Friday, September 26, 2008

Accessibility

I recently took a nine day motorcycle trip from Denver Colorado to Dayton Ohio to visit family and friends. I rode my BMW R1100RT about 2500 miles (maybe 4000 kilometers) round trip. When I'm riding solo eight to ten hours a day without benefit of distractions like music or conversation, I spend a lot of time paying attention to what goes by and listening to what Mrs. Overclock (a.k.a. Dr. Overclock, Medicine Woman) calls my ThinkMan™. Here is some of my play list for that trip.

Route US-36 splits off from Interstate 70 just East of Denver. US-36 has a completely different character depending on what state you're traveling through. In Eastern Colorado it's kind of spooky, passing through ghost towns of shuttered buildings. In Kansas it's a two lane road with lots of local traffic and a little town every fifty miles or so. In Missouri, it's a four-lane divided controlled-access highway. In Illinois, it is either nothing but two-lane asphalt going through endless corn fields, or it merges with I-72. US-36 ends in Indianapolis Indiana, where I hopped onto I-70 for the final run to Dayton. Where as I-70 is just a vast ribbon of asphalt from Denver to Dayton, US-36 has enough variety to keep your attention.

I like staying in the little Mom and Pop motels along the way, where you ring the bell at the counter and someone leaves the television in their living room to check you in. I was traveling with my Nokia N810, so tiny it takes up almost no room in my motorcycle luggage. The internet tablet and the availability of WiFi made it easy to keep up with my email or do a little web cruising. I was amazed at how many of these little motels had WiFi. For example, both motels in Smith Center Kansas (near the geographic center of the contiguous United States) had hand-written signs "WiFi Internet" in their office windows.

I realized it was cable television that made the WiFi easy. When cable television became a "must have" for every little motel, it forced them to put in the broadband infrastructure. Once that was done, getting internet access over the cable and installing a LinkSys WAP was a piece of cake. And nearly all of them were LinkSys: seldom did I see the WAP SSID changed from its out-of-the-box default.

At first I thought that seeing URLs on billboards advertising farm equipment in the middle of Kansas was a sign that the web really had gone mainstream. But I suspect that farmers in the middle of Kansas may have realized the usefulness of the web and the internet long before many city dwellers did. When you're relatively isolated, being able to mouse-up Amazon.com and order just about anything from a Long Tail selection larger than any urban store might seem especially important. And since the internet was originally designed so that military communication would survive a nuclear war, being able to stay in touch in the aftermath of tornadoes and blizzards is pretty darned useful too.

My experience is that farmers and ranchers are pragmatic adopters and exploiters of not just bio-tech and agri-tech, but just about any useful-tech. A friend of mine once worked for a company that developed a local area network technology designed to transmit across barbed wire. Another worked with a rancher who tagged his cattle with RFID-like devices to automatically track how long each animal stood at the feeding trough. This is pretty cool stuff.

The ghost towns along US-36 got me to thinking, is there some critical mass that is necessary to keep a town alive? Did the conversion of the more southern Route US-40 to I-70 kill the towns in Colorado, but not those in Kansas and Missouri?

When I was but a lad growing up in Ohio, shortly after the glaciers receded, I had reason to spend some part of most summers in rural Eastern Kentucky. No running water, one broadcast television channel, electricity most of the time. What time wasn't spent on chores was spent reading, shooting, crashing a dirt bike, or just goofing around. A twenty minute drive in either direction on the road would get you, depending on which direction you turned out of the gravel driveway, to Grayson or Sandy Hook. Both towns had main streets maybe a block or two long with no building taller than two stories. Sandy Hook had a bit of an edge, since it was the seat of the county where my family owned land, and had the high school and the funeral home.

Decades later Mrs. Overclock and I flew into Lexington Kentucky and rented a car to drive to Sandy Hook for a funeral, while staying at a motel in Grayson. I was startled by the contrast between the two towns. Grayson was huge and sprawling, and many choices of chain hotels, restaurants, and retail. Sandy Hook looked like a ghost town, with nearly all the buildings shuttered and boarded up. Only the high school, the funeral home, and the county buildings remained.

It was the interstate highway of course. In the intervening decades, I-65 had been built, and it had a Grayson exit. Also, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers undertook a huge flood control project between the two towns (incidentally permanently flooding the property where my mom's family originally had their farm). The resulting dam, reservoir and lake, and no doubt the beautiful Appalachian scenery, motivated Kentucky to develop a state park and recreation area. Regardless of the fact that the lake was pretty much in between both towns, it was named "Grayson Lake State Park". Tourism joined tobacco and coal mining as a major industry in the area. Grayson prospered. Sandy Hook mostly disappeared.

During the intervening decades between wandering in the woods with a firearm and flying around the country with Mrs. Overclock, I was a student of Computer Science at Wright State University. The WSU main campus is in Fairborn Ohio on what was once farm land. (Indeed, my thesis advisor and mentor Bob Dixon was the first faculty member hired by the University, and his initial office was in a farm house standing on the property.) And when I was there, it still mostly looked like farm land: woods and rolling hills. Unfortunately, that was about all there was around campus. If you wanted to dine off campus, you had to get in a car and drive at least fifteen minutes even to get fast food.

Then Interstate 675, a bypass around Dayton Ohio connecting I-75 and I-70, was built, with several exits for campus and the nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. You can guess how this story ends. I barely recognize the area now. Enormous development, condos, retail, dining. And no doubt at least in part due to the greater accessibility that I-675 provided the University, the campus must be about triple its size than when I was a student, with about 16,000 students (the majority of which, interestingly enough, are women).

It probably goes without saying the accessibility is a key factor in the ability to develop and grow. And of course, it's not just physical accessibility, but virtual accessibility; maybe even more so. Many years ago, my old comrade Doug Supp (who is still at Wright State, but is surely thinking about retirement by now) and I wrote a proposal to bring the internet to the University. It seems laughable now, but way back then, back in the 1980s, we actually had to sell it. Not everyone was convinced that this new fangled internet thing was worth the money, or that it would amount to anything. After all, this predated the World Wide Web, so we were really talking about technologies like electronic mail, telnet, USENET, and file transfer being the killer applications.

Doug and I used the growth we saw that was so evident outside of our office windows as a result of I-675 as a rationale for the project, which we called TURNPIKE, trying to draw the analogy between physical accessibility and virtual accessibility as important for the growth of the University. Fortunately for all involved, the University bought into it. It was by no means a sure thing. By the way, TURNPIKE stood for The University Resource Network for the Pursuit of Information, Knowledge and Education. Yeah, we had to rack our brains for that one.

(Wright State University is also known for having a handicap-accessible campus right from its very inception in the late 1960s. Another victory for accessibility.)

Tooling along US-36 cross country with the hum of the 1100cc opposed twin engine in my ears, I had a lot of time to think about how important accessibility is.

And gas stations. Always on the lookout for gas stations.

2 comments:

Ryan said...

I know this is an old article but I am reading them as I found your blog yesterday. You say that US-36 ends in Indianapolis. It may not have an obvious connection through Indianpolis but I know it goes east to Ohio, jogs around south of Greenville, makes its way to Piqua (my hometown) and on to Urbana. I've never travelled it beyond Urbana but am sure it proceeds on to Columbus. I think you need to take another road trip and take the portion of US-36 you missed.

Chip Overclock said...

I agree, Ryan!