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Learning the Culture of Interstate Safety Rest Areas
by Joanna Dowling


Part III:  Are Rest Areas Obsolete?


With so much discussion in the news surrounding the closing of rest areas on an unprecedented scale throughout the country, the question must be asked, are rest areas obsolete?  Can we, in the name of cost cutting, really afford to loose these still functioning relics of the mid-century?  


At the end of July the state of Virginia closed 18 of its 42 rest areas with a final welcome center to close at the end of the summer travel season.  The closures were part of cost cutting measures designed to mitigate a $2.6 billion state budget shortfall.  One of the primary arguments made by Virginia state officials was that with so much business now located along Interstate Highways providing places for people to stop, rest areas no longer play the essential role for motorists that they once did. 


This is an argument worth dissection.  In the most basic of terms it has some truth.  Safety rest areas were installed on newly constructed segments of Interstate Highway during the mid-century to provide places for people to stop from long and monotonous miles of travel on new high speed roadways.  Because Interstates bypassed existing rural towns, eliminating ready access roadside services, rest areas were essential, providing a restroom, a place to stretch ones legs, acquire regional information and eat a picnic lunch, all with the overriding objective of making the highways safer. 


During the ensuing decades commercial businesses developed along the Intestate system.  The Interstate motorist now has an array of options for leaving the roadway, all of which bare an uncanny resemblance from one exit to the next across the country.  It is here that it becomes questionable as to whether interchange business can truly fill the function of safety rest areas. 


While some rest areas are seen as nondescript, they actually represent the subtle and sometimes not so subtle uniqueness of a local region.  Be it through architecture, landscape planning or the natural characteristics of a site on which a rest area is located, rest areas connect travelers to local places in a way that fast food restaurants, gas stations and truck stops cannot.  Interchange business, while also important to highway motorists, has become a homogenous collection of uniform structures that one encounters without significant variation in almost every part of the country.  Rest areas were and are designed to be unique and to provide a window into local regions as motorists pass through them.  While it must be admitted that rest areas posses varying levels of scenic beauty, by the nature of their spacing each one posses a unique sensibility derived from its location. 


Connection to place is not an intangible thing, but a function that provides concrete benefits.  The next time you travel stop at both an interchange complex and a rest area and notice the differences between them.  Take the time to really notice your surroundings.  Take note of traffic patterns and how you must navigate them, of how people hurry in and out, or take their time, notice if you hurry or take your time.  Can you walk, sit, do you see any trees, flowers, grass, is there a place for your dog to relieve itself, can your children run, do you feel safe?  Do you feel like a safer driver when you return to the wheel of your car?  Notice the amenities provided for you in a rest area that are not equally available at an interchange complex; picnic tables in a shaded area, barbeque grills, walking paths located away from traffic, perhaps winding through a natural setting, indigenous landscaping, historical and or regional information about the region you are traveling through, travel information indicating local points of interest, free wireless internet, updated road and weather conditions. 


The loss of rest areas is placing an increased burden on interchange complexes that were developed to serve a commercial function, not a public one.  Is it the responsibility of a commercial enterprise to provide public restrooms, parking lots, and pet exercise areas?  Perhaps with greater impact these closures burden the traveling public, as motorists and truckers have to renegotiate how they will travel and where and when they will stop while traveling.   



Part II: A Brief History


Part two is going to be a brief history lesson, as history always provides an important context for understanding significance.  The National Safety Rest Area Program, a program from which the welcome center system would eventually emerge, was included in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the legislation that initially funded and in effect created the Interstate Highway System.  However, the origins of the SRA system reach to the late 1920s and are connected to the initial era of road building in this country. 


The early twentieth century saw road building progress at a rapid pace.  Spurred first by the widespread popularity of the bicycle and soon after by the proliferation of the automobile.  As better roads allowed motorists to travel increased distances it became apparent that stopping while in route would become an essential aspect of the road travel experience.  The model of place that led to the establishment of waysides and roadside parks was initiated by the traveling public.  Motorists simply stopped when they needed or wanted to.  Conjured by the same motivations that cause us to stop while traveling today; early motorists would pull off and park along the roadside.  From this activity emerged an entirely new field of service facility.  Much of the conceptual basis for rest area sites originated here as well; the practice of locating sites in scenic areas, as highway officials observed that motorists often stopped in scenic regions to take-in the landscape; and more basic features, such as providing picnic tables, barbeque grills and walking paths. 


There is some dispute as to where the first established roadside park appeared; claims have been made as to both Connecticut and Michigan.  Some documentation indicates that Connecticut established its first site in 1928; more solid evidence, however, points to Michigan and a site established in 1920.  The account of Michigan’s first site reveals the nature of the early roadside dynamic. 


The following excerpt is taken from an article printed in American Road Builder, 1957.


In the late 1920s, a young county engineer in Michigan, Allen Williams, engineer-manager of the Ionia County Road Commission, saw a family trying to eat a picnic lunch from a big tree stump alongside their parked automobile on one of the roads under county jurisdiction.  They had an appetizing snack spread out on a white cloth on the stump, but  they couldn’t really enjoy the food because they couldn’t sit around their makeshift table, and had to content themselves with standing around or sitting on rocks or bare ground to eat their food. 


