Monday, December 15, 2014

JOURNEY TO NOWHERE


The other day I was strolling through a local shopping center when I noticed a colorfully ragtag quartet of young travelers camped out in the little plaza outside a chain coffee store. They were presumably hitchhiking across the country, their entourage complete with two friendly mutts and a couple of beat up guitars.  The whole bunch was in high spirits, although judging by their looks, they’d been on the road for a long, long time. 

 Coming a long way, but for what?
At first I was reminded of my own teenage travel adventures, when my friends and I had cheerfully slept on sidewalks or railway station floors, immune to the disapproving frowns of the locals.

But then I began to wonder how similar our experiences really were. The plaza these travelers occupied so happily was ringed by one-hundred-percent corporate chain outlets, from the ubiquitous coffee bar, to the familiar purveyor of ersatz tacos, to the giant home-improvement outlet, with its inevitable parade of customers driving off with screen doors tied to their roofs. 

It was a place at once utterly familiar and utterly forgettable, without a single feature unique to this particular corner of America. Nowadays, there’s nothing unusual about these kinds of ultra-generic locations--in fact, they’re becoming almost inescapable. Hence, what these kids were experiencing--the simple exhilaration of travel notwithstanding--would have been pretty much the same whether they’d been in Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon, in Lansing or Laredo. Here they were, gloriously free and ready to take in the United States, yet for much of the time the places they went all looked the same.

Could be anywhere. Is it your town?
Don’t get me wrong. America is a land of incomparable natural contrasts--of mountain, desert and prairie, of oceans of water and oceans of wheat. Mother Nature has blessed us with plenty to see and this, one hopes, will never change. Yet the places where we actually spend most of our time--the erstwhile charismatic cities, the formerly charming whistle-stop towns, and the increasingly vast stretches of bland, lookalike suburbs in between--have less and less to distinguish them as the years pass. Our nation’s once culturally distinct landscapes are slowly congealing into a homogenized, study group-induced, corporate marketer’s idea of nirvana, in which one business plan conveniently fits all because every crossroads is interchangeable. Only the backlit plastic signs need their logos swapped now and then.

Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon? Bet you
can't tell me.
History is cyclical, of course, and it may be that the insidious spread of global megabusiness is just a phase that will grow and then wither--and along with it, the bland, calculated, one-size-fits-all corporatization of America and the rest of the globe. Still, given today’s frenetic electronic linkage of everything and everyone--and the apparent glee with which young people experience it--we might just as likely be on a one-way trip to Blandville. 

 As I watched those four scruffy kids in the bloom of youth, strumming on their beat up guitars, I felt a little sorry for them. They were traveling America, all right, but they were always ending up in the same place.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A DOOR DICTIONARY

Dutch door in a classic Hugh Comstock-
designed cottage in Carmel, California
A door seems like a simple enough thing. Yet visit your local door showroom, and you may think the salesperson is speaking a foreign language. In a way, he is: it’s the arcane terminology of doors. 

Most of us are familiar with that old residential standby, the hinged door. But other doors have less obvious names. The ones that slide into a hollow space in the wall are called pocket doors (not, as you might think, sliding doors). Paired doors that slide past each other--often used for closets--aren’t called sliding doors either; they’re called bypassing doors. As a matter of fact, the only sliding door that’s actually called a sliding door is the glass kind that leads out to your patio.

Each individual door is called a leaf. Hence double doors are said to have two leaves; with the one that’s usually opened being called the active leaf. Those narrow pairs of doors that are hinged together in the middle--also common for closets--are called bifold doors. Doors that are split in half horizontally are called Dutch doors. Doors that swing in two directions are called double acting doors. 

Doors with glass in them, which most of us call French doors, are more properly called glazed doors. Each pane in a glazed door is called a lite, and the wooden bars dividing the lites are called muntins. Hence, the typical glazed door having one vertical muntin and four horizontal ones is called a ten-lite door.

