Friday, January 30, 2009

Freeways, Runways, and the Interconnectedness of All Things

I love the design of the interstate highway—the road gradually curving and blending and expanding, giving the impression that it is fluidly sliding away below your tires and you are actually sitting still. I love the effortless branching—whether or not you can actually merge safely through the onslaught of confused and angry motorists when the time comes, there is an understated beauty in the natural divergence of one lane into two. The continuation of this into bridges and multi-level overpasses, while again frustrating (in the case of I-80's Maze east of the Bay Bridge I never got it right) turns the simple beauty of an onramp into a symphony of delicate navigational transitions. Bear left, under the bridge, quick right, follow the cloverleaf, merge in from the left, get your speed up to join the fast lane. . . after two continents of this it feels less like you're consciously moving and more like you're floating along effortlessly down a vehicular river.

I like to have window seats when I fly--partly to have something to rest my head on, but mostly so I can peek down occasionally and watch the ground slip away in the high-altitude equivalent of slow motion. If I close the shade it's hard to believe the plane is moving. (And when we fly through dense, contour-less clouds it's hard to believe we're in reality.) I noticed on my most recent venture into the skies that from the air freeways look a little. . . stagnant. The fluid curves and river-like visual movement to them seem pointless when you're not on them, particularly when they're empty. The feeling I get when I observe an empty freeway juncture from above, all its voluptuous contours reduced to a tiny, burnt-gray concrete knot—it's like taking off my roller skates. An empty freeway is the first few frustrating moments of friction after your internal inertia has acclimated to gliding.

Just like city driving. Stop. GoStop. GoStop. erk. erk. erk. ugh.

Tonight I managed to drive five miles along a light-studded section of a Charlotte boulevard without so much as slowing—it's amazing how well well-engineered traffic systems work if you just stick religiously to the speed limit. It's amazing how frustrating driving can be when cities erect traffic lights at random.

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