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Two for One
Celebrating things that do two things relatively well, even if they're not great at any one thing.
Welcome to the Quarantine Creatives newsletter, a companion to my podcast of the same name, which explores creativity, art, and big ideas as we continue to live through this pandemic.
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One of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons from my childhood was Inspector Gadget. I loved how the titular inspector (voiced by the legendary Don Adams) was always prepared for whatever came his way. His hat contained a portable helicopter, his wrist watch worked like a phone long before Apple Watches, and his minivan could transform into a police car by sliding a lever.
For some reason, I never really got into Transformers, which had similar themes. At any rate, I keep thinking about objects that can serve more than one purpose, like that Gadget car.
One of the most obvious examples of this is my Leatherman multi-tool, which I have had in my pocket for the better part of a decade. My particular model contains 14 tools including a pair of pliers, a few screwdriver heads, and a pocket knife.
The knife is certainly not the best knife that I own, but it is the most handy. It has helped me open countless Amazon packages and kid’s toys, plus it helps whittle wood in a pinch. Same for the screwdrivers- it is much easier to tighten up a loose screw with something in my pocket, even if it’s not the highest form of that particular tool.
I like the utility and efficiency of devices that can do several things well enough, and sometimes prefer those to objects with only a singular purpose.
I haven’t talked about it much, aside from a handful of posts on my Instagram, but my family and I have been on the road for more than a week now in our RV. We started in New Jersey, then visited Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia. All in, we will have spent 13 days traveling through 9 states, camping in 6 of them.
A motorhome like ours may be the best example of something that does multiple things marginally well, but the benefits of that functionality outweigh any downsides.
My 32 foot Winnebago is not my first choice in vehicles when running to the grocery store or post office. It does daily commuting really, really poorly. It also has had some perilous moments this past week, like when crossing the long and narrow Bay Bridge high over Chesapeake Bay or when navigating the steep hills of West Virginia. However, it drives well enough on the interstate to make driving it for a vacation completely worth it in my book.
What it lacks in maneuverability or speed it makes up for in convenience, like having a fully stocked fridge and freezer, having a bathroom anytime we need a pit stop, and the joy of my personal pillow every night, instead of whatever a roadside motel happens to have on offer.
Despite being on the road for such a long time, none of us have felt a single pang of homesickness, as we have literally been carrying our home around with us. It’s allowed us to see the country without ever feeling far from something familiar.
As I was driving around this week, I’ve noticed several other times where utility was smartly deployed.
After visiting family in Silver Spring, MD, we drove into downtown Silver Spring to pickup some groceries at Whole Foods Market. Silver Spring is a suburb just north of Washington D.C. It is highly developed and can be quite congested.
As we were driving to Whole Foods, my wife called out the strange lane markers on the road. The painted hash marks were yellow across four of the six lanes of U.S. Route 29, with lighted signs displaying either a red X or a green arrow. I didn’t even think to take a photo at the time, but here’s a Google Street View screen capture.
Most roads are built with the expectation of equal two-way traffic at all times. Except that’s not how we actually drive.
Since traffic tends to be cyclical, it makes more sense to have a wider road heading into the city in the morning and a wider road leaving the city in the afternoon. Sadly, roads aren’t like Inspector Gadget’s car that can transform at will, at least not usually.
But in Silver Spring, simple lighting and paint allows a road to have different functions at different times of the day with the flick of a switch. In the photo above, four lanes of traffic are headed towards the camera (left lanes), while only two are headed away. When we drove this road, it was three lanes in either direction. In an extreme case, five lanes could head in one direction, with only one for other traffic.
Imagine if more of our major arteries allowed for flexibility like this. It requires more driver focus, but it could get us where we’re going a little faster and is an efficient use of space that allows for higher traffic volume without getting into excessively wide and pedestrian unfriendly boulevards.
As we departed the D.C. area and headed to the more rural sections of Virginia around Shenandoah National Park, I was directed onto I-66 and saw another example of smart usage. For about 9 miles along I-66, the D.C. Metro’s orange line trains parallel I-66, with trains running right down the median of the freeway.
This is also a familiar sight in Chicago, and commuter rail tracks parallel highways in Massachusetts and Connecticut for brief sections, but it’s not something I’ve seen in many other areas of the country. Most of the times, the median section of a highway is a grassy strip separating traffic in either direction, but that seems like a very inefficient use of space.
Placing a rapid transit line directly in the middle of an interstate serves many functions. For one thing, it allows transit to be built without causing major disruptions to existing infrastructure. It also may increase ridership over time, as the drivers stuck in traffic (as in the photo above) will see trains zipping by them every few minutes on their commute (the equivalent of one of those “If you lived here, you’d be home now” billboards).
Interstates are also usually built close to where people already live, so it’s logical that a transit line near an interstate would have a built-in audience that is likely already commuting on a similar route.
The downside to placing transit in the middle of the interstate is the stations become harder to access (something I touched on in Wednesday’s issue). For rapid transit to be the most useful, stations need to be placed within a short walk of where people live and where they want to go. By their very nature, a station in the middle of an interstate requires some additional walking to access- a bridge to cross over the traffic, and stairs to get to the platform below.
Could you imagine a transit line down the middle of an interstate near you?
Finally, I wanted to call out some of the places where we’ve camped in our time as RV owners, which also show a smart use of space. Harvest Hosts is a program that we joined this spring that allows campers to connect with farms, wineries, breweries, golf courses, and other small businesses for overnight stays. A host site will allow a member to stay one night in their RV in exchange for that member patronizing their small business.
Our first Harvest Host stay was at an alpaca farm in New Hampshire, less than an hour from our house. Since then, we have stayed at a wood shop in rural Vermont, an animal rescue in New Jersey, a flight school in West Virginia, and a farm store in Pennsylvania.
These sites are decidedly not campgrounds. We are often the only guest, or are perhaps joined by one other family. There are no hookups for water or electricity, no trash dumpsters, and no swimming pools or bike paths like there would be at a campground.
The camping can get primitive at times (like when it’s a hot day and you can’t run your air conditioning), but it also allows an up-close look at somebody’s property (they often live on site) and their small business. It has connected us to small ventures that we wouldn’t have otherwise known existed and allowed us to support them.
The only cost to the host family is a little parking space, which on a farm is like running a train line through an interstate median- there’s plenty of space that can easily park an RV.
We have done similar farm stays in places like Costa Rica and Italy (where the term agriturismo is used for farms and ranches that host overnight visitors) and it’s nice to see this idea spreading to the U.S. with a particularly American twist of catering to RV travelers.
(By the way, if you’re an RVer and want to try Harvest Hosts, you can click here to use my discount code for 15% off your membership.)
These are some little ideas that have come to me after a week on the road, but I would love to hear where this topic leads you. What is something in your life that you enjoy because it does two things decently, even if it doesn’t really do one thing well? Leave a comment below or send me an email- I would love to hear from you!
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