My Thoughts on Turnpikes

The Indiana Toll Road and Ohio Turnpike are not the most exciting of journeys. Much of the area looks exactly the same. The terrain is quite flat. There is corn and soy everywhere. The road connects a series of medium sized cities, coming close enough to efficiently connect them without actually passing through them. It is a form of transportation that maximizes one thing and one thing only: temporal efficiency.

In the Midwest, all roads start and end in Chicago. It took me a while to realize that, while Chicago is right in the middle of the region known as the Midwest, and is its unofficial capital, Chicago is really nothing like the rest of the Midwest. It is a big international city. It moves at a pace that is closer to that of other large cities than the rest of the Midwest.

Once someone leaves the greater Chicago area, they are likely to encounter a completely different mentality and a completely different way of life.

Chicago also kind of divides the Midwest. There are some subtle differences between what lies to the West of Chicago and what lies to the East. These subtle difference are probably only commonly thought of by those of us who have lived in the Midwest and those of us who have driven across the entire region and had time to observe it.

While there are farms everywhere in the region, the Western part of the region, West of Chicago seems to be built more around farmland. They have leveled enough trees to increase surface wind speeds (dense forests tend to reduce surface wind speeds) enough to make it a good place to build wind farms. The economies of many of the medium sized cities in this region are centered around farming equipment,

East of Chicago, trees are more plentiful. Medium sized cities here are a bit more frequent and they have more of a “rust belt” feel.

Cities here tend to have nicknames around what product are manufactured here…

  • Gary the Steel City
  • South Bend the Wagon City
  • Elkhart the RV Capitol of the World
  • Toledo the Glass City
  • Akron the Rubber City

As is the case with the subtle but noticeable difference between the region to the West and the region to the East of Chicago, there is also a subtle but noticeable difference between driving on turnpikes and driving on other highways.

Turnpikes tend to have elaborate exit ramps to facilitate toll collection. As a result, exits are often quite far apart.

Two things happen. First, rather than pulling off at an exit to stop for gas, restrooms and food, it ends up being more common to stop at rest areas.

As homogenized as standard highway driving is compared with traveling on roads that go through the center of town, turnpike driving is even more homogenous. All of the rest areas on the Ohio Turnpike look exactly the same and many of them have the exact same food options.

Also, with the exits fewer and father between, it becomes far less likely that drivers will follow the most direct path from their origin to their destination. Getting to a location is more about finding the nearest exit than the series of roads that provide the most direct path.

Turnpike driving maximizes temporal efficiency, but it is not my favorite method of transportation.

When traveling from place to place, sometimes there are things more important than getting to a destination as quick as possible. There are places to experience along the way. The experience of traveling along the Indiana Toll Road and Ohio Turnpike is a reminder of what we lose out on when we focus on one metric and one metric only, in this case temporal efficiency. While South Bend, Elkhart, Toledo and Sandusky will not top anyone’s list of top vacation destinations, whizzing by them from 10-20 miles away on a homogenous turnpike still feels like missing out on something that has the potential to be a worthwhile experience.

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