Rural road service design

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Driving around less-trafficked roads in mountainous western China (specifically, the area between Sichuan province and the Tibet Autonomous Region) , casual observation yields many examples of how roadside venues cater to drivers’ dependence on water – not just gas stations. The one pictured here primarily fills up water tanks, though if you happened to be stopping it also sells a few staple goods (instant noodles, and occasionally black market gasoline (when a fuel tanker stopped by while I was chatting with the owner, he broke off with me to jocularly jawbone the tanker driver into siphoning off some of his payload to him for an under-the-table payment). The hose spewing water, sometimes into a bucket or other container, is a mainstay of rural (particularly mountainous) service vocabulary. How did this particular form within rural China’s roadside service vocabulary come to be, though?

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From more formal establishments sporting printed vinyl signs that offer water amongst other amenities (in this case, food and car-washing facilities), or as part of a package for facilities dedicated to car-washing – such as the “Brother Specialized Auto Beautification Center” pictured above. Note these arrangements as compared to those of people’s residences along rural roads, some of whom have converted their homes into makeshift vehicle service stations – making another commonly sighted element of rural road service vocabulary the hastily painted 加水 (“add water”) signs. Oftentimes signs are positioned amid a series of hoses, buckets, washing machines, and also used in the family’s laundry system (as seen below). Depending on scale, a nearby washing machine can also be part of a business’s service object eco system, as seen above with the washing machine alongside “Brother’s” business which is used to clean the towels meant for drying customers’ vehicles.

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The tools needed for filling a vehicle’s water tank remain essentially the same – from a tractor to a 16-wheeler. I speak to the driver of an agricultural vehicle I’m riding with, and after I ask him he unpacks for me what he thinks upon seeing an “add water” sign as he’s driving down the road. “I think, and if it has been a long while since I’ve filled the tank, or been [ascending many hills and] adding water [from my roof-mounted water tank] to [cool down] my brakes… I’ll think about if there’s anything else I need to stop for, or if there are many more hills ahead [that I’ll need to use water to cool my brakes for].” Seemingly, he performs a mental check of the various factors that would make him stop (fuel levels, water tank levels, hunger/thirst/fatigue levels, etc.), and if he concludes there is a need to do so he’ll use his cellphone to call ahead and contact the other drivers in his convoy, asking whether they too would like to stop for a break (if it is a non-emergent situation).

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Thus, although these service cues already exist on China’s busy highways for the legions of cargo trucks that traverse the country daily, on rural mountain roads the addition of roof-mounted water tanks to vehicles (as seen in the above picture, designed to cool their brakes and fill their engine’s water tanks while on the go through a series of tubes connected to a vehicle’s brakes and engine) has influenced the evolution of how and which services are advertised. In this way, a user-developed mobile modification acts as an element of the “dark matter” upon designing rural roadside services for the providers/designers (thanks again to Dan Hill for the concept of “dark matter”).

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