The doorknob is the part you see;
the lockset is the part that does
the work.
Broadly speaking, there are two styles of doors. The first, known as panel doors, were common from pre-Victorian times through the Depression, and were built of solid lumber enclosing varying numbers of recessed wo
oden panels. Designs ranged from six panels in Colonial-era homes to four in Victorian ones to a single large panel in homes of the inter war era. Panel doors made a big comeback in the 1980s, though most are now just one-piece moldings made to miimic the real thing.

Go on, get your butts out of here.
Modernist-era homes such as California Ranchers, on the other hand, typically had doors with completely plain, flat surfaces. These are known as flush doors, and they can further be classed as hollow core or solid core, the latter being more durable and also more expensive.

Door hardware has its own arcane terminology. What most of us just call a doorknob is properly referred to as a lockset (the knob is just the visible part that turns). The direction a door opens is said to determines the “hand” of the lock: a door that’s hinged on the right and swings away from you, for example, is said to have a right hand lock. 

As for what you and I call hinges, door professionals rather inelegantly refer to them as “butts”. To make things more confusing, butts are counted by pairs, not by the piece. Hence, a door with a hinge at the top and bottom is said to have a pair of butts, while a heavier door that requires three hinges is said to have one and a half pairs of butts. 

Listen, I  just pass this stuff along--I don’t make it up.


Monday, December 1, 2014

NIGHTMARE ON PALM STREET

A while back, driving through an old and well-to-do suburb of San Francisco, I came upon a charming street flanked by swaying palm trees and lined with classic Craftsman bungalows. Practically all of them had stout columns of river rock, massive beamed porches, and lovely leaded glass windows--in short, all the attributes today’s bungalow connoisseurs covet.

Classic bungalow in Alameda, California, circa 1911.
There was just one problem: Although the original architecture of those homes had been remarkably consistent, at least half of the them had been badly mauled by inept modernizations or ham-handed expansions that had taken place in earlier years--erstwhile ”improvements” that in the long run destroyed their architectural value.


By far the most common transgression was the replacement of the original wooden windows with clumsy, glaring white vinyl windows ones. These windows are today’s equivalent of the cheap aluminum sliders that defaced so many fine old Victorians during the postwar era. Regardless of what vinyl window sellers may claim, and regardless of what kind of “historical” muntin patterns they may offer, these windows are not suitable for installation in any vintage home style--least of all the emphatically woodsy bungalow. 

Another great bungalow, this one with not-so-classic
vinyl replacement windows.
But a nasty outbreak of tacky windows wasn’t all that had gone wrong on this erstwhile remarkable little street. Some homeowners had apparently found their premises a little too cramped and, lacking enough property to add to the back of their homes, instead built enormous, looming second story additions that were the visual equivalent of a jackboot stomping on Bambi.

Other less egregious but equally irreversible damage was done by owners who, in an apparent attempt to keep up with some color fad or other, had painted over their bungalows’ natural river rock on columns and chimneys.

The sad thing about these various desecrations is that they were all unnecessary. Old wood windows, for example, can generally be repaired for less money than it costs to install second-rate vinyl replacements. Moreover, the energy savings gleaned by switching to double glazing--the motivation for many replacement projects using vinyl windows--is trivial compared to the same investment made in a more efficient furnace or higher insulation levels.

A bungalow addition gets off to a bad start.
Note the overpowering mass, uncharacteristic hip roof,
 and the means of extending the chimney.
Additions, even on a tight site, needn’t detract from a home’s architecture. Even second story additions can be designed to minimize their visual presence, with detailing that blends in with the original architecture rather than clashing with it.

Neither should the foregoing suggest that it takes a big budget to thoroughly wreck a vintage house--all it really takes is one trendoid fool with a paint brush. While painting a house solely in to keep up with color trends is merely a waste of time and money, painting over natural stone or brick for the same purpose is self-inflicted sabotage. The damage is, for practical purposes, irreversible, and the punishment is inevitably meted out when it comes time to sell.

