Sunday, April 5, 2009

Driving, or Going Round in Circles/Squares


They tell you that's it's really easy to get around in the US, because "it's all on a grid". First of all, until you've been here for about three years, that phrase doesn't even register. They could be talking about the electricity companies for all we know.

But yes, most American cities are "on a grid" for the most part; Chicago has some weird diagonal streets that interfere with that grid, Boston is so old that it meanders around a bit, and some of the more modern suburbs have started doing that stupid cul-de-sac thing they do in England, but it's grids as a rule.

Which is fine if you know which direction you're facing. I remember when I first moved to Chicago I got lost every time I got in my car. In the end I bought a magnetic compass because everyone gives you directions in East, West phraseology and completely ignores convenient landmarks like huge churches, car dealerships and, in Chicago's case, the bloody big lake that stops you driving too far east. Usually, after driving around in circles (or squares since it's on a grid), I would head east to the lake, and start all over again.

Sometimes they give you east/west directions and they're not even correct. Like the Interstate (motorway) going from Chicago out north, then west to the airport. If people give you directions they either say "west on I-90" which means you go north from the city, or "east on I-90" which means you head south back into the city. How in the word is a stranger supposed to get into Chicago - (take note Brit Gal Sarah, this is the road from the airport).

I'd much rather hear "You make a sort of right at St. Stephen's, then take what looks like the left fork at the Ferret and Onion, and if you come to the village green you've gone too far". At least you know when you've gone wrong!


Ah, Toni, you hit the nail right on the head; a grid system with easy to follow compass directions as opposed to dodgy directions that more often than not lead me further astray ("At the second round about past the Strangled Goose, go left and continue to where the Co-Op used to be, then left, left, right, left, left and Bob's your uncle."). It brings on flashbacks of my early days here, heading out to Newport (which I knew was to the west) and repeatedly circling a round about in Surry that pointed one way to Basingstoke and the other way to Bracknell. Having never before heard of either of those places, I had no idea where to go, and the only thing I could be sure of was, given the choice between two directions, I would chose the wrong one. A nice clear sign pointing west (or north or south or east, I'm not fussy) would have been a welcome sight.

Since that time, I have kept my eye out for such types of highway assistance, but they are hard to find. I guess they figure, in a country this small, you should just know where everything is, and if you don't you probably shouldn't be here. (It's likely part of the Home Guard's defence plans held over from the war.)

I recall, in America, driving up to Lake George and needing to be on route 9N north. Three miles before I got to the junction they started having signs for it, which increased in frequency the closer I came. At the junction I found huge, clear signs pointing to 9N north, 9N south, 9L east and Birch Avenue west. And after turning on to 9N north, there were signs to remind me I was, indeed, on 9N north. The roads in the US were made for really inattentive people.

In Britain, I come to a round about and, assuming I know I need to go toward Abergavenny to get to Llanddewi, I turn at the exit I think is pointing that way, and I only discover if I hit it right when I get to the next round about (and in rural Wales, this can be 25 miles or more) to find there is no mention of Llanddewi, Pen-yr-hoel, or even Llangattock-Vibon-Avel, thought there might be a sign welcoming me to Hereford.

But the American Interstate Highway System, what an exquisite feat of engineering! As any school kid could tell you, odd-numbered highways run north and south while even-numbered highways run east and west (and the fact that I travelled to work on a section of I-90 that ran from Nassau straight north to Albany was not confusing to me in the least*). A three-digit highway beginning in an odd number was a spur leading into a city, while a three-digit highway beginning in an even number was a spur running around a city. God bless David Eisenhower. (What a lot of people have forgotten about them is that they are military roads created for national defence. The idea that one mile in every ten is designed to be straight and flat in order to serve as an impromptu runway is, however, a myth, though I believe there is regulation requiring every second exit to have a Denny's or a Dunkin Donuts.)

The upshot is, getting to where you want to go in America is far easier than it is in Britain; all you really need to know is if the place you want to get to is generally north, south, east or west of where you are. Just don't try going toward the west on I-90 from Nassau.

