Singing the Song of the Open Road

COMMENT

June 25, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

While cruising Route 140 earlier this week, I began to ruminate about the summer vacation season and automobile travel.

As a society, we take our incredible mobility for granted.

Last Saturday, my wife and I attended a wedding in Gettysburg in the afternoon and a picnic in College Park in the early evening. We arrived at both events on time and were able to return home before the 11 o'clock news.

Twenty-five years ago, such a trip would have been impossible. Traveling from Gettysburg to College Park would have taken at least three hours on narrow two-lane roads where speeds of more than 40 mph would have been life-threatening. Many of the rural roads had blind curves, bumpy surfaces and hidden entrances. Driving at moderate speeds was the only way to arrive at your destination safely.

This past weekend, we were able to zip along at speeds approaching 65 mph (traffic was still passing me) on divided highways with broad shoulders and good sightlines. Thanks to a 40-year program of building new roads, improving and widening existing ones and maintaining all of them, trips like ours are now thought routine.

A friend hopped into his car last week after an early breakfast and drove all day to South Bend, Ind., to visit his elderly mother. He arrived in time to have dessert and coffee with her that evening.

I can't claim to be an expert on roads around the world, but I have traveled by car on two other continents -- in Europe and Asia -- as well as in Mexico. With few exceptions, no place can match American roads.

I recall driving on a Spanish highwith an incorrectly banked curve. I remember feeling as though I were about to go careening off in space.

In China, the main road out of Xian was a two-lane asphalt job minus shoulders. Tourist buses, produce-laden trucks and horse-drawn wagons all were forced to share the road. A trip to the emperor's tomb about 10 miles outside the city took nearly an hour.

In Bangkok, a city of six million people and a seemingly equal number of cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and tuk-tuks (three-wheeled jitneys), there were fewer than a half-dozen traffic signals. Every day, hundreds of thousands of these vehicles carom at frightening speeds through crowded streets and intersections. Crossing an intersection means risking one's life.

Despite our carping about congestion and gridlock, we move between home and work rather effortlessly considering the long stretches some of us travel routinely. We can drive long distances to vacation or visit with family and friends. Every summer, I drive to New Hampshire and am able to complete the one-way trip in about 10 hours. That would have been unthinkable when I was a youngster.

This incredibly easy mobility has had a profound impact on our lives. Automobile travel is no longer the momentous or adventurous activity it once was. Thanks to interstate highways, trips to nearby cities such as Philadelphia, Wilmington and Washington, D.C., are considered nothing more than little jaunts. Some Marylanders even commute to those cities on a daily basis.

Goods as well as people move freely on these roads. Trucks lumbering down the highway seem to represent every sector of the economy. Trucks with covered trailers carry grain to piers in Baltimore. Trucks with shiny stainless tanks cart milk to dairies. Automobile carriers loaded with new cars and vans struggle up hills, then hightail down them.

Just about every morning, I pass a Marada tractor-trailer hauling parts to General Motors' Broening Highway plant in Baltimore. Its delivery is precisely timed so that the parts are deposited directly on the assembly line and installed on mini-vans within hours of delivery.

Even when the weather is bad, cars and trucks can move. Only the most severe weather -- winter ice storms -- makes our roads impassable. Without this incredible transportation system, our economy would not function as well as it does.

All this makes me think about the debate over building a Westminster bypass. In terms of our current economic life, we can probably live with the condition of Route 140. But at some point in the future, decisions will have to be made about widening the current roadbed and limiting access or building a new road.

Like everything in life, there will be a trade-off. Easier access and faster commuting times means more destruction of Carroll's bucolic landscape. A new highway also means more sprawling development in sections of the county that are not now so accessible for commuting.

When this country began its road-building spree, all we cared about was increasing our mobility. Few of us pondered the consequences of these ribbons of asphalt and concrete.

Without these roads, we would live much different lives.

Would they be better?

I don't have the answer.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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