Tag Archives: France

Driving Me Dazy

Driving on highways is different wherever one travels.  The US has large expanses of land, and most major cities have many miles between them, hence national highways are sort of laid out and numbered in a grid pattern.  Look at national maps for even the largest European countries, like France and Germany, and it can look like that pot of spaghetti you spilled on the kitchen floor while trying to “help” your mom when you were 9 years old.

United States Interstate traffic carries ~25% of all vehicle miles, and ~80% of all commercially transported product, by value

It’s OK.  You felt bad when you spilled dinner, but mom made it a learning experience and you are a better person for it.  Now we’re going to make a little sense of those European “spilled spaghetti” highway maps.

Although these countries individually generally do not lend themselves to a US-style grid and grid-number system, both because of history and geography, they do indeed have patterns.  These are not very useful, if you want my biased opinion.  Well, perhaps useful for rote memorization.

European countries all have several “levels” of highway, just as in the US.  And each level will carry different amounts of traffic, depending on demand and the level.  For example, in the US, the Interstate Highway system has very high demand, and has the highest standard.  Although comprising only about 1% of all US highways by mileage, the Interstate highways carry 25% of highway traffic by vehicle miles.  That’s astounding.  A little more on this later.

I’ll use the two largest European countries, France and Germany, as examples here (um, “largest” not counting Russia).  Each also, naturally, has multiple levels of highway.  Or Classes.  Each has an “A”, or top level “motorway.”  In Germany the A stands for Autobahn.  Of course.  In France it is A for an Autoroute.  These are limited access, high speed, and high standard roadways; in France there is often a toll involved – and they are quite expensive. 

Each has a second-tier highway as well. In France, it’s the N highways, or Route Nationale.  Germany’s second-tier are “B” (which makes more sense, B following A), for Bundesstraßen – or Federal Roads.  These are often quite nice as well.

Speaking of expensive. Beware of radar speed detectors, especially on the B or N roads.  Speed limits rise and fall rapidly around mid- and smaller-sized cities.  Where it falls suddenly – often with scant warning – there is almost sure to be an automatic radar speed detector. If you flinch when you see a sudden flash (usually blue), you’ve been nicked. Your car rental company will make sure you get all of these resulting traffic tickets, while the ticket processing fees are inevitably pinned to your credit card.  Sneaky European bastards. You can generally ignore the tickets themselves; they make nice wallpaper, or fire starters, tools to study another language, whatever. (I hear Italy is the absolute worst). The money grabbers, er, ah, traffic officials will try to collect for about 6 months.  Ignore them. They will give up…eventually. But the processing fees for the car hire company are unavoidable. Those cost about $25 a pop.

As much of the highway patterns initially look like spilled spaghetti to an American European-car-vacation beginner, one cannot imagine at first that there is a numbering pattern.  The routes generally link larger cities and often follow – or run roughly parallel to – centuries’ old trade routes.  Often newer, higher standard “A” routes run near the “B” or “N” routes, but bypassing the snarled urban areas. But … an actual numbering pattern?

France’s Autoroute (A) network. Spokes leading to/from Paris

Well, of course there is a pattern.  We are talking Germans here.  How could Germans not have a pattern? And the French would hate to be outdone by their European rival brother. 

Germany’s single digit Autobahn A highways are border to border (except 2, apparently)


In both countries highway number sequences are assigned by region.  It’s that simple.  In France, the major highways near Paris seem to get most of the lower numbers; and they sort of radiate out from there, like crooked spokes on a banged up old bicycle wheel.  In Germany the single digit “A” autobahn highways have single digit numbers if they run across the entire country – border-to-border, so to speak.  The rest are assigned by region: for example, any Autobahn in Bavaria has an ID number in the 90s.

Yet, the Europeans have demonstrated a sort of “Highway-Pattern-and-Numbering-Envy”.  “Envy of whom?” you ask.  Of course, the United States.
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In September 1925 – nearly a century ago – a small committee of national highway officials met at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown St. Louis. One of their tasks? To assign numbers to the new federal highway system. Other related tasks involved national highway standards: e.g. widths, grades, surfaces, signs and markings. This would become the US Highway system.

Until then, as in Europe, major roads – and later highways – followed older trails: in the US either old Amerindian, pioneer or fur trade routes. And, to make it complicated, each state had their own system for numbering highways (sometimes letters or names), even if  they “linked up” with a highway in an adjoining state.  They were twisted too; they often directed motorists on less than efficient paths, in order to promote commerce in remote, but politically well-connected, towns and villages. [many US highways retain these rather anachronistic vestiges, wandering through downtown and business sectors of towns, villages and cities].

Well, in what seems to have been accomplished in a single day, September 25th, a small committee of five Chief State Engineers (from Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina) devised the US Highway numbering system.  With few exceptions, it’s still in use today. 

