Over the last two decades, the Texas Department of Transportations has built a network of rest stops that are as rich and diverse as the state itself.
With 80,700 miles of farm-to-market, ranch-to-market, state, U.S., and interstate highways, Texas has more roadways than any other state. It also leads the nation in traffic fatalities, many of which are caused by driver fatigue. As picturesque as they may be, long stretches of open highway can be deadly.
Luckily, there is at least one easy solution to driver fatigue: Drivers can stop and rest.
After it was created in 1916, the Texas Highway Department assumed the responsibility for providing designated facilities for weary motorists to safely rest before continuing on their way across the Lone Star State. The concept of a roadside park or “comfort station” is not particularly new. Picnic areas and restrooms have been located in the rights-of-way of major roads for as long as there have been roads. An increase in automobile ownership in the 1930s saw a similar increase in the number of facilities for motorists, although the amenities offered by these early rest areas were minimal. Throughout the middle part of the 20th century, the Texas Highway Department deployed a series of standardized utilitarian designs for its rest areas throughout the state.
In 1991, the Texas Highway Department was re-christened the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), and with this new name came a new interest in creating larger, more regionally specific Safety Rest Areas. An early example of this was located on U.S. 281 in Brooks County near Falfurrias: Instead of dropping standardized picnic and restroom structures onto a cleared site, this rest area thoughtfully integrated these programmatic elements into a grove of existing oak trees. Designed by Richter Architects of Corpus Christi in 1998, the facility included additional features, such as shade arbors and nature trails, that encouraged motorists to prolong their visit. The architectural composition was all tied together with brick wall elements that recalled both Spanish missions and early Texas ranch compounds.
With the success of the Brooks County Safety Rest Area — it won both state and national AIA awards for its design — TxDOT moved away from smaller rest areas to large-scale travel centers. Andy Keith, then the TxDOT director of maintenance contracts, proposed using federal transportation enhancement funding to build a series of what came to be called Safety Rest Areas.
According to Keith, “The goal of the program was to reduce the number of fatigue-related accidents and fatalities on Texas highways and do this in a way that reflected the character of our state.”
This new generation of travel centers was to be located along major long-distance travel corridors no more than an hour’s drive from one another. And, while these centers would provide a standard set of amenities for motorists, the architecture of each would be unique. It would help tell the story of its particular place along with displays and exhibits that would make these facilities feel less like rest stops and more like museums.
To better understand what stories needed to be told, TxDOT created a design process that included public participation from local communities. This helped define the architectural character of Safety Rest Areas and dictated what to feature in the interpretive centers. Community involvement was critical because these centers often act as the “front door” for surrounding communities. Inside these air-conditioned facilities, local residents are employed to provide visitors with information and promote regional tourism.
This approach has resulted in a collection of Safety Rest Areas that are as diverse as the state itself. The Hill County Safety Rest Area (TxDOT Roadside Facilities Design Group, 2013) adopts the form of a series of barns, grain silos, and windmills that reflect the history of the local agricultural communities. The architecture of the Ward County Safety Rest Area (SLA Architects, 2012) references the hangars and other support buildings that once populated the nearby Pyote Airfield, an important B-17 and B-29 training facility built during the Second World War.
In addition to these more literal interpretations of regional histories, other Safety Rest Areas help tell the story of their place by abstracting the landscape that surrounds them. The Pecos West County Safety Rest Area (Richter Architects, 2018) abstracts the dominant horizontal lines of the surrounding Chihuahuan desert landscape with weathered steel shade structures that reflect the jagged profiles of the distant Davis Mountains.
Some Safety Rest Areas added additional programmatic elements as well. Children confined to back seats on long drives now have playgrounds to burn off energy, while law enforcement personnel now have office space for filing paperwork. Safety Rest Areas in tornado- or hurricane-prone parts of the state also include storm shelters, should the weather turn harsh. The Bell County Safety Rest Area (TxDOT Roadside Facilities Design Group, 2008), for example, incorporates storm shelters into its design while telling the story of the 1997 tornado that decimated the nearby town of Jarrell.
These additional amenities — as well as free public WiFi — all help encourage visitors to linger longer. This means that, when drivers do continue on their journey, they are more alert and less likely be involved in an accident. Statistics reinforce this claim: Texas has seen a decrease in fatigue-related fatalities every year since TxDOT started building its improved Safety Rest Areas.
TxDOT currently operates 76 Safety Rest Areas, with an additional five in various stages of development and construction.
In a political climate where any spending of taxpayer money is questioned, the success of the Safety Rest Area Program shows how public investment in architecture can benefit a community as well as those traveling through it. Like the great county courthouses built a century earlier, these facilities represent a unique moment in which a government entity chose to spend a little more and received a lot in return.
Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the interim editor of Texas Architect. He visited number of Safety Rest Areas while researching his 2015 book, “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”