Take that lovely little palm-lined street, for example. The very owners who refrained from “modernizing” are the ones whose homes will be valued most highly at sale time. The ones who made inadvisable and half-baked “improvements” end up the losers.

Monday, November 24, 2014

THE TRAFFICKERS: Part Three of Three Parts

In the last two columns, we looked at the runaway proliferation of traffic signals in American communities large and small--even though, contrary to myth, their installation can actually slow down traffic flow and increase accidents. We also discovered that enlightened traffic departments often find simpler means of traffic control superior to signals.

Ironically, these simple means have been around for almost a century, but they’ve been continually displaced by all the fancy hardware so profitable to signal manufacturers. Under relentless lobbying from these companies, orthodox traffic engineers have been taught to reach for complex solutions even when simple ones work better. 

The humble stop sign: It costs about one-tenth
of the usual monstrous array of traffic signals.
and is safer to boot.
One of these simpler, better, cheaper solutions is two-way stop control, or TWSC. If the method sounds obscure, the means isn’t: It’s your basic old stop sign. With TWSC, the main road doesn’t stop, while the side streets always do. Pedestrians have an actual rather than just a nominal right of way, since they don’t have to wait around until vehicle cross traffic gets a red light. Before traffic signals became the holy grail of traffic engineering, many communities used to get by perfectly well with this system. 

Reintroducing TWSC would obviate countless complicated signal arrays installed at intersections with minimal cross traffic. Although this notion might strike terror into huge signal manufacturers such as Siemens, even the Transportation Engineering Institute concedes that TWSC “can accommodate low traffic volumes with much less delay than traffic signals.”

Moreover, when traffic is too heavy for TWSC, there’s still a simpler solution than planting yet more signals. This one, too, is familiar--all-way stop control, or AWSC. It’s the standard fallback arrangement when traffic signals break down: Temporary stop signs are placed on each corner of the intersection. Now, if you’ve ever noticed that traffic seems to flow more smoothly when the signals are broken than when they’re working, it’s not your imagination--the Transportation Engineering Institute confirms that “AWSC treats the cross street movements more favorably, without the wasted time associated with traffic signals.” 

Implementing TWSC or AWSC is cheaper by several magnitudes than installing a traffic signal, which nowadays costs between $80,000-$100,000 or more depending on bells and whistles such as crosswalk signals and the like. Add to this the perpetual expense of maintenance and the cost of electricity to power signals 24 hours a day, and you’re talking about a serious drain on taxpayer dollars. 

A lovely traffic roundabout near my home in
Berkeley, California, which very neatly handles
an intersection of six busy streets.
Considering what we’ve heard in the past three columns--and not from critics, but from traffic departments themselves--there’s little doubt that, in many situations, stop signs are simpler, cheaper, safer, and more efficient than traffic signals. And we haven’t even touched upon other viable traffic control options such as roundabouts, or even--dare I say it?--the shocking possibility of occasionally having no controls at all. 

So much for the myths that keep us in thrall to signaldom. Given that America is already overrun with countless unnecessary signals, it’s reasonable to ask who really benefits from their continuing proliferation. Too often the answer is: Not you.

Monday, November 17, 2014

THE TRAFFICKERS Part Two of Three Parts

Last time we looked at why so many American traffic engineers continue to install vast and expensive signal arrays on virtually every urban intersection, even those that are small and insignificant, and even though most of these signals work poorly at best. It’s a pointless and wasteful practice, and doubly so in this era of tight civic budgets. But don’t take my word for it--ask the exceptionally clear-headed traffic department in Arlington, Virginia:

Thanks, traffic engineers.
“Installed under inappropriate conditions, a traffic signal is ineffective, inefficient, and a potential danger to motorists and pedestrians. Signals that are installed when no legitimate need exists often generate an increase in vehicle stops, traffic delays, fuel consumption, traffic accidents, and motorist disrespect for other traffic signals.” 

On its web site, the Arizona Department of Transportation puts it even more bluntly:

“Traffic signals should be used only where lesser forms of control have proven ineffective, since signals almost always create more ‘overall intersection delay.’ 