*It's interesting to note that Toni and I apparently lived on the same street. We were practically neighbors.

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  1. Mike, thanks for explaining about road numbers. I never knew that.

    I also don't understand why one road can have several numbers on a given section. Like having multiple personalities.

  2. I'm a fan of roundbouts, when implemented properly. In my town (Valparaiso), they decided to put a roundabout at an intersection of 5 major roads that was ALWAYS gridlocked. It was very unpopular, especially amongst people who could figure out how it worked. It's been a couple years now and it's been great for the town. Traffic moves through it much quicker, despite a lot of people still not getting it.

    They are talking about building more roundabouts in town. A cause I support, not just because I'm an Anglophile.

  3. They just put a roundabout at busy intersection near me and I couldn't have been more excited. The husband was with me and I said "watch how easy this is!" If I could have I would have thrown my arms up in the air and shouted "weeeeee" like a five yr old. Love 'em but here you always have a dunce that doesn't understand what "yield" means or they stop right in the middle of the roundabout because they don't understand who has the right of way. IMHO, installing roundabouts in the future in lieu of traffic lights should be part of the greening of America. What an easy way to cut down on vehicle emissions, gas consumption and traffic jams, and how to navigate a roundabout should be part of the driving exam.

  4. Iota: It's not uncommon for a road to have two desginations in the US; near where I lived was a road we called "Route 9 and 20".

    Jonathan/Smittem: Round abouts are good if everyong follows the rules. They put one in near where I used to live in the states at a 5-road junction and it is working a treat. There was also the infamous "Latham Traffic Circle" which put a lot of people off of round abouts but that's just because everyone treated it like a race track.

    Oddly, I'm seeing more and more traffic lights here.

  5. I'm totally with Mike on this one, you have to have memorized the entire list of major, minor and intermediate cities in any country in Europe to get around when driving; it's not just England but a more general EU malaise that means that there are never N/S/E/W directions at intersections but only the names of towns that may or may not be between the place you are and the place you're trying to get. It's no wonder I see so many more sat nav units in Britain than in the states. You can't actually get anywhere without help (although this also leads to the large number of hilarious incidents where British drivers do stupid things because they are following their sat nav blindly...)

  6. On our last visit to France, our French hosts had a GPS-equipped car. We were headed from near Paris to a little village near Chenonceaux. It was not one of the destinations listed in the GPS's programming. Despite asking directions several times along the way, we spent a good forty-five minutes driving in loops, quite literally. Locals living only a very few km from our goal could not give us accurate directions. It became something of a slapstick comedy bit as we paused to ask directions of three different people on three different swings through the same village. We were finally set on the correct path by an obliging woman who had spent the afternoon in the local bar, claimed that the route was too complicated to describe, insisted on climbing into her car to personally guide us, and whose driving was — um — erratic. We finally got where we were going, having taken the incredibly scenic route. The memory of that afternoon's trip still puts me into stitches.
    No tourist should EVER feel embarrassed about getting lost in Europe or Britain!

  7. The east west north and south on interstate highways isn't a strict direction in any one place, but rather the direction the road goes in general. I90 for instance goes from Seattle to Boston so it's certainly E-W.

    Having grown up in the Boston area I never really had a good grasp of the grid system, so I don't think I really believed how reliable they were when I moved to Chicago. The grid is a beautiful thing though. I'm completely confident that I could be blindfolded and dropped off in a random part of Chicago and I'd be able to figure out where I was without any trouble. As a bonus it makes buses much easier. With a few exceptions (LSD express routes and downtown routes) buses go straight down one street. It's easy to get places you don't know well with minimal directions.

  8. And can we cover the topic of getting a driver's licence in another country? Traumatic to say the least...

    Why the heck would anyone reverse into a road? (it was on the British test, I kid you not)

  9. NFAH/Elizabeth: N/E/S/W rules!

    Leemikcee: Too funny! I have not yet driven in France, but in Ireland my preferred method of getting around was picking up hitch hikers and asking them for directions.