In the days that followed, Mr. Williams saw this scene repeated with increasing frequency.  An outdoorsman himself, he decided that people should have better facilities for resting and refreshing themselves along the highways.  And he decided that he could do something about it.


During the winter months, when some of his snow-plowing crews were standing by at the county garage waiting for an expected storm, he put them to work knocking together picnic tables from odd lengths of 2x4 scrap lumber.  After the tables were constructed they were painted an attractive green.  The following spring Mr. Williams put his first roadside table out at a site along Route 16, 3 miles south of the village of Saranac.


It wasn’t long before the chief maintenance engineer of the Michigan State Highway Department began to receive letters from tourists complementing him and the department for their thoughtfulness in providing a clean and restful picnic spot and table.  Mr. Tiney looked into the matter and liked Mr. William’s idea.  The state highway department authorized the construction of more roadside tables and the establishment of additional picnic sites.


This manner of roadside park development was echoed throughout the country as road travel brought similar experiences to diverse sections of the American public.  The first federal support for roadside facilities appeared in 1938; while it funded sanitary comfort facilities it did not dictate developmental standardization.  The construction of sites known as roadside parks, rest stops and waysides became part of a greater movement of roadside development and beautification.  Briefly interrupted by World War II, progressive development continued after the War and by the mid 1950s American highways were lined by a well developed system of non-commercial roadside amenities constructed and maintained state highway departments.  By the time the Interstate Highway System was legislated in 1956 almost every state in the nation had a system of roadside parks, indeed hundreds of parks marked the roadside of state highways.  While they consisted of minimal facilities, their necessity had been proven by their prolific numbers and extensive use.      


As a result of the 1956 legislation safety rest areas were not only mandated as a feature of the Interstate system, but they were to be standardized in name and services.  In 1958 the first guidelines for standardization of SRAs was issued by the American Association of State Highway Officials, A Policy on Safety Rest Areas for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, defined SRAs in the following terms, “Rest areas are to be provided on Interstate highways as a safety measure.  Safety rest areas are off-road spaces with provisions for emergency stopping and resting by motorists for short periods.  They have freeway type entrances and exit connections, parking areas, benches and tables and may have toilets and water supply where proper maintenance and supervision are assured.  They may be designed for short-time picnic use in addition to parking of vehicles for short periods.” 


While the initial guidelines were spare, and called only for basic service amenities and site configurations; program development was quickly infected with the spirit of modernity, progress and creativity that was driving the construction of the Interstate System itself.  Rest areas, while initially thought to be only basic service facilities, were eventually designed in a manner that reflected both the spirit of progress and prominent architectural aesthetics of the period. 




Part I: Introduction

This piece is the first installment in a series that will look at the historical development, architectural design and current condition of our nation’s Interstate safety rest areas (SRAs), and welcome centers (WCs).  I have been researching and writing on this topic for several years, during that time I have learned at least one valuable lesson; that this subject matter is most effectively approached with some sense of light heartedness and humor.  While it is natural for me to become bogged down in the academic world of research and analysis, safety rest areas were not designed to serve this context.  They were designed to serve the call of the most basic human conditions; the need to rest, feed, inform and relive oneself.  Therefore, it is my aim to review both the academic and human aspects of these sites, as truly one cannot function without the other.  I encourage and request your feedback, comments, ideas, stories (funny and serious) and your thoughts about the value and faults of this system.  It is my hope that this series will develop into a kind of platform for discussion and reflection upon the current and historical significance of our National Safety Rest Area Program.  

As a historian I believe that the past teaches us and can guide us into the future.  The history of safety rest areas speaks to more than the story of their own development, but to the cultural climate of the era in which the program was developed.  Post World War II America was fervent with an attitude of progress and modernity.  The Interstate Highway System, conceived during the height of this fervor, is one of the strongest representations of the mid-century’s drive toward progress.  In its wake lay a lasting imprint on our vast countryside and on our way of life.  The Interstate Highway System forever transformed how Americans would travel and how we would live.  Our populations became decentralized as the Interstates became the life blood of suburban communities; leading people from city to suburb and from coast to coast, without having to leave the roadway except for basic services.

Safety rest areas were the sole service amenity designed into the system.  In addition to providing for essential human travel concerns, the National Safety Rest Area Program was used as a way of bringing place back into the Interstate System.  As the Interstates bypassed existing towns so did they circumvent the sense of local culture and tradition that was naturally encountered by Primary Highway travelers who were forced to pass down local main streets.  SRAs were designed with the local in mind.  Regional characteristics were incorporated through architecture, building materials, informational postings and historical markers to communicate the histories and cultures of given regions of the country.  

Today, safety rest areas are more than places to stop along the roadside; they have become a record of our twentieth century American travel experience.  They are a calling card of the family road trip, respite to the truck driver, nostalgic, sometimes revolting, quirky…even whimsical…symbols of our life on the road.

In the upcoming months we will explore different aspects of the program’s history.  Please do not hesitate to contact me with topic suggestions and questions.  I am also seeking to collect visual documentation, please send me your safety rest area and welcome center photos with captions.

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