Ah, the beauty, power and efficiencey of small but powerful committees.  China, anyone? Anyhow …

These mighty five decided that highways leading mostly north/south would be assigned odd numbers, with the lowest starting along the east coast. These odd-numbers would increase as you moved west, with the highest odd-numbers being along the west coast. The longest and/or most important N/S routes would end with the number five.

Routes that went mostly East/West would be assigned even numbers; with lower numbers in the north, and increasing to larger numbers in the south.  The longest and/or most important E/W routes would end with the number zero. For example: the first transcontinental highway, also called the Lincoln Highway, was US Highway 20. 

The beloved and ballyhooed highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, which we know as “Route 66”, was originally to be numbered Route 60.  But Kentucky governor William Field wanted the more important sounding 60 to run through his state. Route 66 is officially retired, but signs and the famous song still commemorate “66”, and its representation for our attraction for the open road.

This is the US Highway numbering system still in use today.

A few decades later, in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower got the nationwide super highway system approved (the so-called Interstate Highway System, officially called the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”) the numbering scheme for the new system was kept more or less intact.  With one major twist.

Key to Interstate Highway numbering: these shown end in 5 or 0; to they go border to border, or sea-to-sea, or sea-to-border. See extra figure in footnotes.

To avoid number confusion with the US Highway numbers, the lower numbered North/South Interstate routes would be in the west, instead of the east, increasing as the numbering moved east.  And the lower numbered East/West routes would be in the south, instead of the north, increasing as the “grid” progressed north.  [They wanted no number ambiguity or confusion, which was possible in the middle of the country: fly-over country. So they made a rule that there are no duplicate US numbers and Interstate numbers within the same state. This is the main reason there is no Interstate 50 or 60. And the north/south number confusion was solved by having so many highways in the more densely populated east.]

Although mainly sold as something to facilitate national defense, the Interstate system by far has had its greatest effect on commerce, and next tourism. Up to 80% of the nation’s commercial product (by value and mile) is moved to market, or between suppliers and factories, along Interstate highways. Its effect on individual or family travel: Driving across many states, or the entire nation, has been a summer vacation right-of passage in many families for decades. Many commuters use it as well.

US Highways (left) and Interstate Highways (right) have different markings and colors. US 40 (or Route 40) runs near Interstate 70 (or I-70) across much of the country, from the east coast, across the Rocky Mtns to Utah.

A few asides on the numbering systems. [Recall there is a difference between US Highways (often called “Routes”) and Interstate Highways.]

(1) The US coastal highways do not follow the “5” designation for major N/S routes: US 1 runs along the entire east coast, with US 99 and 101 running along, or near, the west coast. Neither end in a 5. [See add’l map in footnotes].

(2) Three-digit US highway numbers show highways that are sort of alternates to the original: for example, US 287 which passes through my neighborhood, goes north/south through the same regions as US 87.  Both go from the CAN-US border in Montana down to the Texas gulf coast. Both US 85 and US 285 also pass near our home. 85 goes from the US-CAN border in North Dakota all the way to the Mexican border in El Paso; 285 branches off from 85 in Denver and winds down to dusty west Texas as well.

(3) For the Interstate system, three digit numbers generally indicate loops or by-passes if the first digit is even (I-405 loops around Seattle, but otherwise is on the I-5 path) or, if the first digit is odd, it denotes spurs that shoot out to facilitate transport and commerce (I-190 in Chicago connects I-90 to O’Hare airport).

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The United Nations was formed in 1945 at the close of World War 2 to help countries peaceably work together.  Well, in short order the UN had a commission for pretty much everything.  One of those was the UN Economic Commission for Europe (or UNECE). 

Around 1950 the UNECE looked first at the many highways in Europe, noting that they – like in the US before the 1925 St Louis Commission – often changed identification as they crossed boundaries. National boundaries in the case of Europe.  They noticed the numbering systems were messy and inconsistent. They also anticipated economic growth as recovery from war progressed, which would require more and better roads.  The vision was vast, eventually reaching from the UK and Ireland (island nations!) to Central Asia, and beyond … almost to China. A potential for a vast grid and simple, consistent numbering based on the cardinal directions! To wit: Copying the US approach.

These are the “E” highways shown on maps.  It is a separately numbered set of highways, much more often than not simply using existing highways. The “E” numbers were just placed alongside the “A” — and in some cases the “B” or “N” — numbers on signs and maps.

With some exceptions, they followed the US example for the “E” highways.  Generally North/South are odd; East/West are even. They have secret codes for loops and spurs and local funkiness, just as in the US. The “E” highways are generally “A” class: that is, limited access and high speed.  Yeah, there are exceptions, and lots more tedious details, but it’s kinda cool that this system extends from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan. In fact, the E 80 goes from Lisbon to Tokyo!