If this awkward fact is apparent even to many traffic engineers, why do so many cities relentlessly continue to install more, bigger, and costlier traffic signals, often in locations that see barely a trickle of traffic? 

Traffic engineers claim that they install signals to satisfy public demand, but common sense would tell you that most users of public roads--pedestrians included--are far from anxious to see even more signals impeding their movement. The noisy few who do clamor for more signals--usually under the banner of greater safety--are in for a surprise. Contrary to standard dogma, intersections with signals are generally no safer than those without, and in fact may even be more dangerous. Again, the Arizona DOT: 

Graph comparing traffic fatalities at intersections with
a) traffic signals, b) signage, and (c) no controls at all.
Purple represents urban areas, maroon rural ones.
Compare traffic fatalities for signalized intersections
(first column) versus no controls at all (last column).
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, 2007.
“While many people realize that traffic signals can reduce the number of angle collisions at an intersection, few realize that signals can also cause an increase in other types of accidents (it has been well documented that other types of accidents, notably rear-end collisions, usually increase when a signal is installed)...When there is no angle accident problem at an intersection...the installation of traffic signals can actually cause a deterioration in the overall safety at the intersection.” 
Furthermore, Arizona’s DOT states:

“Because of the widespread (public) belief that traffic signals offer the solution to all intersection traffic control and accident problems, a number of signals have been installed nationwide where no legitimate operational warrant exists. Traffic records clearly show the attitudes and misunderstandings which sometimes lead to unjustified installations should be resisted.”

Yet not all traffic departments are so enlightened. Many are too deeply invested in all that complex and expensive signal hardware to offer simpler solutions even when they exist. For their part, signal manufacturers want to sell more of their product, not less, and they put considerable effort into convincing traffic engineers that more is always better. These two forces along will guarantee that redundant signal installations will continue unless the public demands simpler, cheaper, and more effective solutions. 

 Next time, we’ll look at a few such options--including replacing signals with nothing at all.

Monday, November 10, 2014

THE TRAFFICKERS Part One of Three Parts


You’re approaching an intersection late at night, and you’re the only car on the road for a half mile around. What happens? The traffic light turns red just before you get there, because the purportedly “sophisticated” traffic control system is too dumb to sense what is obvious to the eye: No one is coming the other way.  The signal blindly shuttles through its motions no matter what the external situation. So you sit idling in the empty intersection, your engine wasting gasoline and spewing exhaust, while the green lights glow magnanimously toward cross traffic that isn’t there.

It's one AM, there's not a car
within ten blocks, and this is the signal
you're given at the intersection.
Think about this for a moment: If computers, cars, or coffee makers worked as poorly as America’s traffic signals do, their makers would promptly be laughed off the market. Not so with traffic signals. Despite being quite probably the most inept mechanisms in common use today, signals continue to proliferate, thanks to the many traffic engineers who accept abysmal performance as the norm.

Mind you, your taxes have paid for those signals just as surely as you’ve paid for your car or your computer. What you’re getting for this investment--typically on the order of $80,000-$100,000 or more per intersection, depending on the bells and whistles, is a level of technology that barely qualifies as twentieth century, let alone twenty-first.

But don’t take my word for it. Even so gentle a critic as the Institute of Transportation Engineers--hardly opponents of signaldom--concedes:

“There are about 300,000 traffic signals in the United States alone and over 75% of them could be improved by updating equipment or adjusting the timing.” 

This admission is a marvel of understatement, but it certainly accounts for the signal in my late-night example. That just leaves those other 225,000 poorly functioning signals across the nation, many of them no doubt in your town.
Look familiar?
This is a traffic signal in Washington, DC in 1926.
Almost a century later, traffic signals still use
essentially the same technology this one did.
The fact that traffic signals need improvement has been obvious for almost a century now, yet in all that time practically nothing of consequence has been done about it. America’s first traffic signal was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914; it used the illuminated words “STOP” and “MOVE”.  Around 1920,  a Detroit policeman named William Potts came up with the familiar red/yellow/green signal.  Since that time, there’s been no fundamental improvement in the way signals work--only more of them to contend with.  

