"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts to remind readers—as well as himself—that Yr. Hmbl. Author occasionally thinks about things having little to do with photography. These posts appear on TOP on Sundays.
Kicking off tomorrow, when we get back to photography, just for fun: a countdown of "The Most Desirable Cameras on the Planet."
The medium-sized Wisconsin town I live in, Waukesha (pronounced WOK-uh-shaw—by most of us, anyway), is famous for getting people lost.
If you look at the map of Wisconsin, pretty much everyplace looks more or less normal—until you come to the peculiar little tangle that is Waukesha.
It probably doesn't look so bad from above, but add the complication of steep hills scattered about, one-way streets, factories (and a quarry) that take up many blocks and serve as impediments to navigation, the river that meanders diagonally through town, streets that change names when they go straight and keep the same name even though they turn, and such innovations as two-way streets that abruptly turn in to one-way streets, and it becomes obvious that Waukesha did not attract the traffic planners who graduated at the top of their class.
I know there are probably European cities that are worse, but those were laid out along goat paths and sized for medieval carts. The first white settler in Waukesha only arrived 177 years ago. That was before the automobile, but that's our sole excuse.
The old joke here is that the only reason people live in Waukesha at all is that they drove in and couldn't find their way back out.
It might not be entirely a joke. See the little five-way intersection in the middle of this satellite picture? (That's a street coming in from due south, even though you can't see it because of the trees.) There used to be a gazebo in the middle of it, until they moved it across the river (you can see the relocated gazebo in this screenshot at the very upper left). Rumor has it that when they were moving the gazebo and re-routing the traffic patterns, there was a period of three days or so when all five streets were one-way inbound. That is, there were five legal ways to get to the intersection and no legal way to get out.
That might be apocryphal, but I choose to believe it. There is such a thing as patterns. This story fits in. Even if it's not true, it could be.
It's now a five-way stop, which is a little dicey because there are stop signs from which, when you are stopped, you cannot see every other stop sign—where other people might or might not be stopped. People sort of guess who goes next. You shouldn't live on that corner if you don't like the sound of honking. And I don't refer to our biannual visitors, the Canada geese.
This one's right near me—I go through it almost every day. It was designed to help promote civil strife and divisiveness; you see, 50% of the population believes this is two intersections, and the other 50% are of the opinion it's one. This means that no matter what you do, half of your fellow citizens think you're being either ignorant or a jerk.
It's actually one intersection, at least according to the big "DO NOT BLOCK INTERSECTION" signs next to the white-striped no-man's area. Unfortunately, I'm the only person who lives in town who has noticed those. Some of my neighbors think I am running a red light when I obey the signs and decline to stop and linger in the white stripey area.
A few years ago, they rebuilt this entire intersection—carefully preserving all of its layout deficiencies.
And whose bright idea was this? Track this with me now...you're proceeding westbound on the street at the bottom of the screen grab. You opt not to turn right at the intersection at the lower left, but instead keep proceeding straight...and end up going in exactly the same direction as if you'd turned right.
Traffic planners solved this dilemma by making the spur that doubles back (on the left) one-way southwest. As you come around that bend, though, you'd better watch out for the people who still don't get that it's one-way even after having lived here for thirty years. (Or maybe they don't get it because they have lived here for thirty years, and remember when it was two-way.) They'll be coming right at you. It's happened to me.
I'm actually kind of shocked at how clean and sensible this next Waukesha intersection looks from the air. At ground level, from behind the wheel of a vehicle, say, things are not nearly so tidy. I'd say this is where new drivers go to die, except that wouldn't be funny. This intersection—or perhaps we should call it an "intersection-type area"—achieves quite an impressive degree of confusingness.
First of all, that's a road heading due north from the striped area, not a parking lot. This is another of our town's five-way intersections.
Coming from the west (left), there are two left-hand turn lanes, except that in this case you're expected to know that bearing left is considered to be "turning" left—you're not supposed to make a hard left-hand turn on to the aformentioned street that goes due north...that's illegal. If you're coming from the east-northeast (the right), bearing left is considered a left turn, and there's an arrow...except there's no space for more than about two cars to sit there and wait for it (there are two cars sitting there in the picture. The next one will be partially blocking the left lane; the next one after that is supposed to stop behind the striped area). If you're coming from the southwest, bearing right is considered to be going straight, and there is a place to wait for the left-hand turn arrow...except that to turn left you have to thread your way through a particular two of the three concrete islands, and you never know if the traffic from your right is oncoming or not, because they're supposed to stop behind the white striped area when there's a red light, and that's another thing people seem to be permanently confused about.
Add to all this the fact that everyone has to wait for the light that allows people from the little road on the lower right to enter the intersection, even though that's a sleepy little residential street and no one is ever coming from there. The light there is so long that I suspect residents avoid coming and leaving via that route. The rest of us do a lot of sitting and waiting at this intersection. And finally, there's a gas station on the corner...that's so that no one ever knows what other peoples' turn signals mean. Are they bearing left or right, or turning into the gas station? No way to know.
