Tuesday, June 21, 2011

MONTAGE: Curbing destruction by rethreading the button.

I'm back from a lengthy time away from Afghanistan and have been trying to plug away at another blog article that incorporates infrastructure from several different countries, as well as the implications on American energy efficiency. But, as is often the case, a shortage of good, specific photos has become my Achilles' heel. I will acquire the remaining photos that I need before too long, and that article is already more than halfway complete, but until then I offer a novelty for my blog: a montage in which I didn't take a single one of the many photographs. I must give heaps of credit to Nici English for providing me not only with the pics—taken hastily from her car through the driver's window, just as I would do—but also with the background information on a subtle but interesting subject: curb jumping.

Notice anything? I probably wouldn't have either. But our star photographer understands the trucking industry firsthand and can clearly spot what I would have completely ignored.

More than one vehicle has attempted to negotiate the turn into this Cracker Barrel outside Caseyville, Illinois, but it would take a heck of a heavy car—and a painfully inept driver—to cause the sort of skimming of the edge of the concrete that you see here. But for a trucker, it's much more understandable. The weight they support and the extensive spatial judgment that they require will inevitably result in some slip-ups. The truck parking in the background of the above photos indicates that the area consciously accommodates truckers; no doubt the property owner also expected the sharp turns would pose problems for some in the industry and paved a curb in order to minimize landscaping damage—which, in turn, results in a damaged curb.

Most corner-cutting and curbside damage comes from a single culprit: the inexperienced trucker, negotiating a space that is simply too small. Understandably, a trucker's ability to handle such a lengthy vehicle only grows through time and experience; more surprisingly, the vast majority of truckers do not last six months in the industry after an initial training. According to English, my online expert, even among the largest trucking companies (Swift, JB Hunt), it would be reasonable to assume that 50% of the drivers have less than half of a year of experience. The result? Lots of scratched curbs, stripped corners, and shredded landscaping.

Many property owners in high truck traffic areas have learned to anticipate these vehicular assaults on their pavement, grass, and landscaping; they have devised a sort of defense. Not surprisingly, a Motel 6, also in the Caseyville area, obviously has to contend with curb jumpers quite a bit.

Large rocks planted at the corner serve the same purpose that they do in residential neighborhoods—to deter motorists who make that turn carelessly. In some cases, these boulders do more than just preserve landscaping aesthetics; they save a valuable piece of infrastructure, such as the fire hydrant below.

The above photo shows the Motel 6 from a different angle—one with a visible drop yard for trailers in the background, which explains the need for such extensive fortification. On the other side of the street, the property owner has chosen a more aggressive—and, in my opinion, uglier—barrier for curb jumpers. They look like overturned bollards, and they seem to be safeguarding what is likely a fragile little wetland.

Not surprisingly, these rocks are particularly prominent at motels along highways that would prove popular destinations for truckers. Here's an installation near Grenada, Mississippi, where the more prominent positioning of the rocks suggests that they are not there just to deter curb-jumping but to alert truckers of a tight corner—which, I'll admit, pretty much amounts to the same thing semantically.

The absence of barriers can often prove more harmful than merely tearing up a patch of grass. A particularly clumsy trucker clocked this light post outside a Caseyville hotel while trying to turn a corner.

Viewed from a different angle, it is clear many other drivers scoured the grass along the curb before one took it an increment further.

Understandably, state and local governments have not improved every road in these often rural environments to the degree that it has a curb. The absence of one would make it difficult if not impossible for a trucker to notice when he or she has turned too sharply.

The example below, again from Caseyville, shows what appears to me like a more serious accident waiting to happen: a curbless street near a trailer drop yard, in which the drivers skimming over into the verge can come within a hair's breadth of clipping that thick yellow cable.

The cable could be stabilizing a number of tall objects—a power line among them. Bollards or rocks placed right along this curve would be a cheaper and most likely more effective solution than building a curb: the introduction of an unexpected obstacle is far more likely to attract attention than a continuous curb that a trucker could cross complacently.

Putting the alliteration aside (in a minute), the trucking technique that tries to terminate the tendency for curb jumping is known as button hooking. We've all seen it on the back of trailers: “Caution—this vehicle makes wide right turns.” The blog entry on Hub Pages by Omniscient Nomad illustrates this effectively:

As Omniscient Nomad explains, in Figure A, the driver did not allow himself or herself sufficient time and space to prepare for the right hand turn. In these instances, the fishtailing trailer may cross into three (if not all four) lanes in an intersection of two-way streets, forcing other drivers to back up to give enough room. Figure B shows a correct button hook, minimizing the likelihood of curbing or concurrent calamity by colliding with cars nearby.

The trucking industry may seem like it owns the road, but, as all of us have seen (even if we don't always notice) trucks are generally subject to many higher restrictions than conventional automobiles, whether it be through weigh stations, restricted tunnels, lower speed limits, or just outright prohibitions, such as this mildly ironic sign near Durant, Mississippi.

