So a bunch of people get into their finely tuned, high-performance racing machines, drive around a track for a bit, get all their automotive needs taken care of by a highly expert team, and go racing around again until someone wins. Ha! Anyone can do that. What’s a bigger challenge is getting a sleepy teen out the door and to school and then getting myself to the train station on time every day, a nearly four-mile, white-knuckled obstacle course. And no team is cheering me on or offering to fill my tank and the only things waving at me are people’s middle fingers.
Let me recount a typical weekday morning commute that includes:
- 14 traffic lights, a number of them less than half a block away from each other.
- 5 stop signs, plus a three-way stop, which means taking turns, and you know how great adults are at that.
- Driving near or by 4 schools, which attract small children who are unnaturally excited by school and jump and dart unpredictable and uncomfortably close to the curb or near a street corner, usually just as I’m driving by.
- Most of the trip involves older, narrow city streets that have cars parked along the side, reducing visibility and creating numerous opportunities to play chicken.
Oh yes, I understand professional race tracks have all kinds of “challenges” like a hairpin turn and a corkscrew. Would you like a brush and bottle of wine with that? Throw in other manic commuters who don’t follow any known traffic rules and 14 random stop lights and we’ll talk.
My morning commute starts as I stand gripping the front door handle, eye on the clock, while my teen takes his time getting dressed, putting on his shoes and collecting his backpack, glasses, and ID. Ready? Go!
The Triple Chute
The first half mile is all downhill and an odd configuration where three parallel streets all feed in to one at the bottom of the hill. Although there are six stop signs on my trip, there is only one at the bottom of the hill, and there is no indication of who has the right of way as the three streets converge. I never encountered this situation on my driver’s ed test, so it’s every driver for himself right out of the gate. And don’t forget to dodge small excited children (for the love, why are they so happy about school?).
The Zig Zag Fake Out
At the bottom of the hill, the fun is just beginning. I now need to take a right onto one of the most heavily traveled streets in my city. On a day I’m running extra late there will surely be four cars backed up because the first one needs to take a left on this, the busiest main drag. Finally I get to turn right and pray the light 60 feet away stays green so I can bang a left, just in front of a car that I hope is actually going as slow as it seems. If I don’t, a minute of precious time gets wasted at the light, and I still have to play chicken to take the left.
Blind Catholic School Curve
A mere three blocks later I have to make a 45-degree blind turn in the road and only then will I discover if there is a backup of cars lined up at the next light, which is a block and a half away. There is a Catholic school at the corner of this intersection, so in addition to the small excited tots and parents hauling them and their infant siblings across the street between the waiting cars, there is a crossing guard with her dastardly stop sign holding up the traffic. Did I mention that this green light lasts about as long as it takes to say, “Please, I just need to get through this light,” and then it turns red? On a bad day I can sit at that light through four cycles and maybe move up a car length. When I finally get close enough to the light, I have to be merciless and go, playing chicken with the cars on the opposite side of the light who are desperately trying to take a left because they have sat through five light cycles. I only mention the school is Catholic because that corner inspires a lot of taking the lord’s name in vain, which is probably not in its mission statement.
Triple Stop Free-for-All
The next obstacle is the back up to the three-way stop sign intersection just before the high school entrance. Thankfully the dangerously unpredictable small children have been replaced by the teens who are walking much more slowly and predictably. There can be a line of 20 cars backed up on this last stretch. Once you finally get to the intersection, you get plenty of chances to play chicken as you nudge out into the intersection to take your turn before the person to your left or right does that “I’m riding the bumper of the person in front of me so you can’t get in, even though it’s not my turn” thing. There really is no defense against that move except to hope that just at that moment, a pack of teens will saunter into the road not looking, making the car slam its brakes. Finally a use for indifferent teen behavior!
After dropping off my son and winding through to the back of the school, I need to weave through a series of turns and stop signs on some small neighborhood roads. At the four-way stop, I need to go straight, but I’ve learned to wait that extra half a second because apparently the stop signs don’t work here. As I watch the car approaching from the right blow through the stop sign, someone in the line of cars behind me thinks I’m texting and not paying attention and lay on the horn. For the record, I don’t text and drive, but please don’t ask me about that flask under my seat. If I don’t get clipped by a sign runner, I may get clipped by a car suddenly backing out of its driveway, another hapless commuter just beginning the race.
The Split Decision
I’ve now come full circle to a light I already went through, but I’m coming from a different street. I can either turn left and go back through Blind Catholic School Curve or go straight and head back to the busiest street. Technically, and I use that term very loosely, it’s a shorter distance by way of the Curve; however, city streets defy the laws of physics and distance rarely equals rate x time. Distance is irrelevant if the timing works. I make my choice, I’m going straight in to…
Main Street Mayhem Flats
At this light I need to take a left on to the main street. This intersection is shaped like a T so that would seem to be an easy left without oncoming traffic. However, there is another light at the next block which is not in sync with the first light, so as I turn left, I have to stop at the backed-up traffic at a red light. There is also a fire station here, and a weird lot in which a bus turns around, as well as an exit from a Walgreen. All vehicles from these outlets are jockeying to get into the fray, which is kind of pointless considering that in addition to red light I’m at, way up the street at the next light is another crossing guard wielding her dastardly stop sign and holding up the traffic. Still, this slow crawl is better than the Curve.
Once past the crossing guard, the next mile of my trip is fairly sane, only dealing with the kind of traffic rules you actually did learn in driver’s ed. But I have to beware to not get too giddy at this oh-so-brief respite, because coming up is…
The Widow(er) Maker
Just before I park for the train station there is an intersection that has five roads feeding into it, a train track bridge over it and the entrance and exit to the station next to it. Oh, and there is some station parking across the street from the entrance, so guess where gobs of people are trying to go when they are going to or leaving the station? Yeah, right. There are probably an infinite number of ways to die at this intersection. But it wouldn’t be because of the traffic light, which is actually pretty logical and timely, especially considering all the various cars and people who need to move through it. The problem is, of course the drivers. At this intersection I turn right, and yes, by law, I can turn right on red, but I often choose not to because 1) the bridge obscures the cars that are driving by until they are right in front of me, 2) it’s a very busy street and 3) people often dart in front of my car when the train is coming. Oh, but how the people behind me hate that I don’t turn! Never mind that I would merely be inching up to the corner and by then the light would turn green. The honking is early and often. I’ve learned to go to my happy place. But there is some justice in the world. One day, one of the honkers decided to take matters into his own hands and pulled out and around me, so that he could inch to the corner. There he sat waiting for a break in the relentless traffic. That was actually satisfying enough, but then a car drove by him and pulled up right next to the curb to let out a passenger. The passenger had barely shut the door, when crazy-mad-right-on-red driver hit the gas and rear-ended the other car. The passenger on the sidewalk raised his arms and yelled, “What the hell is wrong with you?” What indeed. As crazy man pulled over to exchange information, I cheerfully turned right with the green light, driving around them. It was better than a victory lap.