Finally—you can see it clearly in the picture—at the left is a railroad crossing that frequently backs people up right into the intersection and beyond (in fact, it sometimes backs people up all the way into the next intersection to the west, and that one's three times as far away). All in all, the fact that more accidents don't happen here is a testament to the resourcefulness as well as the ingrained timidity of the Waukesha driver, who, after all, learned to drive while never quite knowing where she was going or how she was going to get there.
The above litany does not exhaust the confusions of this particular delightful little corner, but the writer is aware that the descriptions are getting tiresome, and that you are growing restless. Suffice it to say that wherever traffic planners go to get educated, this should be a final exam question. "Improve this intersection, without using explosives. 1 hour."
I'll stop, although I could go on. Before I do, though, have a quick omniscient peek from dear God's perspective at this little stretch of pure Waukesha. You do have to look at it quite closely to understand it. But imagine that you're driving from the southeast, proceeding northwest, along the diagonal road that goes from the bottom right to the top left of the picture—and for some reason you want to keep driving along it. If you look carefully, you'll note that before you have gone very far, you will have to bear left and then turn right. Not once, but...twice. Just to keep going straight in the same direction on the road you're on. It's even more confusing from the opposite direction.
You're evidently just not supposed to want to stay on that road, that's all. And sure enough, you won't, unless you are blessed with a robust sense of direction and possess that admirable personal quality, persistence.
I was a photographer in Washington D.C. for seven years, and I knew my way around that city better than I knew my own backyard. I practically knew the names of the motorcycle cops who took down the barriers when the inbound roads changed to outbound. I could get from Georgetown to National Airport faster than most cabbies. I could get around traffic jams at rush hour taking alleys block after block.
But I've lived in Waukesha for ten years and I still hardly know my way around.
I'd say come visit some time, but it's no use. You'd just get lost.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Tom Burke: "Have a look at this one from a town in southern England."
Featured Comment by Lars Clausen: "One word: Roundabout. One of the new ones with sensible precedence rules. Not the Magic Roundabout."
Mike replies: Oh my lord. The Magic Roundabout in Swindon...officially wins. That looks for all the world like it was designed specifically to be bad. I can only shake my head and marvel.
Featured Comment by DC Wells: "I'm not a traffic engineer, but I think they should have left the gazebo where it was as the center of a roundabout. We often think of roundabouts as un-American—everyone goes in the same direction, no one is required to make a turning choice right away, and they are all over France—but they work, with a little practice. Even Georgia and South Carolina, always vigilant against things un-American, are adding roundabouts these days."
Mike replies: Washington D.C. has many "circles," a.k.a. roundabouts, and I liked them a lot. The one right near where we lived, at Mass Ave and Western Avenue on the Maryland-D.C. border, worked very well.
Featured Comment by erlik: "There's a five-way intersection in Zagreb. Four of the streets are two-way. One of them turns into an inbound one-way after...30 metres and then you have to take a sharp left or right turn. The right turn will, after 20 metres, take you back to the one of the two-ways of the intersection.
"Combine it with the aggravating habit of Zagreb drivers to cram into any intersection so as not to wait for the next green light and you've got a huge irritation during rush hour. It's just that habit of 'me, me, me' that makes driving in Zagreb such an ulcer-inducing experience."
Featured Comment by Karl: "Looks like a very quiet kind of paradise to me. Here's how the local five-way looks on a Sunday afternoon."
Mike replies: That's true. Waukesha is a pleasant place to live. It's the seventh-largest city in Wisconsin, but it's quiet, friendly, and low-key. There's no tradition locally of aggressive driving, and people tend to be polite and orderly in their cars. They almost seem to go out of their way to wait their turn or be considerate to others. Very little to complain about, really, despite my lampooning of the street layout.
Featured Comment by Nicholas Condon: "I just couldn't stop laughing about this. As hideously awful as it is to navigate the D.C. area (esp. Arlington), this makes it look simple by comparison. The last image, in particular, reduced me to uncontrollable giggling.
"As you mention, the only saving grace, here, must be the Wisconsin drivers. My experiences from my time in Madison taught me that the most common failure mode of the local drivers was excessive politeness, not aggressiveness."
Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "They've started to implement roundabouts here in Ottawa and the city developed this animation to instruct people how to use them. It's entertaining in its own right."
Featured Comment by Adam Lanigan: "As a transportation engineer/planner myself, I read this with equal measures of interest, stupefaction, comedy, and terror. I pity the poor sod who will eventually tackle untangling these knots, though he may someday be carried on shoulders as the conquering hero. Or at least given a quiet attaboy before returning to the breach. Soldier on, brother."