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25 facts about streets & transportation

Transportation is part of most people’s everyday experiences, but few of us stop to ponder its mysteries while we’re stuck in traffic or waiting for the subway. What city has the oldest subway line, or the busiest airport? Why does traffic seem to come out of nowhere sometimes? And what do trains have to do with time zones? Find the answers to these questions and more with our favorite facts about roads and transportation, selected from around the website, below.

Salt Lake City has the widest streets of any American city

Not all cities follow the same guidelines when it comes to designing their roadways. Take, for example, Salt Lake City, where the streets in the city’s heart are a hefty 132 feet wide. That’s at least double the width of streets in cities such as San Francisco and New York.

Salt Lake City’s massive streets were inspired by Mormon religious leader Brigham Young. When Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah and began constructing the city in 1847, Young declared the streets should be wide enough for drivers to turn their wagons around without “resorting to profanity.” However, wide streets aren’t the easiest (or safest) for pedestrians when it comes to crossing, which is why city officials are looking to use some of that extra space for bike lanes and additional sidewalks.

London has the oldest subway system

Today, around 5 million passengers use the London Underground (affectionately known as “the Tube”) each day, but the system was originally intended as a way to move goods and livestock as much as to transport humans. The six original stations that make up the stretch of the Metropolitan line, from Paddington to Farringdon Street, first opened in January 1863. Additional lines, dug deeper below the surface, didn’t open until after the turn of the 20th century, when the reliability of electric trains and elevators adequately reassured investors to fund the project. The original 1863 stations and tunnels are still in use today — a small but busy part of the 250-mile, 272-station system.

ATL is the world’s busiest airport

Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, is the busiest airport in the world for passengers, serving 93,699,630 people in 2022 — and aside from a brief blip in 2020, it has held the No. 1 spot since 1998. It’s not even close: The next-busiest airport for passengers, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, was more than 20 million people behind in 2022.

Why is ATL so popular? First, there aren’t a lot of other international airports in the immediate area, so it’s the closest international airport for much of the South. It’s also Delta Air Lines’ biggest hub. It makes a lot of sense for transfers, too. According to the airport, it’s within a two-hour flight of around 80% of the population of the United States — and unlike the major metropolitan areas that you’d maybe expect to be the busiest, it doesn’t have to deal with traffic from other nearby airports.

In Nova Scotia you can stand on the corner of This and That streets

Drive down the highway in Nova Scotia, Canada, some 30 minutes northeast of Halifax, and you’ll run into a trio of odd street names. Just down the street from the Porters Lake Community Center, at the tip of a peninsula jutting out into nearby Porters Lake, are This Street, That Street, and The Other Street, obviously referencing the idiom “this, that, and the other.” Strange as these street names may seem, the 3,200 or so residents of Porters Lake would find common ground with Americans in Culver, Oregon, who named two of their streets “This Way Lane” and “That Way Lane.”

The street names are far from the only unusual monikers in Canada. For example, in Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut, there’s a street called the “Road to Nowhere.” In Ottawa, there’s Scully Way and Mulder Avenue, a nod to the hit TV series X-Files; the neighborhood even held a block party for the show’s 20th anniversary in 2013. Also in the pop culture realm, the Alberta town of Vulcan leans heavily into its Star Trekconnection with a visitor’s center that looks like a space station, and even received a visit from Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, who led a parade there in 2010.

It’s illegal to let your chicken cross the street in this town in Georgia

The Southern hamlet of Quitman bills itself as “Georgia's Camellia City,” and apparently it's also the place where old jokes go to die. According to section 8-1 of the city codes, “It shall be unlawful for any person owning or controlling chickens, ducks, geese or any other domestic fowl to allow the same to run at large upon the streets or alleys of the city.” In other words, it's illegal for chickens to cross the road!

Traffic really does come out of nowhere sometimes

If you drive, chances are you’ve ended up in traffic with no clear cause — there are no accidents or construction, and yet somehow you’re at a total standstill. These are called phantom traffic jams or jamitons, and experts say you can help avoid them by not riding anyone’s bumper. These jams often happen when one driver abruptly slows or brakes, and the next driver slows or stops to avoid a collision. This travels like a wave, usually 100 to 1,000 yards long, even as the drivers at the front of the line return to normal speeds.

