Driven to Distraction: City Drivers and Me

I learned in Minneapolis that congested freeways and surface streets can contribute to migraines — fairly quickly, too.

Since I lived in Los Angeles, and I happen to like driving there, I've been struggling to explain why some cities give me a headache and others do not. In a previous post, I explained that I like grid-based cities. But, that alone isn't enough to explain the migraine triggers. Los Angeles is not a great grid and the traffic is notoriously slow. Los Angeles drivers deal with mountains and coastline. The "grid" of L.A. is messy, but navigable for some reason.

My wife noticed that it might be the attitudes of drivers. In Los Angeles, despite the city's image, drivers have been fairly nice. The infamous ramp from I-5 to State 110 (Golden State to Harbor Freeway) near Dodger Stadium is actually not bad after my experiences in other cities. As you exit 5, traffic is two lanes. (I long ago learned to use the "merge lane" as long as possible.) People know how to "zipper merge" in L.A. — taking turns before climbing the hill to the Harbor Freeway towards downtown.

Trying to change lanes in L.A., people actually slow down to give you a bit of space. Signal and the other drivers make an opening! A friend tells me that's because everyone is afraid of upsetting the one screwball with road rage. Whatever the reason, I like polite drivers. There's a sense that everyone is in the mess together. Driving etiquette is a good thing to have in a congested city.

Tangent: "The 5" or "The Golden State" or "The Santa Ana" (south of the Four Level) all refer to U.S. Interstate 5. If you're in Northern California, people simply tell you, "Take 5 to 580 to 80 into the city." Oh, but not in Los Angeles. You'll be offered several routes, Most with names. "For Beverly Hills, take the 5 south to the San Diego or the Hollywood Freeway, unless there's an accident, because then it can be easier to go down and take the Ventura back to the Hollywood…." I used a Thomas Guide in Los Angeles and AM 1070 to navigate the traffic.

Forget any hope for driving etiquette in Pittsburgh or Minneapolis. There are "worst driver" lists [link], and they do reflect my experiences: cities with weird traffic patterns result in angry drivers.

Dallas drivers were polite. Not great drivers, but they were polite about it. I say they weren't great because they seemed to use shoulders as extra lanes. But, they waved and smiled. My assumption is that Dallas was in serious need of more freeway lanes. Since I last visited the area, the freeways have been expanded. Maybe there are now merge lanes for the shoulder drivers.

I didn't like Central Florida or Northern Florida. Jacksonville was populated by drivers unwilling to stop moving: even for stop signs and traffic signals. I don't get it, but Florida drivers are lousy and rude. Maybe they are displaced New Yorkers and their version of "polite" isn't mine. They don't signal, they roll through stop signs, and are impatient. Hand "signals" were common during my visits to Florida. Driving is stressful enough without rude drivers.

Minneapolis-St. Paul is shaped by the worst on/off-ramp designs I've ever seen. Short on and off ramps force drivers to accelerate quickly or stop abruptly. The geography is partially to blame: 10,000 lakes to circumvent. I've watched cars entering at full-speed suddenly stop at the end of an on-ramp. Mix in some snow and black ice, and you have the worst driving conditions I've experienced. St. Paul doesn't patch potholes until sufficient numbers of tires have been blown and shocks ruined.

Pittsburgh drivers are more impatient than Florida or Minneapolis drivers. I have no idea why. Maybe it is the narrow, cluttered streets. Personally, I imagine other drivers are trying to avoid the Port Authority busses. Busses in Pittsburgh attempt the impossible, and sometimes they prove how impossible the task is. In the half-dozen trips I've made into the city, I've seen three bus vs. parked car accidents. I'd be trying to avoid busses, too.

Are the streets and freeways of a city merely a reflection of the city's personality? "Minnesota nice" is a passive-aggressive driver. Florida is a driver desperate to get to a destination, no matter what color the light is. Texas is a driver making his own lane. Pittsburgh is a driver afraid of what might be about to exit the alley or turn the corner.

I can only imagine the mess of Boston or New York.


  1. Over the years I've lived in Minneapolis, I've noticed that the drivers are very passive agressive. I like driving in my native Michigan and in California. It's a bit more aggressive, but people aren't such jerks as they can be here.


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