxury item in these mean streets. So, the advent of permit parking doesn’t affect us one way or the other. Obviously, it pissed off a number of residents enough to make them happy to pay for the likelihood of a parking space.

Suddenly, a few months into this, someone came out and changed the signs to, “2 HR Parking, 7 pm – 7 am, Mon thru Sun.” Obviously somebody figured out the uselessness of the original timeframe.

I can’t say I enjoy looking at all the signage, nor do I enjoy looking at all the cars lined up nose to butt with about four inches between, resembling metallic sausage links. From space, the parked cars solidly lining the steep hilly streets must look like multicolored guardrails, or some sort of low-cost version of housing.

So, where is the placeness of neighborhoods if they become parking lots? You might think that any new housing that appears would have to confront and solve the problem of parking, or, at least, not contribute to it. Somehow on our street, three new houses were built on a lot big enough for one and, yes, they have garages. Unfortunately, the garages are not big enough for the new owners’ cars. So the result is that there are now seven additional cars seeking spaces. And the space required for the seven cars is, by measurement, greater than the space that the three houses inhabit. And so it goes. 

Where does it end? In New York City there are these parking elevators that stack cars up several stories high in a confined area, maximizing air-space parking on a small footprint of land. Also in NYC, there are high-end apartment buildings with indoor parking – right on your own floor! Here’s a thought: When the cities get maxed out, hire big-wheeler auto-transport trucks to carry muliple vehicles around and around, circling through the city streets until they are called or texted to bring the car to your door. A new kind of carryout. The streets would be clear but the diesel fumes would kill everyone, so there would be no need for cars anymore. And no need for permit parking in residential neighborhoods – since there would be no residents.

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