The easiest way to prevent phantom traffic jams, according to multiple studies, is to keep about an even distance between the car in front of you and the car behind you — so avoid tailgating, but also keep an eye on your rearview mirror. Giving cars more space to gradually adjust speed won’t completely eliminate phantom jams, but it will make them less likely to occur.

There’s only about 25 blimps left in the world

At the start of the 20th century, airships were seen as the future of human flight. The category includes a variety of dirigibles, such as zeppelins (which have a rigid structure) and blimps (which completely collapse when deflated). German zeppelins performed bombing runs in World War I, but the 1937 Hindenburg disaster — in which the Hindenburg zeppelin caught fire in New Jersey while attempting to moor, killing 36 — spelled the end of airships as commercial vehicles. While blimps found limited use during World War II, after the war airships mostly transformed into floating advertisements.

Today, only about 25 blimps exist, and about half of them are used for advertising — including the famous Goodyear Blimp (which is now technically a zeppelin). Airships are expensive to construct and to run, in part because they require as much as $100,000 worth of helium per trip, and helium gas is the subject of frequent worldwide shortages. There’s also a dearth of people trained to fly them.

Calling motorcycles Hogs comes from an early 20th-Century racing team

The most popular nickname for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is “hog,” but that’s not because its creators had a particular soft spot for swine. The name originated in 1920, around the time motorcycle racing became a popular sport throughout the U.S. Having won a dirt track race the previous year, Harley-Davidson wanted to keep the winning streak going and formed a racing team called the “wrecking crew.” One of the members of that team, Ray Weishaar, decided to adopt a pig from a local farmer to serve as its mascot. When the “Wrecking Crew” won the race, Weishaar rode with the pig (nicknamed “Johnny”) for a victory lap, and soon the media referred to the team as the “Harley Hogs.” Decades later, Harley-Davidson cemented the name into its own identity and founded the Harley Owners Group(HOG), and today the company even trades on the stock market with the ticker symbol “HOG.”

World’s narrowest street is a foot wide

If you suffer from claustrophobia, you might want to avoid the world’s narrowest street. Spreuerhofstrasse — located in Reutlingen, Germany — measures 1 foot, 0.2 inches at its tightest, and a meager 1 foot, 7.68 inches at its widest, at least when last evaluated for Guinness World Records in 2006. The 65-foot-long street is also limited vertically; those over 5 feet, 10 inches have to duck at the exit, and many who pass through are pelted with drips from overhead gutters. Despite those inconveniences, tourists flock to the record-holding passageway.

Sandwiched between two buildings in Reutlingen’s oldest area, Spreuerhofstrasse was initially created not as a tourist attraction but by a 300-year-old construction faux pas. In 1726, much of the city was destroyed by a fire, and residents rebuilding the area disregarded regulations for wider spaces between buildingsthat were meant to prevent future devastating blazes. For its first 100 years, Spreuerhofstrasse’s status as a street was debatable, but local lore suggests that in 1820 it received its official designation as a municipal street thanks to a slender town official who could easily squeeze down the alleyway.

Thank trains for time zones

Before 1833, local time was all over the place; communities set their clocks to noon when the sun was highest in the sky, which led to at least 144 different local times in North America. This wasn’t a huge deal when people were traveling slowly by foot and horseback, but with trains, people could suddenly travel across wider distances more quickly — and train operators needed consistent schedules to coordinate. Even small miscommunications about time could lead to missed connections and accidents. Railroads established a four-time-zone system in 1833, and used it for decades before the U.S. government officially established time zones in 1918.

Airlines pad flight times to make planes appear to be more punctual

On paper, flights take a lot longer than they used to, even though the airports are located in the same place and the planes haven’t gotten slower. It’s because airlines have started building in some extra wiggle room, so that a plane has a better chance of landing at its destination on time, even if it has a delayed departure. Despite this, around 30% of planes still arrive more than 15 minutes after their scheduled arrival time.

Germany has the oldest suspension railway

To get a sense of the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn, the world’s oldest suspension railway, watch this two-minute-long film taken from inside the train in 1902. A journey in itself, the film shows the path this futuristic mode of transportation takes through a small German city, where men in bowler hats and women in long skirts walk down unpaved streets alongside horse wagons. Fortunately, the unique train still exists today — with updated cars but the same gorgeous old stations — and carries 85,000 daily passengers. Much of its 8-mile route follows the path of the Wupper River, which the suspended train carriages float 39 feet above.

