Monday, January 29, 2007

The Parlous State of Our Nation's Highways: An Update

Perhaps there is some hope for our Great Democratic Experiment after all.

I came home from work this afternoon to find a handwritten note in the mailbox, on the stationery of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. It was from Supervisor Sally Kurtz, who represents the Catoctin District on the board.

It was, of course, in response to my vengeful screed from a few weeks ago, in which I spoke bitterness about the awful design and dreadfully vague and inadequate signage
surrounding a newly reconfigured intersection in my town -- an intersection that I and several others unthinkingly blasted through on the morning of its unveiling, to the consternation of the local gendarme.

In her note, Ms. Kurtz supplied her home phone number -- her home phone number, folks! -- and asked me to please give her a call at my convenience. And so, with a few samples of my freshly acquired collection of early 21st-century Percocets beginning to make their life-sustaining ministration to my ravaged and grateful central nervous system, that is what I did.

Ms Kurtz, a funny and very amiable person, clearly has had her patience with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) tested to the breaking point. This county -- for the last ten years and until the recent housing bust consistently rated one of the fastest-growing in the country -- has had its fair share of nightmarishly snarled traffic. She informed me that she has set up a meeting with our local VDOT District Engineer to discuss not only the intersection that brought me into conflict with the Heat, but also several other cases of inconsistent and vague signage -- including one in which some people were killed in an accident some miles from here. My letter, she said, would feature prominently in that conversation.

Supervisor Sally Kurtz: My Kinda Politician.

Fascinatingly, the mail brought another letter, this one from the Office of the Governor of Virginia, over the signature of the Secretary of Transportation. The nub of the thing was that VDOT had reviewed the design of the intersection -- created, apparently, by a local developer and not by VDOT itself -- and had concluded that it was "of a quality acceptable to VDOT." Apparently, the safety of the intersection had already been brought to VDOT's attention, and "as a result, additional signs were installed, pavement markings were modified, and a variable message board was added." (The variable message board, the Secretary did not go on to say, was removed after a couple of weeks.)

"These changes," the doughty Secretary concludes, "should eliminate any safety concerns."

I love the wording of that. The changes may or may not improve the actual safety of the intersection -- only time will tell if they do -- but boy howdy do they eliminate my concerns.

The Secretary concludes, "It is a difficult balance to provide motorists with information about a traffic pattern change and keep it concise enough to be understood as traffic moves at various speeds along a highway." I would like to engrave these words on a brushed-aluminum plaque and post it prominently at the entrance to every reputable industrial-design school in the world. It's a wretched surrender, an abject admission of defeat, to a simple problem of design. A second-year student of Human Factors Engineering could find a way to advise motorists, in clear and absolutely unambiguous visual language, of traffic changes ahead. It is a despicable capitulation, a rank failure of imagination.


Kevin Wolf said...


Neddie, I'd love to see this post again but rewritten using the dreadfully vague and inadequate [language], if you will, of the sort seen in the letter from the Sec. of Transportation, which you rightfully condemn.

Or perhaps you could send another letter responding in kind, though the joke would surely be lost on him/them.

Actually, the whole thing is a ghastly joke.

QRED said...

There is a poorly designed ramp I use everyday where traffic from one elevated highway merges into the right lane of an intersecting elevated highway as both the short on-ramp and the adjoining stretch of highway curve sharply to the right in tandem. Making matters worse, a major off-ramp follows immediately, resulting in cross-traffic as vehicles attempt to enter and exit in close proximity. It has been precarious for decades and nothing can be done to change the physical construction, without huge expense.

Not being a human factors engineer myself, I figured better signage might help. But I was frankly amazed how dramatically traffic flow improved after some simple dotted lines were finally painted on the pavement last summer, showing which lanes were ending and where they ended. It was a perfect example of how a modicum of thought and the least bit of effort can turn a sow's ear into, well, something reasonably safe and functional.

I bet I have some other Neddie-type bloke to thank for that fix. And another friggin Doughty Secretary to thank for the preceding decades, also.

roxtar said...

"It is a difficult balance to provide motorists with information about a traffic pattern change and keep it concise enough to be understood as traffic moves at various speeds along a highway."

"It is a difficult balance to provide diners with information about a various utensils and keep it concise enough to be understood as the fork moves at various speeds toward the mouth."

"It is a difficult balance to provide consumers with information about a popular brand of shoe polish and keep it concise enough to be understood as shit moves at various speeds toward Shinola."

"It is a difficult balance to provide humans with information about anatomical differences and keep it concise enough to be understood as their ass moves at various speeds toward their elbow."

Man, how I wish I worked for the DOT.