It is a safe bet that most of the motorists who flood the region’s highways each morning find little amid the expanse of asphalt to inspire them. For most of us, highways are things to be endured, not enjoyed.
And then there are people like Brian Dowd.
Dowd, 25, of Bellefontaine Neighbors, fell in love with highways as a child in northwest Indiana, watching the roads unspool from the back seat of the family car. By the third grade, he had read the Indiana driver’s manual that his parents kept in the glove compartment, memorizing the part that explained how the interstate highways were numbered.
More recently, Dowd has found an outlet for his obsession on the Internet, where he is compiling an exit-by-exit guide to the region’s interstates on a Web site, complete with detailed notes and more than 500 photographs.
The World Wide Web is littered with literally hundreds of sites maintained by people who share Dowd’s passion. These self-avowed “road geeks” have made highways their hobby, one they approach with the same zeal and expertise that others bring to bird-watching or stamp collecting.
“A lot of people think it’s kind of strange,” Dowd, a software engineer, acknowledged. “I don’t know. There’s a culture for this just as there is a culture for other things, whether you like a certain pop star or a certain movie series, or whether you’re a Trekkie.”
Where most see a bland expanse of striped asphalt, Dowd sees beauty in a carefully ordered network of roads that winds through nearly every corner of the continental United States.
But he is also fixated on the nuts-and-bolts issues of highway signage and maintenance, and he tries not to let more than a week or so go by without snapping a few pictures of the interchange reconstruction project at Interstates 170 and 270. He posts them on his Web site so visitors can monitor its progress.
Meanwhile, Ben Prusia, 18, of Overland Park, Kan., finds a certain pathos in lonely stretches of decommissioned highways, such as the old U.S. Highway 66, that he has photographed for his Web site, kcroads.com/ShowMe/StLouis/index.html. And Kim Harvey, 23, of Roxana, has made a sport of spotting misprints and omissions on highway signs, and posting pictures of them at stlhighways.org.
Harvey’s site, perhaps the most comprehensive stop on the Internet for St. Louis-area road buffs, features a frequently updated roundup of ongoing construction projects, as well as a guide to area speed traps. There also is a page of copiously detailed histories of the interstates and major U.S. highways that wind through the area – the product of hours spent rummaging through newspaper and government archives.
The highlight, however, is the photo page, where Harvey has collected dozens of “blooper” pictures taken between Irvington, Ill., and Jefferson City of road signs with missing exit tabs, botched exit numbers, incorrect colors and misspelled city names. Though few of these mistakes would register with the average motorist, each violates strict rules spelled out in the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a book that many die-hard road geeks have committed to memory.
Perhaps the most flagrant error documented on Harvey’s site is the “Forest Park Pkyw” exit sign that was posted on southbound Interstate 170 for three days in November 2000. The Missouri Department of Transportation quickly replaced it with a correct “Forest Park Pkwy” sign, but not before one of Harvey’s contributors, Rich Piehl, managed to snap a photo of it.
“Technically they’re wasting taxpayer money making these mistakes,” said Harvey, who has little patience for such bureaucratic blunders. “I see it happen all the time. Sometimes it’s the spelling, sometimes it’s the wrong exit number. It happens everywhere.”
Tom Miller, a spokesman with the Missouri Department of Transportation, said that traffic engineers in the department’s St. Louis Metro District are familiar with each of the local road geek Web sites and have developed a grudging respect for the people responsible for them.
Miller owned up to the “Forest Park Pkyw” goof and acknowledged that Harvey, who “gets into some very specific sign standards,” has documented scores of legitimate errors. Whether the department will get around to correcting each of them is another story, Miller said.
“One of our traffic engineers will look at this and say, sure, to the strictest letter of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, it’s a mistake,” he said. “Then you have to look at it and ask, is it to a point where we need to dismantle the sign and put something back up immediately? Is it to the point where it is confusing and dangerous to the public?”
Miller explained that the district has only so much money – about $980,000 in 2001 – to spend on new signs.
