California Comparisons | Transportation

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Now that our time in California is quickly counting down towards a close, I think it's time to talk about some of the things I've learned during my time here. I've said it many times and I'll say it again: We may as well have moved to a different country when we moved to Southern California... they just happen to use the same currency, have the same President, and most people here speak a great deal of English. I could go on and on about the differences from my former Appalachian city life and rural upbringing, but it would be easier to just focus on one thing at a time.

One thing I've most frequently had to deal with since moving here is the difference in driving. The traffic, the rules of the road, and the crazy things I've witnessed on the road here are worth a post of their own.

Virginia Driving

I guess to truly understand the difference for me, you'd have to understand what driving is like in small town Virginia. I grew up learning to drive a car on roads with no lines, but I'd been driving all over the community on my 4-wheeler for several years before that and knew how to drive a tractor even before that. Farm life. Our highways "to town" (a 45 minute drive away) were four lanes (two each direction) and the speed limit was 55-60mph (96kph). That's if you took the highways. The most common way to get to town was to take a combination of two lane roads or unmarked back roads. The interstates (I95 or I81) were also mostly four lanes (three in some places) and currently have a max speed of 70mph, but just try to go 70 on a crowded four lane highway; if the right lane is full of 45mph-driving slow pokes, you have no choice but to get in the left lane behind the big rigs. If one of those is going 55mph, you're shit out of luck... you're now stuck going 55mph and under threat of being run over by the angry guy who is now tailgating you with a dixie flag proudly flying from his truck bed. People do not know how acceleration lanes work, frequently stopping altogether, looking over their shoulder for a break in traffic so they can try to gun it. I don't think I have to explain what a disaster this can be for everyone behind those drivers on the on-ramp. Driving in Virginia is a frustrating and sometimes scary thing.

California Freeways

I've driven all over the east coast and consider myself a pretty good driver (no accidents yet,) having navigated successfully through unfamiliar traffic patterns in places like Washington DC and Miami, but the freeways in California are a totally different animal. Six lanes, I think I can handle... but sixteen!?

California freeways seem like a free-for-all, a "survival of the fittest" landscape dotted with cars more expensive than a three-bedroom house would sell for in VA. Traffic can go from 80mph to 0 in less than 30 seconds, then back to 80 again a minute later. I've forgotten what cruise control is, because it's nearly impossible to be in a situation here where you can use it. When traffic is moving quickly, it's like a real life version of Mario Kart, with the brave (or crazy) ones zipping from lane to lane. Merging is it's own game of chance; you know you have to get over for your exit, but you're not sure you can make it... you do it anyway, just hoping and wishing the person flying towards the position you desire will have the decency to let you in. Somehow it always works, and I haven't had any fender benders here yet. I truly can't decide if I think the drivers here are really good drivers, or if everyone is just absolutely batshit crazy.


When we first moved here we only had our one car. If Dan took it to work, I couldn't leave the apartment during the day, so I would drive him to work and then pick him up. We did this for well over four months, until he got his motorcycle. This was a more practical purchase for us for three reasons: he just needed a way to get to work and back (7 miles away); it cost half the price of a car and a quarter of the cost in gas; we knew our move was temporary and we didn't want another car to deal with going back.

California is the only state in the nation where lane-sharing (or lane splitting) is not illegal. (It's technically not legal either, but there are no rules against it.) This used to terrify me, but as the wife of a motorcycle driver, I now see this as an important part of Dan's commute. At a stoplight Dan can slowly make his way to the front of the line, gassing it quicker and able to get out of the way of traffic when the light turns green. When traffic is backed up for any reason, he can do the same, slowly and safely making his way through and out of the congested area. Why should he have to sit in an hour of traffic with the cars when he could simply bypass it all? He's not zipping through cars and zig-zagging while traffic is going 70mph; that's not what I'm talking about here. But people do get insanely mad, inching their cars closer to the one next to them at a light just so he can't fit through and pass them. Jealous, maybe? People also open their doors at stoplights, not looking to see if someone might be coming through (you'd think they'd be used to this by now) and often merge without a glance. It's scary; people hate motorcyclists and have some weird, unjustified anger towards them on the roads. Are some of them zig-zagging and doing stupid things? Yes, but so are the car drivers. Just please don't kill my husband.

Traffic vs Flying

Traffic can be so bad here that people actually find it more affordable to fly everywhere. This would be nearly impossible on the east coast, where a two hour flight can cost you over $300, and that would be after you drove two to three hours to a major airport. (Regional airport flights are even higher in cost!) But here you have two options: wake up at 4am and try to beat the worst of Saturday traffic to Vegas, taking anywhere from 6 - 8 hours to get there (less than 300 miles) or drive 45-60 minutes to LAX and take a 1-hour $110 flight. At this point it's about what's more important, time or money? We flew to San Francisco last August for less than $250 round-trip, combined, (1.5 hour flight); this saved us from a 6 or 7+ hour drive each way. I have to say, flying just makes more sense, and I love that. It's still just a crazy notion for me to imagine flying to be so affordable.

A Few Bizarre Car & Road Situations...

  • Bike lanes serve as turning lanes at red lights. During high traffic, the whole bike lane can turn into a complete third lane. I don't know that this is legal, but there seems to be some unwritten shared agreement to do this. Don't ever get too close to the bike lane at a light; don't you know another car needs to be able to fit through there!?
  • Just a few days ago Chels and I were sitting at a red light, waiting for traffic to ease up enough for us to turn right. Wouldn't you know that a guy on the other side of this six-lane roadway decided that he was just going to cross those six lanes of moving traffic and get across that crosswalk right then, because screw it. It was like watching real life Frogger; this guy must have been completely out of his mind. He just walked right on across, towards us, while cars who were flying through (at least 50mph) slammed on their brakes and honked at him. Somehow he survived, and I remembered to breathe again.
  • Moments later, at the next light, I watched a guy in a BMW a couple of cars ahead open his passenger door and just relieve himself of all of his trash. Two plastic water bottles, some balled up receipts, whatever. Just open the door and drop them on the ground under you, totally cool... you jerk. I don't know why anything surprises me anymore.
  • Favorite car moment: Let me set the scene... Chels and I are sitting on the PCH just north of Newport Beach, heading towards Huntington Beach. We stop at a stoplight and pedestrians start crossing the road in the crosswalk. Older guy, maybe in his 60's, clearly wealthy, starts dancing across the highway. He's smiling, jamming out, and takes just enough of a moment to look right towards us and point at us excitedly. It was this, with less hat. It truly made our day.
  • Public transit feels almost non-existent. There hasn't been a single situation where public transit would have made a difference in our commute to somewhere, and it definitely hasn't been available in a way that would improve a trip. I know the trains might be great for long distance travel, but we can't even take one to LA on a weekend without being stranded, since the last train back to OC leaves about 30 minutes after we'd arrive. Crazy.

I know that this type of driving is just normal for so many people, but I hope you can imagine what a world of difference it is for someone from a part of the world where this kind of traffic just doesn't exist. I have many more things I could say about driving here, but those are stories for another day!