Aug 20, 2008

Boston Manifesto II--Driving

Thought I should get this out before we move again. On Friday...

Pretty much anywhere you go, some group of people is going to say "The drivers there are nuts." When I was younger and growing up in Tempe AZ, it was said of California drivers. When we found out we were headed to New England in 2004, it was said of Boston drivers. I have come to believe the location discussed is at least somewhat a coastal issue. Much like closed-in porches are called "Arizona rooms" in the West and "Florida rooms" in the East, when really they are the same thing. And how people retire and move to Florida on a full or part-time basis in the east, and to Arizona in the West. I'm sure some would prefer to go to California (Ooh, oooh! Me! Me!), except for the dang taxes and other money-sucks, which is a tough thing to get used to for anyone, and I imagine moreso if your regular income is more or less stopping. But taxes are another blog post entirely.

And as with the people, it boils down to an issue of culture.

Ohio is laid-back. You can be in the fast lane, furiously passing those in the slower lanes, and still be driving at or slightly under the speed limit. California is just plain fast. With California, as with Phoenix, people just want to get where they're going. As long as your primary goal is to not disrupt the flow of traffic, it's not too terribly difficult to tell when you need to back off & let someone go by, or speed your butt up & go. You do need to be prepared to both signal and start your intended action simultaneously. While in Ohio a turn signal says "See, I plan to go that way, would you mind letting me in please," a turn signal in Phoenix or California is more like "Look, I'm going this way--right now, in fact!" or even "I just went this way, by the way." You make sure you've got the space and you go--boom.

Boston is a different animal entirely. While the freeways are somewhat similar to most big cities I've driven in (complete with the rush hour stop & go, when you plan your travels and/or stay home specifically to avoid the freeways), the in-town driving is very...different than I'm accustomed to. It's a common quip among newbies to the area that the people there are just plain nuts, or as I say, possibly smoking crack. Which is most likely an exaggeration. I hope.

To begin with, the roads are fairly well-marked. Sometimes. Other times you can be driving along watching the names of the side streets, & have no idea what road you are actually on, or that the road you're on has changed names three times in the past mile. And don't even get me started about the lack of a grid system. It's more like an anti-grid system. To tell what direction you're going you'd better keep a compass with you or have a really good sense of the sun's position (and then subtract about 2 hours in the winter), because no road is straight. And THEN the roads meet, merge, and divide in random forks--as opposed to intersections--and these are where you really need to watch for the signs, but being psychic sure helps too. I spent $20 on an atlas of the greater-Boston area and kept it in my car for, like, 2 years because I used it that often.

Thankfully, this convoluted web of roads has a simple explanation: animals. California and many (most?) of the more Western states had the luxury of planning their cities, so they did the most logical thing and set them up on grids. North/south and east/west. And there were some smarty-pantses who got all clever with the numbers, and the Avenue/Street/Drive/Road labels and such to make things even easier. Massachusetts--really, really old. So they built horse & wagon trails based on where the wildlife traveled, and consequently when cars came along, they simply paved over the dirt roads. Which when you think about it isn't all that bad of an idea--the wildlife probably knew to stay away from flood planes and the like, so if you don't have the convenience of modern survey and grading equipment, who better to look to than the deer.

The people are...well-meaning. There are some behaviors which seem really, really odd if you've never been to the area. There were times I'd be driving along and the driver in front of me would decide he really, really needed to stop dead in the middle of traffic to let Random Oncoming Driver turn left in front of him. Or I'd be waiting to turn left, and one guy would stop and flash me (with his headlights, perv), and get all torqued with me for not going, completely oblivious to the fact that those in his neighboring lane really didn't care if I got to turn left that day. Except for that one time I forgot about the neighboring lane and narrowly avoided a collision with said oblivious lane members. Yikes.

Much like with their terse style of interacting, their driving is more tolerable when you understand the reasoning behind it. It goes back to the horse-trails and so-so road markings. In their own way, they are trying to help everyone get where they need to go. So if it means sacrificing the pace in their own lane for a few seconds to let Joe-lefty get out of everyone's way behind him, they'll contribute to the greater good of those in his lane.

I did not comprehend this in the least at first, until I went on a business trip with two native New England co-workers. We were in L.A., where I was basking in the warm temps and sunshine, and had just gassed up on the way back to the airport. Mr. Mike was driving, and we were waiting to turn right, back onto the main road. The driveway was situated just after a stoplight, so in accordance with California culture the traffic kept moving. Completely accustomed to this sort of thing, I mentally thought "it'll be our turn after the light turns red." Meanwhile, Mr. Mike grew increasingly impatient, sarcastically muttering "Of course you can't let me in at all, can you." I replied "Um, they don't do that here." I don't think he appreciated that, but those few moments were incredibly enlightening for me.

Now all that said, I want to state that the exceptions are the same wherever you go. The ones in seriously fast cars will blow by at ridiculous speeds, and the truly obnoxious ones will weave in & out within what seems like fractions of inches and without regard to much of anything around them. Although THE most obnoxious driver I ever encountered was on a two-lane surface highway, on the way to work in Bedford. It was a Saab or Audi (European imports are big there), mainly driving in the oncoming lane, except for when a vehicle came up needing to travel in that lane, when this driver would abruptly cut in wherever (s)he was. Lotsa braking on everyone's part, intense incredulity on my part, and no shortage of Hail Marys on his/her part, I'm sure.

And of course there was a sense of urgency--one tends to have that when one is trying not to run head-on into people...

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