Greenland has Sled Crossing road signs

Dog sledding is part of everyday life in icy Greenland, where you can’t even travel one town over by car. Because the topography of the land includes a high concentration of mountains and fjords, it’s impossible to build a full road system. The Indigenous Inuit people have been traveling by dog sled for centuries, and even have a specific breed of dog(appropriately, Greenland dogs) bred for the job. So it’s no wonder there’s a sign for when dog sleds are likely to be present. It’s a triangle with a bold red outline and a silhouette of a sled on it. There’s a similar sign for snowmobiles, which you’ll need if you don’t have access to a dog sled.

The X in airport codes is just filler

The “X” at the end of “PHX” makes sense for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport — but what about “LAX” for Los Angeles and “PDX” for Portland?

Turns out, the “X” is left over from the days when airports used two-letter codes from the National Weather Service. With the rapid growth of air travel, it soon became apparent that two letters wouldn’t be enough. ​​When International Air Transport Association (IATA) three-letter codes became the norm in the 1930s, some airports gained an “X” at the end.

A stretch of Route 66 played America The Beautiful as you drove over it

While driving Route 66 offers its share of thrills (or kicks, if you prefer) for motorists following the path of their California-dreamin’ predecessors, a lengthy drive gets monotonous no matter how historic the thoroughfare. Which is why road-trippers rejoiced when a quarter-mile stretch of the famed highway outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, was rebuilt in 2014 to play the uplifting notes of “America the Beautiful” for cars that rolled by.

This bit of motor magic relies on the premise that sounds are recognized as musical notes if they vibrate at a specific frequency; a thump vibrating 330 times per second, for example, is a clear E note to our ears. With that in mind, a series of rumble strips — road indentations normally used to alert lane-drifting drivers — were pressed into the right side of this length of highway at carefully calculated intervals to produce a precise sequence of notes. When a vehicle drove over the rumble strips at exactly 45 mph, the unmistakable strains of what many consider an alternate national anthem could be heard wafting from below.

Sadly, while much of Route 66 has been preserved, the music-producing segment was left to die a slow, dissonant death. Drivers began reporting that some of the rumble strips had been paved over by 2020, and by July 2023, there were additional reports that the short-lived “musical highway” had seemingly been silenced for good.

World’s largest airport is size of NYC

King Fahd International Airport near Dammam, Saudi Arabia, has a larger area than any other airport. It’s 780 square kilometers, or about 300 square miles. That’s almost exactly the same size as New York City — yes, all five boroughs. As Guinness World Records points out, it’s larger than the entire neighboring country of Bahrain, which has three airports of its own.

It’s illegal to run out of gas in this Ohio town

Running out of gas is a bummer anywhere, but the city of Youngstown, Ohio, adds a legal burden to those already dealing with the indignity of blocking traffic. Per section 331.44of the city ordinances, “No person shall operate or permit to be operated any vehicle within the congested district bounded by Chestnut, Walnut, Boardman and Commerce Streets without sufficient fuel to drive the vehicle from the district.” There are offenses of increasing severity levied on those who apparently didn't learn their lesson the first time around.

The average American spent 51 hours in traffic in 2022

According to the traffic analytics firm INRIX, Americans spent, on average, 51 hours stuck in traffic in 2022. That may seem like a lot, but the United Kingdom had it worse: Brits lost 80 hours on average. Americans’ traffic delays also cost an average of $546 in fuel costs, INRIX says. All of those numbers are a huge jump from the year before, but that doesn’t mean much, because of how much traffic dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lake Superior has sleds powered by wind

In addition to being the largest and deepest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior is also the coldest. The small town of La Pointe — located on Madeline Island in the picturesque Apostle Islands of Lake Superior — finds itself stranded by icy waters several months a year. The town harbor often freezes over, so the ferry that usually runs to Bayfield, on the mainland in Wisconsin, can’t operate. When the water freezes to a consistent 11 inches deep the entire way from Madeline Island to Bayfield, cars and vans can drive on the ice road that forms on the lake. But before that happens, there are a couple of long months without transportation. A pair of brothers who own a construction company on the island designed a vehicle to bridge those cold but not solid days before midwinter: a windsled. With two large fans mounted on the back, this 9,000-pound boat on skis stoutly sleds across the thin ice at 18 miles per hour, ferrying the island’s schoolchildren over to the mainland.

