From Cell Phones to Traffic Lights: Seven Good Ideas

Posted June 15, 2005 at 3:14pm

HANOVER, N.H. — For a long time, I’ve wanted to write an ideas column — not a big ideas column, but about small, practical ones. Being away at my 45th Dartmouth College reunion provides the opportunity, because Hanover is afflicted with a problem that’s widespread in America. [IMGCAP(1)]

Specifically, it has terrible cellular phone service. So, idea No. 1 is for the cellular industry in America to do whatever it takes to provide service as good as it’s reputed to be in Europe and many parts of Asia. No dead zones. Good connections. No little messages on your screen reading, “No Service — SOS Only.”

You may think, “Well, you’re in New Hampshire — the North Woods. You can’t expect cellular service to be perfect.” I reply, “No, in the woods, in really rural areas, I don’t expect perfect service yet. But this is a college town, and service shouldn’t be available on one street and not available two streets away.”

And, what about Washington, D.C.? Your cellular service is supposed to keep you in touch with your network everywhere, but there are dead zones all over town. On Independence Avenue near the Tidal Basin. On Rock Creek Parkway. Some places on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest. This is supposed to be the greatest country on earth. It is the greatest country on earth. So why is cellular service so lousy?

I once got a cell call through to the United States from Punta Arenas, Chile — one of the most southerly cities on Earth. Surely we have the know-how to ensure coverage in America.

Idea No. 2 could be a real winner for American retailing: The women’s sections of large department stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, should provide something for men to do while their wives, daughters or girlfriends try on clothing.

You’ve seen what happens to men in such stores now: They sit like zombies, waiting to be called over for “advice” on — read approval of — the clothing being tried on. Or they wait to pay for the merchandise. They can’t stray to the men’s department, as the stores evidently hope they will, for fear of being accused of abandonment.

Why not give them entertainment — a nook somewhere near the dressing room area with chairs and some TVs turned to ESPN, ESPN2 the Golf Channel and maybe Fox News? (OK, maybe CNN and MSNBC too.)

Idea No. 3 could help save lives. Auto manufacturers should develop a device to eliminate those blind spots where you’re changing lanes but can’t see a car approaching from the rear.

Every driver I know says a prayer of thanks at least once a week — I know I do — that he or she didn’t have a serious accident changing lanes because the coast looked clear but wasn’t. I know, I should crane my neck, but sometimes I don’t, and the driver behind me angrily honks. I swerve.

If high-end automakers can put TV cameras on the back of cars to help drivers see people and objects they might back into they can surely build a lane-changing warning system. Gradually, the price would come down and it could become standard on all cars. American companies shouldn’t wait for the Japanese or Koreans to do it first.

Ideas Nos. 4 and 5 concern traffic in Washington, D.C. Remember how Washingtonians guffawed at the 1995 movie, “The American President,” when Annette Bening, playing an environmental lobbyist, told Michael Douglas, the president, that she was late arriving from Capitol Hill for a White House meeting because “the traffic is terrible at Dupont Circle.” Well, you still don’t go from the Hill to the White House by way of Dupont Circle, but ever since the Secret Service closed Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and E Street behind it, traffic is always terrible. You basically have to take either I Street or Constitution Avenue to get from one part of town to another.

My idea is to reopen E Street to relieve the congestion. If the security people say it’s unsafe because a truck bomber could damage the White House, the trucks could be banned, the road could be depressed or a traffic tunnel could be built. Admittedly this would require some expense, but I believe it would be worth it.

Idea No. 5 is a lot simpler. It makes absolutely no sense for traffic lights to operate as they normally would when security or construction work has changed traffic patterns at intersections. This is a problem now at 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest near the White House and Constitution and First Street Northeast near the Capitol.

There’s another crazy light that stops traffic for no earthly reason on Rock Creek Parkway near the Kennedy Center. It does make sense to stop traffic when people are leaving the Kennedy Center parking lot after a performance, but this light goes red at other times too.

Some day, one hopes soon, American cities will install sensors at all significant intersections that will monitor the volume of traffic in various directions and adjust the flow intelligently. It will be costly up front, but it will also make transportation more efficient, and pay for itself eventually through reduced gasoline usage and lower tailpipe emissions.

Idea No. 6 could help ensure that our beloved Washington Nationals are locally owned: Make the team a publically owned company by selling stock. As things stand, there’s a danger that Major League Baseball, which now owns the team, will sell it to some outsider who has lots of money but little loyalty to the District. Some day they might get bored or peeved and either let the franchise molder or move it out of town.

“Publicly owned” emphatically does not mean owned by the city. It means that the fans of Washington would buy stock to help local bidders match any outside offer. (It’s not that unusual: Football’s Green Bay Packers are owned by local stockholders, and basketball’s Boston Celtics once sold stock.) And even if the amount of money raised was not enormous — though I think it well could be — it would demonstrate a degree of local popular support that could tilt the balance when Major League Baseball decides which bid to accept.

Idea No. 7 is a bigger one that I’ll write a column about when I get back. When I was in college, after the Russians launched Sputnik, Congress passed the 1958 National Defense Education Act to encourage more young people to study science, math, engineering, foreign languages and area studies. After Sept. 11, 2001, and facing high-tech challenges from China and India, we need to do it again.