E highways even span the the North Sea (although the UK refuses to implement them; the M, for Motorway, system is quite satisfactory — you know: Brexit, not using the Euro and all that).

The E network throughout Europe and much of Asia, with numbering patterns based more or less on the US highway system

A consistent and logical numbering system for a huge grid of highways. Says the US: You’re welcome.  Bitte sehr.  Prego.  De nada. Molim.  Hey, have fun with it.  It’s working for us. Hope it continues to work for you.

Until next essay, I wish you safe travels with simple and uncomplicated maps and highways. Yes, even with simple easy to understand highway numbering, keep your GPS/SatNav on and up-to-date.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020

Note of thanks to John Sarkis for his St Louis history blog, which provided many details and inspired this essay.

For my European friends and family — feel free to make corrections, additions or suggested edits in the comments on the A, B, E, N parts of the essay.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Extra figure showing US vs Interstate Numbering scheme.

US routes have low numbers in north and east.
Interstate numbers have low numbers in south and west.
US 10 used to run to Seattle, but was gradually replaced and de-commissioned as I-90 was completed in segments.

Olympischer Nationalismus

It’s Olympic time again.  The athleticism and elegance have been, so far, most extraordinary.  Most memorable.

Her name is Aliona Savchenko, and I suppose it’s possible to forget her name.  Even her story.

His name is Bruno Massot, and I suppose the same goes for him.  Sigh.

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The modern Olympic games were founded mostly on the energy and vision of Pierre de Coubertin. He sought to improve international relations and harmony through the (supposedly) non-political path of sports competition. It was certainly a beautiful vision; but I’m not sure he’d be quite so happy with how things have turned out.

I’m also not sure how or when the Olympics became so nationalistic.  I personally find all the nationalistic shouting a bit embarrassing and – considering Baron de Courberin’s vision – a bit shameful. It pains me to hear of nations’ medal counts, and the focus on athletes’ nationalities.

In the first few modern Olympics – 1896, 1900 and ’04 – athletes competed only for themselves, and perhaps their local sports clubs. Like “The Milwaukee Swimming Club.” There was clearly no nationalism.

So, how did it start? Perhaps the first inkling came at the 1908 London Olympics.  The Games had first been awarded to Rome.  But Italy was struggling and in recovery from a massive eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 1906.  The games were reassigned to England.  It was the third consecutive time that history had contrived to put the Olympics in the same city as the World’s Fair.  In those days the World’s Fair was a much bigger deal than it is now; much bigger than the Olympics.  They almost didn’t survive.

In those early years, when the Olympics were held alongside the World’s Fair (1900 in Paris; 1904 in St Louis), it was often not clear to spectators and competitors what sort of event it was. An Olympic event, an Olympic demonstration, or even a World’s Fair competition? Decades afterward, Margaret Abbott went to her grave never knowing that she had won an Olympic Championship in 1900, as discussed here: Olympic Lyon and Abbott.

That’s when the first “Parade of Nations” in an Opening Ceremony occurred. It seems to have been a pageantry and marketing ploy to make the Olympics standout against everything else going on around.

In that “parade”, the American flagbearer Ralph Rose – a shot putter and giant of a man at over 6’-5” and 250 pounds – refused to “dip the flag” as the American contingent passed before King Edward VII. Throughout the games the British judges and referees were perceived by many to be more than a bit biased against the American athletes.  So petty.

I suppose some flames of healthy patriotism will naturally spill over into blatant nationalism.  Consider the Cold War, and the heavy, boot heeled Soviet oppression behind the Iron Curtain, and especially upon the states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia – the brutal suppression of pleas for freedom there in 1956 and ’68. Or anti-colonialism, as teams from around the world competed against, say, the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, thumping of chests over medal counts, and hoping for a victory by someone – an otherwise nameless and faceless person – who wears the colors of your country, or the country of your ancestors, strikes me as out of bounds.  Strikes me as unsportsmanlike and well outside of what Baron de Courberin envisioned for all of us.

And worse, shouts of “U-S-A!! U-S-A!!”, accompanied by fanatic flag waving, bring, for me, visions of 100,000 Germans singing “Deutschland über Alles” in Berlin, 1936, under countless Nazi flags, their right hands extended in salute to their Führer. All this as German athletes – whether they ascribed to the Nazi political philosophy or not; and many did not – racked up victory after victory.

Even with Jesse Owens and “The Boys in the Boat” participating, a united pre-war Germany overwhelmingly “won” the medal count at the Summer Games in ’36. There were plenty of opportunities for nationalistic and enthusiastic German sports fans to throw out their right hand, show off their Nazi tolerance – if not complete sympathy and allegiance – and shout “Deutschland!!!!”

