Back in the day of wood-sided station wagons, roll-down windows and a dog-eared atlas from your insurance agent, a highway rest area provided a spot to use the bathroom, walk the dog, eat a picnic lunch and pick up guides for local tourist attractions for your cross-country trip.
There also were handy pay phones so you could make a motel reservation or call grandma to say you were running late.
Today, of course, fewer of us make long road trips. With movies playing in the backseat, headphones for the kids and maps on our smartphones and dashboard, often the only reason to stop the car is to use the bathroom — and that can be accomplished when you buy gas or decide on a restaurant for lunch, because pecan log rolls and lukewarm Tang just don't hold the charm they used to.
So the Illinois Department of Transportation is looking for feedback on how it can best utilize the state's 30 existing rest areas. A survey is at http://www.idot.illinois.gov/. Paper copies of the survey are at select rest areas or can be mailed by calling 402-399-1405.
IDOT has 30 rest areas and 11 welcome centers on highways throughout Illinois, although seven rest areas are currently closed. The welcome centers, separate from rest areas, are more focused on tourist attractions (like Lincoln sites in downtown Springfield) and not always located along interstate highways.
Illinois rest areas vary in design and age but offer 24-hour bathroom facilities, vending areas, picnic areas, pet areas, and space for overnight parking. One of the questions on the IDOT survey asks whether the state should consider integrating private business with its rest areas, beyond contractors who clean some of the sites.
It's an intriguing idea — not just for travelers but because of the state's ongoing budget issues. In some states, rest areas are located in the median and accessible to travelers from both directions (cutting the duplication of one rest area for each direction of travel). In some states, rest areas include a gas station and/or a fast-food restaurant. In more touristy states (think Florida), travelers who stop get the benefit of a site that combines a welcome center and rest area.
Another question on the survey asks how close a rest area should be to an exit that offers services like food or fuel. That's a question with many answers, since proximity may take a back seat to a needed bathroom break, to a trucker who has suddenly reached the end of his allowed shift, or to a driver who wants to wait out a snowstorm.
There are many possibilities for the future of Illinois' rest areas and welcome centers and they hinge on how the sites can be used in this age of fast travel and handheld devices. IDOT's survey results, and how they are used, are an intriguing reflection of today's culture and how state money could be better used.