“Unless it becomes a really big thing,” he said, “we’ll get to it when we can.”
An Internet phenomenon
Road enthusiasm is a phenomenon that developed with the Internet. People who for years thought they were the only ones who eagerly awaited the release of the new Rand McNally road atlases each fall suddenly stumbled on to hundreds of people with whom they could trade pictures, share ideas and debate the finer points of interchange design.
In addition to hundreds of Web sites, there is a newsgroup, misc.transport.road, where the discussion meanders from road-trip routing and construction projects to quirks and inconsistencies in signage. (There is a perennial debate, for example, over whether westbound Interstate 64 ends at Interstate 270, as by-the-book purists insist it should, or at the Daniel Boone Bridge. Miller, the Missouri Department of Transportation spokesman, confirms the bridge is the current terminus.)
“I always thought, ‘There’s no way that other people could be interested in this stuff,'” said Andy Field, 30, of San Diego. “And lo and behold, there were.”
Field and his friend Alex Nitzman, 27, of Mobile, Ala., maintain www.aaroads.com, a site with an exhaustive guide to the interstate highway system that many road buffs agree is the best of its kind.
Field’s highway obsession developed from a childhood fascination with road maps. These days it finds its outlet in an ambitious undertaking: He and Nitzman have set out to drive the entire interstate highway system – all 45,000-plus miles of it – piece by piece, and document the journey online. They have posted logs of the legs they have already completed at
Like most road geeks – and, for the record, Field prefers to be called a “road enthusiast” or a “road scholar” – he has trouble articulating the appeal of his after-hours pursuit.
“It’s like deconstructing why someone loves baseball,” said Field, a budget analyst. “It’s just a passion, something I consider to be my hobby. It’s a lot of fun.”
Still, a few enthusiasts admit that they sometimes wonder whether they’ve taken their enthusiasm too far.
Dowd says the trips he has made to amass photographs for his Web site account for many, if not most, of the 36,000 miles he has put on his 2001 Chrysler Sebring since he bought it last year.
And Dan Bruno, 28, a Missouri Department of Transportation traffic engineer who has contributed photographs to Harvey’s site, said his wife has forbid him from snapping pictures of road signs on their vacations since she caught him in the act on their honeymoon.
But on balance, road enthusiasts say their hobby is enjoyable, rewarding and healthy.
“I think a lot of people take the roads for granted,” Dowd said. “They’re there. When they close the left two lanes because they’re doing a bridge project, then people are angry because, well, that added 20 minutes to their commute. They may not think, ‘Why are they doing that?’
“But it’s a system,” he said. “It’s a system of roads. I drive these roads just about every day. I can’t think of a time in my life where I was more than 10 miles from the closest interstate freeway. It’s part of who I am.”
“Road geek” glossary
- BGS: An unofficial road-geek acronym for the “big green signs” along and above interstate highways.
- Button copy: Letters or characters on signs with inlaid reflective buttons for nighttime visibility. Most states have phased out these signs in favor of signs with reflective green surfaces.
- Control city: The city listed on highway signs indicating the road’s next major destination. For example, signs along eastbound Interstate 70 east of Columbia, Mo., use St. Louis as the control city.
- Expressway: A divided highway with no driveways. Stoplights, however, are allowed.
- Freeway: Generally speaking, a controlled-access road with no cross traffic. Most interstate highways are freeways.
- Gore: The triangle of pavement or grass where exit lanes diverge from freeways.
- Multiplex: When two or more highways converge and share the same roadway. The Poplar Street Bridge carries more multiplexed Interstates (55, 64 and 70) than any other section of highway in the United States except for a 30-mile stretch where Interstates 39, 90 and 94 converge north of Madison, Wis.
- MUTCD (pronounced MUT-sid): The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Issued by the Federal Highway Administration, it defines the standards for the installation and maintenance of signs, signals and pavement markings along roads and highways. Serious road geeks have committed its contents to memory.