I hate Sawmill Road.
Those of you who live in Columbus know what I am talking about. For those of you who don’t live in our fair city, think of a landscape denuded of nature and replaced with the worst imaginable combination of asphalt, concrete, strip malls, overhead power lines, parking lots, ugly signs, chain stores, and cars, cars, cars.
When you are on Sawmill Road, waiting — and, with the ridiculous traffic congestion that you always find there, you are assured of doing lots of waiting — depressing sights await you in all directions, unbroken by green space. It’s like the worst aspects of commercial development have been mashed together by some giant economic forces and crammed into a grim four-mile stretch of road.
Shortly after our family moved to Columbus in 1971, I took driver’s ed. The part of the course where you actually drove a real car took place on Saturday mornings, with the driving instructor supervising and several students trading places behind the wheel. After I got picked up we always drove north to Sawmill Road. It was a country road then, with trees and unbroken farmland on both sides. About a mile up you would find Tuller’s Fruit Farm, a family farm and apple orchard with a rambling wooden store. We would stop there for a cup of cider and a glazed doughnut before continuing with our lessons.
Sawmill Road was a pleasant drive 40 years ago, and now it is a nightmare that you avoid unless you absolutely must go there. During the intervening years no one did anything to limit the wretched excess, and now the damage is irreparable.
The I-670 ramp to Third Street, which provides access from the east side to downtown Columbus, is closed for extensive repairs. It will be closed for months.
It’s only one of thousands — make that hundreds of thousands — of highway ramps in the United States. But for me, it’s perhaps the most important ramp. Its closure means that my principal route to work, the one that has been ingrained into my brain and every fiber of my being after years of mindless commuting, is not available. It means that I have to get out of my mental rut, abandon my snug comfort zone, and find another route to the heart of downtown Columbus during the morning rush hour. It means I have to experiment with alternatives during a time of day when hastily selected alternative routes usually mean delay and disaster.
So far I’ve tried two options. The planned alternative has the weird, jury-rigged feel you often get with traffic engineer reroutings. You exit I-670 at I-71, follow a narrow, two-lane channel between temporary barricades, then make a hairpin two-lane exit onto Spring Street. I’ve taken that route several times, two of which embroiled me in significant traffic jams. The other option was an experiment that ended in colossal failure. I exited I-670 one stop early, wound through some city streets, then found myself snarled in complete gridlock around the Columbus State campus. I won’t be trying that option again.
I’m steeling myself for the challenge of finding that elusive alternative route that will take me smoothly downtown on uncongested streets. In the meantime, I’m just going to brace myself — and leave 10 minutes earlier than normal.
In the past few years, roundabouts — what non-engineers call traffic circles — have been cropping up all over central Ohio. They are a very welcome addition.
In my view, roundabouts are vastly preferable to traffic lights. The intersection at Morse Road and Rt. 62 near our home was a dangerous bottleneck for years and consistently ranked high on the list of the most dangerous intersections in central Ohio. We knew of its dangers first-hand, because one of our family members got into an accident that was due entirely to stopped traffic blocking the view of a car trying to exit a shopping center parking lot. Since the traffic light was replaced by a roundabout the traffic flow is much better, and the long lines of stopped cars are a thing of the distant past. Traffic engineers say that the roundabouts not only improve traffic flow, they also reduce crashes generally and significant injury crashes specifically. Because every car on the roundabout is moving to the right, the chances of head-on collisions or T-bone crashes is dramatically reduced.
Of course, you have to get the hang of merging onto the roundabout. As you approach, you look to your left for traffic in the roundabout or about to enter the roundabout, and then you merge onto the roundabout to the right when there is an opening. Fortunately, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission has prepared an unintentionally hilarious step-by-step guide to how to drive through a roundabout that makes you feel like you are back in drivers ed class. No doubt it will be the source of amusement for our British friends who have driven through roundabouts for decades.
Like many other Americans, Kish and I hit the road this Labor Day weekend. In our case, it was a quick, overnight trip to Chicago to attend the 30th wedding anniversary of our old friends Ken and LuAnn (more on that later). We left yesterday morning on a clear day, made good time to Indianapolis, rolled past the sun-dappled fields of slowly turning windmill turbines north of West Lafayette on I-65, zipped through Gary . . . and then we hit the inevitable stopped traffic on I-94 east of Chicago.
When Richard was at Northwestern we drove to Chicago in all seasons and at all times of day. It made no difference when we arrived in the vicinity — any time of night or day, any day of the week, there was a traffic jam of angry drivers that started east of Chicago. Without fail, you lost an hour and a half crawling west through the snarl until you were well past downtown.
It is a real pain, and always makes a trip to Chicago much less enjoyable. I don’t think I could live in Chicago if I had to drive downtown to work.
Every day I drive to work on I-670, a road that connects the I-270 highway that circles Columbus with downtown. A few years ago they erected an electronic road sign above the westbound lanes, the kind that lets some unknown person change the message on the sign if they choose to do so. In that sense, it’s like the sign that talked to Steve Martin in the movie L.A. Story.
I don’t understand why someone concluded we need this variable sign. Nine mornings out of 10 the sign reports that it will take exactly the same, minimal amount of time to reach I-71 and other upcoming destinations. On the tenth day, the sign might state that it will take a slightly longer period to drive the mile and a half to the next exit. Is there anything to indicate that that kind of information on the sign influences any driving decisions or helps traffic flow? Does anyone actually veer off I-670 and onto side roads because the sign is advising that it will take two minutes longer to reach their destination? And, how many of those people would have veered off after they observed slowed or stopped traffic up ahead, regardless of whether the sign was there or not?
One time Kish and I were driving past the sign and it was filled with information about a missing adult male who was driving a Mercedes with a particular license plate. We wondered precisely what we were supposed to do in response to that message. Quickly grab a paper and pen and jot down the license plate? Hope that the car in question was driving directly in front of us when we saw the sign? It hardly seems like sound traffic safety to have drivers of cars speeding by at 65 miles an hour fumbling for a pen and paper to try to write down a license plate number. And if we aren’t supposed to do that, what’s the point?
I imagine a large part of the decision to buy the sign was that some people wanted Columbus to seem more like, well, L.A. Guess what? It isn’t — and most of us are very happy for that. We don’t need signs to tell us how long it will take to get to an exit that is only a few miles away, and we don’t need pointless signs to consume tax dollars and clutter our highways.