(Of course, Norway easily “won” the medal count in the ’36 Winter Games, hosted also in Germany, in beautiful Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria. For some reason the IOC allowed the same country to host the winter and summer Olympics in 3 of the first 4 Winter Olympics.  The only exception was 1928, when Amsterdam hosted the Summer Games; clearly The Netherlands was an inappropriate Winter Games host. The games were held in St Moritz, Switzerland.  Then, both Olympics were suspended for ’40 and ’44 for WWII. After that, each has been hosted in separate countries. Since 1994 they are not even in the same years)

The games are for the athletes and their performances are for us to admire.  Period. The end. Unless you are from very, very tiny Liechtenstein, I don’t see any need for particular pride for a country’s medals.  [Per capita, Liechtenstein has certainly won the most medals in Olympic history.  At a population of under 40,000 they have gained a total of ten winter games medals, two of them gold, over the years.  Astounding. If the US had won at the same rate, they’d have about 90,000 medals, all time. “We” have fewer than 300 Winter medals; and only 28,000 if you tally Summer Games – which are heavy on track and water events and in which Liechtenstein has never seriously competed.)

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Aliona Savchenko is a world-class figure skater.  At age 35, she is “ancient” compared to many of her competitors. As her name suggests, Aliona Savchenko is Ukrainian, competing for that nation in the Salt Lake 2002 Olympics, as well as the Goodwill Games.  Before that she won the pairs competition Nebelhorn Trophy “for the Ukraine” in 1999.

A new coach and a new partner led Savchenko to move to Chemnitz, Germany.  After initial struggles, they soared to German and European prominence.  She earned German citizenship and won bronze medals at the 2010 and ’14 Olympics (in Vancouver and Sochi).

Again, she changed partners and coaches, hoping to beat the “biological clock”, and perhaps give gold one last shot. 2018 would be her 5th Olympics. Her new partner was a Frenchman, from Normandy, Bruno Massot.

Yet again, after initial struggles with a new partner and coach, the team blossomed, earning the German championship and gaininig world recognition.  However, their participation on the great world stage was hindered: As nationals from two different countries, they could not be a team, unless the native’s country would permit it.

Of course, France would not simply let Massot skate for Germany; they eventually made him pay 30,000 euros for a release.  Blatant blackmail if you ask me. The French say they let him off easy: they first asked for 100,000. But the Olympics would be something different.  How much would that extortion cost? So, Massot applied for German citizenship. It was approved just last November.

So here we have Germany – who will long be remembered for their ancestors’ hateful attitude and treatment toward outsiders – long be remembered for their horrible occupations of France and Ukraine – long be remembered for Nazi atrocities – today accepting over one million Middle Eastern Refugees.  And now accepting a mixed French-Ukrainian figure skating team as their own.

Massot is a strong, powerful and graceful skater.  Six feet tall and solid muscle.  Savchenko is a bit of a “doll” at a full foot shorter.  But all five feet of her is dynamite.

Savchenko & Massot: Beauty, elegance, grace and athleticism

Of course, they won: a Ukrainian and a Frenchie ironically competing under the German flag. Sorry to repeat: It was Savchenko’s Olympic fifth try — with two different countries and three different partners. That’s persistence.

When the final scores for the Russian team went up (the last team to skate), and it was clear Savchenko and Massot had won, the bronze-winning Canadian team – led by the adorable and ebullient Meagan Duhamel – rushed over to congratulate and hug them. Yes, there were tears of joy all around – they don’t call it “kiss and cry” for nothing – and for a moment I felt like joining them in a “tissue moment.”

Yes!! This! This is what the Olympics should be about.  We don’t care which countries win the events; or the most medals.

The athletes are showing us what it is about.  Breaking down barriers.  Ignoring international boundaries.  Ignoring politics.  And simply admiring the human spirit… in ourselves and in each other. And demonstrating what that spirit can lead athletes – what the human spirit can lead all of us – to accomplish. Isn’t that why we loved and remember Nadia Comaneci?

Tomorrow the women’s teams from Canada and the US will compete for the gold medal in hockey.  Personally, I win (and lose) either way; I have allegiances both ways.  And, yet, I’m sure that after a very hard-fought re-match they will sincerely hug and congratulate each other.  And many will probably cry.

And that will be in keeping with the hope, spirit and intent of Baron de Courberin. Or, in other words: something we can all aspire to.

As to the French? Well, we will be in Caen — Bruno Massot’s home town in Normandy — later this spring. My guess is they will have a plaque or a sign up, trying to steal away a little of Bruno’s glory. And M. De Courberin will toss in his grave.

Thanks for reading

 

Joe Girard © 2018