Rest areas quietly give millions road respite
I love vestiges of early automotive history, from museum-piece wooden travel-trailers to vintage paper road-maps. They’ve been largely replaced by aluminum and GPS, but one innovation launched by the pioneers of car travel still has relevance today: the rest area.
Clocking a couple of 600-mile days recently made me even more grateful for these highway-side oases. The convenience of being able to stop for a breath of fresh air, a splash of cool water or to trot some energy off the chihuahuas — without having to dodge through fast-food and gas-station parking areas — was really welcome, as were the picnic benches, shade trees and clean restrooms at most of the plazas we used.
Publicly funded and maintained rest areas are perennially under pressure. Commercial interests would rather you take breaks at gas-and-grub centers, while budget-conscious lawmakers see easy cash pickings in shuttering these quiet public sites. Michigan is among states whose rest-area counts are down in recent years, and even bigger cuts are afoot elsewhere: A recent report by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts says the state of Connecticut, for example, may ax all of its highway stops.
What a mistake that would be. Taking a break at an oil-stained, concrete-paved truck center or crowded restaurant parking lot is more cumbersome, gobbles more precious minutes and is far less relaxing than wheeling directly down an exit ramp to a spacious, green and breezy space with room to stretch, benches under trees and plentiful plumbing.
How can rest areas be “obsolete” when 40 million visitors a year chose them in Michigan alone? In fact, nine of the state’s 70-plus rest areas garner more than a million annual visits apiece, said Lynn Lynwood, roadside development program manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation.
It’s no surprise that the mitten has one of the earliest and largest rest stop systems in the country. Indeed, the website RestAreaHistory.org, which chronicles the history, design and preservation status of such sites, credits a Michiganian with establishing the country’s first rest area near the then-village of Saranac in 1929.
As the nation’s superhighways were established in the 1950s and beyond, public support for what was then termed “safety rest areas” was strong, and while rustic sites remained, many ’60s- and ’70s-era plazas featured regional architecture and other flourishes.
Today, it’s a struggle to maintain funding for operations let alone fancy capital improvements, Lynwood said. Although, she notes, not all closures are due to budget constraints; some of the sites shuttered in Michigan in recent years were underused or redundant due to higher highway speeds.
Optimum spacing of rest areas is considered to be about an hour apart, she said, and with legal highway speeds rising from 55 mph in the 1970s to 70 mph and upward, motorists cover more ground in an hour. Also, she noted, as more interchanges are developed and more commercial options are available, motorists are less likely to encounter long stretches without any possibility of a break.
Beyond convenience, “rest areas are still an important safety factor of the highway system,” Lynwood said, citing studies that show lower rates of fatigue-related vehicle crashes in the vicinity of rest areas.
The state’s past surveys yield some intriguing data: Rest area users tend to skew a bit older; the younger set gravitates to truck stops. People surveyed said public rest area visits are worth about $2 to them in monetary terms, with most stopping to use the toilet facilities, followed by walking/stretching, vehicle checks and vending machine use. Those seeking relief for the dog were about as likely to choose a rest area as a truck stop, while drivers seeking a nap were (oddly) somewhat more likely to use the latter.
I’d say a sojourn at a breezy green space complete with cleaned-daily indoor plumbing is worth more than $2. (Indeed, janitorial contracts call for hourly checks of the washrooms by the maintenance folks.) Lynwood said attempts have been made to interest corporate financial sponsors in adopting some of the state’s highway rest areas, with little result.
Grass-roots adoption efforts are welcome, too. For example, Lynwood said, a partnership with master gardeners has created pit stops for pollinators in Genesee County. In several rest areas along I-75, U.S. 23 and I-69, volunteers maintain bee- and bird-friendly gardens with native plants and provide educational information to visitors.
“MDOT provides the seeds and plants, and the volunteers provide the labor and expertise,” said Lynwood, who is open to more such partnerships with garden clubs, master gardeners and businesses. Google “MDOT Adopt-a-Landscape” for details.
More on Michigan’s rest areas, including a map, can be found at Michigan.gov/MDOT. If you’re venturing afar, a no-frills rest area locator — including which side of the highway the stop is on — is available for free at Interstaterestareas.com.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com.