The owner of the gas station has determined the space is too constrained to allow for trucks—but not for livestock trailers, which are approximately half the length of a conventional 53-foot commercial trailer.

And another bit of near irony with trucks and signage rests outside Osceola, Arkansas:

Alas, it was a storm and not a curb jumper that took this one down. How do we know? The landscaping below it, while unkempt, is hardly mangled. Trucks are not exactly the most benign presence on America's roadways, but they would likely prove a lot more threatening if they could ascend, accelerate, maneuver, or halt with the same freedom and abandon as virtually every smaller vehicle can do. Rocks, curbs, and bollards are a modest remedy to a curbing problem that is equally modest, especially in light of trucks' capacity for both destruction and amazing productivity across American roadways. The gestures of trucks are big, so it is apt that something so comparatively simple could be explained metaphorically through a mere button.


Chris Barnett said...

A key part of your post: these examples are in highway-oriented places. Many such places feature wide lanes and large-radius entries, as well as the "rolled" style curb (as opposed to the urban angled curb).

The problem can be worse in urban areas that trucks (particularly semis) must traverse.

There's currently an example at 16th & Meridian Streets in Indianapolis. A traffic-signal control box on the SW corner, which is at least 6-8 feet back from the curbs, has been whacked by a turning truck and sits mangled.

The intersection in question has more lanes than your "buttonhook" illustration: it's 5x5, with two through lanes each way on each street and center left-turn boxes all four ways.

Yet in the busy urban traffic at the midtown/downtown edge, it's nearly impossible for the trucker to perform the necessary maneuver in less than two light-changes. S/he simply must cross a couple of lane-markers and can't typically rely on other drivers to yield.

Thus I am not entirely convinced that the whole issue in this case is "inexperienced driver". Impatient, maybe.

It would be even more difficult for truckers and destructive of nearby infrastructure (and non-observant pedestrians) if the pavement width were 5 feet narrower (1 foot per lane, as is typical of "road diet" schemes).

Clearly we can't get rid of trucks, so accommodations must be made somehow.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for writing, Chris--nice to hear from you.

Admittedly, these photos are biased toward rural environments that are, as you say, "highway-oriented". I have no doubt that being in an urban, high-traffic area only compounds the problem. What's interesting is that even in the trucker-friendly settings featured in these photos, private landowners have still found it necessary to place some sort of bollard or inhibitor to keep truckers from jumping the curb and mangling landscaping, signs, or streetlights.

The urban intersection may face a more wicked problem: accommodating the occasional big-rig (because they ARE less frequent than they would be at a Cracker Barrel or a truck stop) while keeping turn radii tight enough not to encourage speeding right turns from conventional vehicles. I think we've all encountered a situation where a trucker doesn't perform the buttonhook correctly and we have to reverse our cars gingerly. What you seem to be indicating is that other vehicles have to yield at 16th and Meridian even when the truck driver IS buttonhooking correctly. A road diet at this intersection would only exacerbate the problem.

The ex-trucker that I interviewed for this blog post would still argue that there is no excuse for a skilled driver to take out a utility pole/box. I suspect an impatient trucker is more likely to be inexperienced, while the skilled ones will know that they HAVE to take the time to maneuver correctly in order not to destroy the streetscape at the corner or to damage their trailer. Now...what to do when the issue is that the surrounding drivers are the impatient ones? Definitely need accommodations at that point. I can't help but wonder if it might be wise to devise a traffic rule of yielding to turning trucks in the same way motorists must yield to emergency vehicles with sirens.

I appreciate you adding complexity to a problem which I thought might seem relatively straightforward. Thanks.

Chris Barnett said...

Point taken. I agree: many public and private property managers take steps to passively prevent property damage by truckers. In urban settings, they tend to be upright bollards, concrete-filled corner posts, and the like.

It's a tough issue. I am one who does advocate for narrower lanes and shorter corner radii in the city. But I also advocate for urban neighborhoods to have groceries, hardware stores, and pharmacies...which are generally served by semi-trailers making deliveries.

At that same corner (16th and Meridian), there is a back-in loading dock integrated with the CVS store facade on the SE corner. It requires a far more complicated maneuver than a buttonhook by the driver!

Thus far, the drivers have not destroyed anything around the back-in entry, which is very narrow and has a building corner, dumpster enclosures and tree-lawn nearby. Skill and experience no doubt play a part.

AmericanDirt said...

Interesting point made about the CVS at 16th and Meridian. I don't know it that well, but if I recall (you can correct me), it is one of two drugstores in that area--one of which adhered more to the community's wishes of a pedestrian orientation with minimal setbacks and a generally "urban" massing. The other didn't.

It would be compelling to know which drugstore is more easily accessed by semi-trailers. My suspicion is the more suburban designed one poses fewer problems. However, concessions in the design that allow for both pedestrian friendliness and large vehicle circumnavigation at a B or C LOS would be ideal.