    MM: Good topic, and very true; I was astounded when I was told to do it. Also, you have to know what to do when confronted by a flock of sheep in the road. That wasn't on my NY State driver's exam.

  10. Have noticed that Brits aren't able to give directions very well.

    Many times I've asked a business how to get from the motorway to the shop. No one knows how to do it.

    Usually the reaction to the question is one of exasperated impatience, followed by "I can't really explain it."

    If I'm lucky enough to get a manager type, the most I'll get is something along the lines of "Come through the second roundabout, take the second turn and the shop will be on the left."

    ????? Second roundabout from what? The motorway exit? The first stop light?

    No street names or numbers are given, and when I ask what they might be, the cold silence emanating from the receiver chills my hand.

    Having tried to follow directions like this many times, I've come to the conclusion the person on the phone is making it all up as he goes along just to get me off the line!

  11. Roundabouts scare me. Because of this (and the cost of petrol, road tax and car insurance), I'm really glad I can get by in Britain without a having car. Hooray for public transport!

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  13. Here in Sedona, where there is quite a bit of road building going on, they are having a love affair with roundabouts (or traffic circles as they're known). Unfortunately, no one has a clue what to do except the Brits. Drivers either blow through them completely, or slam the brakes on even if the only driver (you) is behind them. I even saw one driver yesterday almost go round the wrong way!!!

    I'm thinking of starting a petition to have the traffic circle procedure added to the driving test - or at least the theory!


  14. Jill: I have noticed that as well. Plus they give them so fast ("go left, left, right, sort of right and straight on and you're there.") I can never follow them. That's why, like Katie, I prefer the bus.

  15. Buses might be preferable perhaps if only they weren't driven by Bus Drivers!

    The way buses are driven in the UK scares me, to put it mildly, especially the big bendy red ones in London.

    It probably doesn't help my (bad) attitude toward buses that we were once inches away from being crushed between a stone wall and a big touring coach.

    I still remember looking up at the scared faces of the passengers looking down at our scared faces.


  16. Jill: I do admit the bus rides here are a bit more thrilling than what I experienced in the US (which was mostly confined to school buses). It's mainly due to the narrow roads; I can't imagine how they get these big vehicles down some of them, especially with everybody parked on the double-yellows.

  17. Mike: It seems the main obstacle for Americans driving in the UK isn't the "other side" of the road issue, but the driving style of Brits: FAST! Roaring round blind curves and cheating the line at that.

    In his book Encore Provence, Peter Mayle sums up his time in America: "We came to know California wines. We shopped by phone. We drove sedately."

    Never in my life would I ever have thought I'd say Americans were safe drivers, but by comparison...

    I'm used to driving in the UK now, but it took a few years to feel comfortable with the Grand Prix ethos on the highways and byways of England, Wales and Scotland.

  18. A grid system may be easy to follow (theoretically) but if you lose your way you are totally stuffed if you need to make a u-turn. With a system of roundabouts you simply continue to the nearest roundabout and drive round it to the direction you want. Without roundabouts you find yourself turning right, then right,then right, then crossing the carriageway, then turning left to go in the direction you want - what a nonsense! Grid systems without roundabouts also mean that the traffic never flows smoothly - you can grow old waiting for the lights to change at some american intersections. Europe is gradually going over to sensible roundabouts- its about time the Yanks did the same instead of fannying about - come on US - get with the programme

  19. Anonymous: I do acknowledge that--round abouts are great for pulling a U-turn, and that is always a bit dodgy on the grid system.

  20. Jill: Yes, the driving habits of the locals do take one by surprise at first.

  21. > You can't actually get anywhere without help

    Yes you can: I do it all the time!

    > Have noticed that Brits aren't able to give directions very well.

    Have not noticed this. Perhaps Americans aren't able to understand directions very well?

    > Why the heck would anyone reverse into a road? (it was on the British test, I kid you not)

    Because your car may have its back to the road??? And the item in the test is to make sure you can steer your car in reverse.

    Some statistics on road fatalities (2006):

    US: 42,642
    UK: 3,172


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