Actually, the very earliest signals probably worked better than most modern ones--they were operated by a man  in a sort of elevated phone booth overlooking the intersection.  He decided who came and went based on the traffic flow from moment to moment--something modern, so-called automated signals still seem utterly incapable of pulling off. Despite the wonders that computers have wrought all around us, and even though coordinating traffic flow would seem the perfect task for a computer, this aim has apparently flummoxed the traffic signal industry. Their products remain nearly as dumb as ever.

But the real point is not that traffic signals need improvement--we’ve known that for nearly a century. Rather, we should take a closer look at what exactly signals do for us, and whether we need so many of them in the first place. We’ll do just that next time, and the answers might surprise you.




Tuesday, November 4, 2014

YESTERDAY’S FUTURE

 Guessing the future has probably occupied people since the beginning of time. Yet, ponder as we might, reality seldom turns out very close to our predictions. Some things change much more slowly than expected, while others change in ways we couldn’t have imagined. 

Some of our fancied futures are bright, some are not. In his cautionary tale “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, George Orwell, writing from the vantage point of 1948, speculated on a sinister time in which hapless citizens were under the complete control of an omniscient government. What a relief, then, that the most notable thing 1984 actually brought was the Macintosh computer. 

On the other hand, director Stanley Kubrick’s then-disquieting film “2001: A Space Odyssey” turned out to be a good deal less frightening than the real year did. In Kubrick’s 2001, after all, the most menacing thing was a smartass computer.

Disneyland's House of the Future:
It was Monsanto's dream, but not
necessarily anyone else's
The late 1960s television documentary, “The 21st Century,” foresaw people flitting around in personal jet packs, among other things. Alas, here in the actual 21st century, most of us still get around in beat up Toyotas. 

As for architecture, one of the most memorable conjectures about things to come was the House of the Future, constructed at Disneyland in 1957. Jointly designed by the chemical giant Monsanto, MIT, and Disney, the reinforced-polyester structure was meant to demonstrate how Americans might live in the distant year 1986. Its major talking point: The house consisted of 99.97% artificial materials, including plastic windows. plastic dishes, and plastic clothes in the closet. 

As usual, there were many nonstarters in its predicted roster of gee-whiz features. The kitchen, for example, boasted an ultrasonic dishwasher, along with “atomic food preservation”, whose purpose I dare not imagine. Yet many of the home’s innovations now sound familiar: hands-free, push button telephones with automatic dialing, sprayed urethane foam insulation, nylon carpeting, and foam-cushioned flooring, all of which have come to pass in one form or another. 

Moreover, two of its predictions were spot on: the then-unheard of microwave oven in its kitchen, and the giant-sized television/movie screen that dominated its living room.

In general, though--no doubt to Monsanto’s chagrin--the home’s 100 percent-synthetic theme turned out to be far off the mark for the world of 1986. Indeed, even by the mid-Sixties, the idea of an all-plastic house was already looking a wee bit tawdry, This was, after all, the era of Hippiedom and the nascent ecology movement. Saddled with this increasingly doubtful vision of the future, Disney closed the attraction and razed the house in 1967.
The Innoventions Dream Home:
Maybe 1957 wasn't so bad after all.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2008, Disneyland unveiled an updated take on its House of the Future, known as the Innoventions Dream Home. This time, it was sponsored by Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, LifeWare and the home builder Taylor Morrison. Ironically described as having “a more modern and accessible interior”, it's perhaps more accurate to say that this concept of tomorrow looked like a casino’s version of yesterday, but with electronic gimmicks. As the Associated Press put it:

“The 5,000-square-foot home...will look like a suburban tract home outside. But inside it will feature hardware, software and touch-screen systems that could simplify everyday living.”

A 5,000 square foot suburban tract home? Systems that “could” simplify living? I think I liked the old future better.