Road Geek Rage

No, I am not experiencing road rage. I am simply a raging road geek.

A little caffeine too late in the day (not to mention curious preoccupation with discovering the mystery of eon8) has kept me up well into the night.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to D.C. and Baltimore, and in particular about the roads there, as I did a fair amount of driving in my 3 days in the area.

I’ve always been fascinated by roads, in particular the Interstate highway system, and in even more particular with anomalies in the Interstate system. The Interstates were conceived as a massive public works project and also as a vision of taking America into a bold, gleaming, gasoline-fueled future. But somewhere along the way reality stepped in and many planned freeways were never built, such as I-335 in Minneapolis or whatever they’d have called Ayd Mill Road in St. Paul if it had become a real freeway.

You can see remnants of such works throughout the country in the form of blocked-off ramps to nowhere or peculiar artificial mounds where bridge embankments had been created but the bridges themselves never constructed.

One thing that’s striking about Baltimore is that, for all of its interesting history and charming neighborhoods, it also has more than its fair share of blight. That was another unexpected side effect of the construction of the Interstate system. (Well, I doubt it was that unexpected to the large numbers of mostly African-American residents who were displaced by eminent domain or who saw their neighborhoods sliced in half by right-of-way lines planned by the mostly white, crew-cutted proto-geeks working in the various state departments of transportation in the ’50s and ’60s.)

While studying the map of Baltimore in anticipation of my upcoming visit, I noticed something rather odd: an “orphaned” stretch of freeway running through a part of the city west of downtown. As it turns out, this freeway, now signed as US 40 but originally identified as I-170, was a failure on a scale that puts Ayd Mill to shame. I didn’t get a chance to drive this road (and I suspect that if I return to the area I probably won’t have much cause to then, either, unless I can convince my family that it’s worth going to an undesirable neighborhood just to drive on a pointless stretch of road), but thanks to insomnia and the wonders of the Internet, now I can feel like I did.

There were also some interesting freeways in the D.C. area, such as the long stretch identified only as To I-295 because, even though for all intents and purposes it really is I-295, it cannot be designated as such due to federal standards for Interstate-grade roadways.

On a less dismal note, I had a couple of other interesting freeway experiences. First, driving into D.C. on I-66, I was surprised to discover that, once you crossed the Beltway, all lanes of the freeway were designated as HOV during rush hour. (Yes, in other words, if you’re driving by yourself, you have no business whatsoever being on I-66 inside the Beltway between the hours of 5:30 AM and 9:30 AM on weekdays.)

The other, and undoubtedly most pleasant, discovery was the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, identified inelegantly on some signs as the “Balto-Wash Pkwy.” This is, surprisingly, a 4-lane freeway, with relatively brisk-moving traffic, managed by the National Park Service, connecting Baltimore and Washington, and perhaps sometime in the distant past actually signed as Maryland (and D.C.) 295, as shown in my 2006 road atlas. The most surprising feature of this road was that it was densely tree-lined for most of its run, completely devoid of billboards and rarely within sight of any artificial structures other than the road itself. Best of all (especially since I drove the entire return trip in heavy rain), commercial trucks are not allowed.

Freeway to Hell

As a resident of a major metropolitan area (presently it’s Atlanta, although in the past I’ve called both Los Angeles and Minneapolis home as well), I naturally spend a more-than-desirable amount of time dealing with less-than-desirable circumstances of living in close proximity to millions other people. Granted, the daily frustrations of urban life are an easy target for a rant, and I am striving for creativity here. Consider this a purging of the system so I don’t have to bring this up ever again.

The most obvious nuisance of life in a large city, particularly if it’s a city whose population grew significantly after the advent of freeways is, of course, traffic. I could veer off into a dry and potentially-controversial, were it not so mind-meltingly boring, treatise on the ills of our society that have led us into such a situation, but I believe a rant is not really a rant if it carries a relevant (or for that matter, even a merely coherent) message. So on to traffic.

I have ridden in cars before with drivers who, as incomprehensible as it is to me, do not seem to care about getting to their destination in absolutely as short a time as possible. I always suspect they are newcomers to “big city” life, but chances are they just possess greater control over their emotions than I do. At any rate, the time I spend nervously twitching in their passenger seats is split in roughly equal proportions between a somewhat ironic jealously over their apparent zen-like state, which I by my very nature seem destined never to attain, and a deep, visceral compulsion to lunge across the parking brake and push the accelerator to the floor with my bare hand.

Anyway, since I (naturally) have little patience for riding with people who have more patience than I do, my encounters with these parkway pacifists usually come when I am behind the wheel, in the form of my rapid approach to their rear bumpers. This is my real frustration with traffic… there are just some people on the road who don’t care about keeping pace, no matter how much those of us behind them tailgate, flash our lights, blast our horns, raise certain fingers in colorful gestures, or turn on our cruise control, climb out our driver-side windows, jump onto their trunks, climb in their passenger-side windows, and indulge our deep, visceral compulsions to lunge across the parking brake and push their accelerators to the floor with our bare hands.

All of this staring at rear bumpers during rush hour seems to have a secondary, interesting effect, at least on me. I have developed a completely relative sense of speed. I really, honestly, have no sense of how fast I am driving anymore, except in terms of my speed relative to the other cars on the road. And I have one simple goal: I need to be going just a little bit faster than any other car I see around me. This can become truly dangerous at times of lighter traffic, such as this past Saturday morning, when, headed southbound on I-285, I looked down at my speedometer in utter amazement to discover myself driving 92 MPH. (Did I mention the 55 MPH speed limit on that road?)

Alas, I’m learning too late that one small rant cannot possibly contain all of my obvious, clichéd frustrations with the transportation woes of modern urban life. I’ve barely even scratched the surface of my own mild affliction with terminal road rage. Once the boiling blood in my brain and sour bile in my throat have receded enough for me to be able to see and comprehend the computer keyboard again, I will file another installment.