October 06, 2004

A westward loop

The closest buildings to the Main Entrance of my campus are a mile up the slopes of Ben Lomond mountain. Shuttle buses are used to get non-motorists up the hill. Cyclists often bring their bikes up on the shuttle and then cycle home downhill at the end of the day. One shuttle bus route goes around the campus clockwise (see map here), turning right outside the Main Entrance (at the bottom of the map and the bottom of the hill), going uphill and some way westward on a road called Empire Grade, turning right on arrival at the West Entrance, and following campus roads around to the east to come downhill to the Main Entrance to turn right again. The other goes counter-clockwise, turning left outside the West Entrance to come downhill heading eastward and then left again to re-enter the campus at the Main Entrance and head uphill and then proceed westward before turning left again and travelling eastward once again. The shuttles on these two routes are labeled "The Loop". On the shuttle buses is a sign warning cyclists that the crucial bike racks on the fronts of the buses are found "only on westbound Loop shuttles."

What in heaven's name can they mean? All the clockwise loop shuttles are going west from near the Main Entrance up Empire Grade toward the West Entrance. All the counter-clockwise loop shuttles are going west from the top of Hagar Drive toward the West Entrance. All the shuttles do some northward and southward travel as well. They have to, if they are to travel a route that is a loop. The idea that you can distinguish a clockwise from a counter-clockwise circular loop by saying that one goes to the west and the other doesn't is more than just wrong, it's a screamingly obvious geometrical impossibility. How could so many intelligent people — the Transportation And Parking Services people on campus, the sign writers, the administrators, the thousands of passengers, the top syntax-and-semantics graduate student I rode with on the shuttle this morning — have failed so utterly to see that the sign is nonsense and you cannot tell by reading it which direction you should take if you hope to see bike racks on the fronts of the buses? Is it me, or is it them? It's them, right?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 6, 2004 02:02 PM