Tag Archives: roads

Ways and Means

As creatures of habit, once we establish ourselves, we find our favorite routes to and from. Some of us never vary our paths; others are more experimental in mixing it up a bit, for variety’s sake. I once worked with a guy who had his routes, by car, so mapped out that he knew exactly how long each one would take: 7 minutes and 32.5 seconds – yes, that precise, and he loved to offer his statistics. Kind of scary.

I do find that once I like a certain path, I will repeat it since it becomes predictable and safe. And I am definitely a shortest-distance chooser, meaning that if there is a choice between the fastest route (higher speed, when it likely takes you out of the way) and a slightly slower one (that connects the start and end points in a straight-ish line), I prefer the latter. Of course, here we are talking about roadways. But whether it is by bicycle or on foot, I will move according to “as the crow flies.”

Another factor that determines my paths is a sense of comfort with the terrain. I just don’t feel safe in multilane highways that slice through undeveloped parcels and give the traveler no sense of context, let alone placeness. It can be like a big, open-range cattle-herding chute, in stampede mode. We have way too many of these behemoth roadways and they disconnect people from places. It is an earthbound version of the “fly-over,” which is how all of America between the east and west coasts is referred to by east- and west-coasters. We have set up thousands of miles of “drive-over or -through” zones. I consider these avoidance paths.

screen map

I am a map person – I know that that places me somewhere in the pre-Holocene epoch – and loving the in-hand maps includes the wow factor of the mind-blowing concept that crazy/brave explorers mapped out our world, long before GPS appeared. I not only value what they did but I cherish what they left for us. Maps are wonders of the world – how were they designed, conceived and realized? I have seen some of Lewis and Clark’s first renderings of the Mason-Dixon line. Did they find a path or did they make one? Native Americans followed deer paths and Lewis and Clark followed Native Americans. Now we follow road engineers who don’t believe that the land knows best – they just cut down anything in the way; and it never ends up being a straight line anyway.

I admit I don’t warm to GPS or even to Internet mapping programs because they lack context. There is no where there. Certainly I can follow directions, although they are not always accurate. Instead of beaming in on the micro, a real map will give you the whole picture, and then you can find the specifics. On a device, you have a very narrow window through which to view your options. If you move out, the detail is lost, street names disappear; move in and you are a dot with maybe three lines surrounding you. With a map, you have an entire region and you can maneuver through it in different ways. And you will probably learn things along the way, as opposed to accepting and following one way. Sometimes getting lost with a map in hand can be challenging or exhilarating, since it offers you options for self-correcting. I always feel safer with a map nearby, it is a guidebook to the ground. And as long as we are grounded, it is useful, necessary.

iPad

Recently, relying on a web-based mapping program in a rural area – it, sadly, was the only option (well, there’s one point for the electronic version) – but it mapped the wrong address on the wrong road, and had its little pointer pointing to the end of the road for the destination. Strangely, the real road continued on despite the virtual road having ended, but the blinking dot (meaning my car) just kept moving along the empty space of non-existent road on the virtual map. Talk about scary. The road ends/it doesn’t end and the virtual car has found the other side of the looking glass. It was the cellphone to the rescue, in this instance.

Yes, it is miraculous and bizarre, and a bit scary, that a satellite can find you and follow you – yet, apparently it doesn’t care where you are. But think about the miraculousness of a piece of paper that a) someone created, b) after someone trekked, c) after someone measured in distance and contour: mountains, rivers, oceans, roads, and drew it all in an organized system of scale.

Look at a real map and find those squiggly lines that snake up a mountain or alongside a creek. That’s the path I want to take, in this case not a straight line but as straight a line as nature provides, the contours of the land molded by wind and water. If we follow such paths, who knows where they might lead?

ny map

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On the Road to Nowhere

Occasionally, in our quest to find placeness and in our meager attempts to convey its properties and principles, we resort to presenting the opposite: placelessness. We have mentioned (or is it ranted?) about housing developments, overly dense urban space, art misplaced and other place-lacking elements of our daily lives. But we have seen, on-screen, the most placeless of the placeless.

I don’t know about your area, but since our local broadcast television went digital we now have many additional, filler channels that are new to us. By and large, they are even greater time-wasters than the original programming. The absolutely most bizarre and frightening is the traffic station Tango Traffic, which offers a “program” it calls “Jams & Cams.” This 24-hour feed of traffic video cameras attached to light poles on highways, interstates, and major roads shows some of the most placeless sites ever created by humans. These broadcast images are of linear swaths that are horrifyingly empty stretches of pavement, mostly treeless, barren and devoid of life (except for cars and trucks). O, what we have wrought, and here it is being shown on TV, 24/7. Interspersed with the live-cam pictures are occasional graphics thrown in: digital re-creations of networks of roadways with colorful phosphorescent green cars riding through verdant fields dotted with attractive primary-colored signage, much like a child’s day-care center motif. Then it returns to the real views of monotone asphalt and mind-numbing cattle chutes, tiered layers of oil-stained grayness framed by sickly green-coated steel superstructures. The night views are of darkness with flickering lights on approach and in retreat, every view like the dark alleys we were taught to avoid. 

All the while that these placeless places are flashing by like a brainwashing drip into our eyes and minds – eye-in-the-sky views of one horrific location after another in rapid succession – there is a rolling text feed below the main screen that gives route names and numbers followed by delays in minutes, very often in high double digits. Aside from how dismal the images are, the text messages come in with a one-two punch to reconfirm the punishment of moving through and around these byways – and tossed in are some accompanying shots of logjams, ramps, overpasses, a broken-down car here, an accident there. The clips from traffic cams are 10 seconds of motion and, despite the identifier of location in some cryptic militaristic abbreviation of an intersection that requires 10 seconds to decipher, both are hard to read. As we view the abbreviated tags of the video cameras, our tendency is to try for some sort of recognition: first, of the site name (good luck on that); and then of the intersection itself, by sight. However, if by chance, you figure out what the image is supposed to represent, you still can’t read the visual relationship of two streets that are familiar to you since there is nothing recognizable. Every street looks the same, all are without identifiable attributes; it can’t be just the camera. These are nightmare images, places without landmarks, or familiarity, or uniqueness. Every angle seems wrong and every place seems eerily dead. It is like some lost footage from The Twilight Zone of an apocalyptic world of nothing but endless paved roads.

Alas, it is sadly accurate. These nowhere zones have become more real to people on a daily basis than the places that they connect. And here they are, aired for our viewing pleasure. In some way, in a better universe, these images would be a wake-up call for putting an end to the madness, the rape of our environment for car-dependence. It would show us the error of our ways: the absurd number of vehicles, the structures required to carry them (and they keep getting larger and larger), the massive traffic jams, intolerable delays (just saw one for 112 minutes!), the ugly factor and the placelessness. This lifestyle not only creates placelessness by having the point be the commute to and fro, undermining a sense of place; but also, creates more empty spaces of roadways that are, as we see on-screen, without place. Watch your traffic channel, it may open your eyes.

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