Trains were once considered to be bad for your health

As train travel was starting to get popular in the mid-19th century, rumors spread — among doctors and nondoctors alike — that trains were dangerous, and not because of crash risks. All sorts of woes were attributed to the speed and roughness of locomotive travel. Some believed it could trigger insanity and create “railway madmen.” Others claimed it could cause miscarriages or upset women’s delicate constitutions. One doctor said that a train trip made a patient’s “brain congestion”worse, even though he’d been feeling better after treatment with leeches.

Some cars have indicators for which side the gas tank filler is on

It can be hard to remember what side your gas cap is on, especially in a car you’re not used to driving. Fortunately, there’s usually a pretty easy way to tell: In many cars, there’s a little arrow next to the gas symbol on your fuel gauge that points to the side of the car that should be facing the pump. This tiny, easy-to-miss feature can save you a whole lot of awkwardness pulling a rental car into the gas station. Even if you’re pretty sure your car doesn’t have it, double-check — it’s sneaky!

Glasgow’s subway system is called The Clockwork Orange

The Glasgow subway system is nicknamedafter Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel for its vividly painted railstock and single, circular loop under the city. The system’s sole line stretches just 6.5 miles long, but it is intersected by several above-ground commuter rail lines. The 15-station subway opened in 1896, initially as a steam-powered, cable-hauled system, before electrification in the 1930s.

The first speeding ticket was for driving 8 mph

Walter Arnold probably didn’t think he’d be making history when he took his “horseless carriage” (read: automobile) for a spin through the English village of Paddock Wood on January 28, 1896, but make history he did — by traveling at a pace of 8 miles per hour on the main thoroughfare. And while you may find it difficult to believe that a bicycle-riding constable was able to catch up to him, the ensuing low-speed pursuit led to Arnold paying the first-ever speeding ticket.

Speeding wasn’t all he was charged with. Arnold was cited on four counts: using a “locomotive without a horse” on a public road, operating said contraption with fewer than three people, failing to clearly display his name and address, and, last but not least, traveling at a higher velocity than 2 miles per hour. Arnold, one of England’s first car dealers, was driving a Benz that fateful day and paid the equivalent of more than $300 in today’s money for his quartet of criminality. A few months later he began marketing his own Arnold Motor Carriage, a variant on the very Benz he was driving, to the public. Whether the whole thing was a publicity stunt or a mere coincidence has never been settled.

Gas stations make more from selling convenience items than they do gasoline

In much the same way that movie theaters make higher profits from concessions than they do from tickets, gas stations make more money from convenience items than they do from selling gas. The profit margins on gasoline are extremely low, so much so that filling stations barely make any money just from selling fuel. That’s even true when gas prices are higher, because competition for customers is so fierce that retailers are often loath to be the first one to raise their prices. The reason gas makes so little profit has to do with the supply chain — actually getting the fuel to your local 76 is a tremendously involved process.

That all changes once you step inside a gas station’s convenience store (about 80% of them have one). Despite only bringing in some 30% of most gas stations’ revenue, items like lottery tickets, potato chips, and drinks are responsible for 70% of the profit. So while they might not like higher gas prices any more than you do, gas station owners probably don’t mind how much you spend on impulse buys.

The phrase Don’t Mess With Texas was intended to discourage littering

Three decades ago, Texas was facing an enormous problem: trash, as far as the eye could see, piled up along its scenic and city roadways. The cleanup was arduous and costly — by the mid-1980s, the Texas Department of Transportation (aka TxDOT) was spending nearly $20 million each year in rubbish removal along highways alone. To save money (and the environment), leaders of the Lone Star State knew they had to get trash under control, which they decided to do with a series of public service announcements. Little did TxDOT know that its cleanliness campaign would become larger than life.

The iconic line “Don’t Mess With Texas,” dreamed up by an Austin-based ad agency, initially launched on bumper stickers deposited at truck stops and fast-food restaurants. The first commercial featuring the slogan, which aired at the 1986 Cotton Bowl, honed in on Texans’ love for their land, telling viewers that littering was not only a crime but “an insult” to the state’s landscape. The phrase — spoken in that first commercial by Dallas-born guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan amid a bluesy version of “The Eyes of Texas” — soon became a rallying cry for Texans. The spot was so popular that TV stations around the state received calls asking for it to be aired again. Within a year, TxDOT estimated that roadside litter had dropped by 29%. The ad campaign continued — featuring celebrities such as Willie Nelson, George Foreman, and LeAnn Rimes — and is credited with reducing highway trash by 72% in its first four years.

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