Driving Culture Shock

Recently, I went back to the SF Bay Area in California. It was my first trip back to the place I always thought I would call home, and I knew there would be weirdness and change, etc.

I was not expecting to find that the way I drive has changed enormously since moving up to Portland.

I’m way calmer behind the wheel, less rushed, less paranoid and angry. Even when I wasn’t commuting regularly in the Bay Area, I had a certain rushed irritation around driving. “Why are all these people in the way? Why am I not there yet?! ARGH!” I stayed in the fast lane and drove as fast as I thought I could get away with.

But that’s all gone, courtesy of eight months living in a totally different driving environment. I’m mellow, I stay in the slower lanes and tend to drive at or below the speed limit, and I am startled by other drivers’ rudeness and inattention.

This has had me thinking since I got back, and I think it boils down to three factors:

  1. How many people on the road have a long-ass commute?
  2. How far apart are the things we drive to regularly?
  3. How pretty are the roads?

Commutes are the norm in Silicon Valley. I’ve had commutes upward of an hour each way and while they sucked, they weren’t abnormal. I know people who commute between Tracy and Union City, for crying out loud. From Milpitas to Palo Alto. And the freeways are full of people with drives like that.

Commuting makes most people cranky and aggressive, and also (more dangerously!) inattentive. People will cut each other off, accidentally or on purpose. Tailgating is common. Everyone wants to just be there already goddammit look at that asshole over there ugh. Even if not everyone on the road drives like that, enough do that it affects folks with shorter commutes. If your short commute happens on the road with a bunch of assholes, their driving style will rub off. Their anger will rub off. Have enough people act like assholes to you on the road, and you stop being as polite a driver because of it, unless you are a saint.

Plus, everything in the Bay Area is really far apart, and public transit mostly sucks. People live on one side of the bay and work on the other, they’ll drive an hour and a half to go clubbing, an hour to get to a nice restaurant, you name it.

And because most of the freeways are butt-ugly (I-280 is an exception, at least between Santa Clara and San Francisco) — lots of buildings right along the highway, no greenery, etc. — there isn’t even the calming influence of a pretty sight to chill people out.

In Portland, there are commuters, sure — between Beaverton and Portland, between Vancouver, WA and Portland. These aren’t super long commutes, and because there isn’t a huge tech industry, it’s not too hard to avoid the rush hour up here (which by Bay Area standards is a joke, there’s almost no gridlock most days!). Few commuters means fewer inattentive assholes, which means less of a shitty driving environment.

Plus, driving around Portland, everything is close! I’m five minutes from downtown, from Safeway, from my comic book shop. I have to go allll the way to NW Portland for Zephyr’s oncologist, and it takes about fifteen minutes. My shrink is in Beaverton, which is all of forty-five minutes away during what passes for rush hour here. Nobody is in that much of a rush, and the few who are generally can move along because other folks give way.

Perhaps more importantly, Portland, even on the highway between here and Beaverton, is full of gorgeousness. Trees line most of the roads in residential areas. Buildings are old and cool-looking. You can’t whip around in residential areas because the roads are really narrow, and you have to figure out how to pass oncoming cars (whoever can pull off to one side first wins and waits for the other person to go past before continuing onward. People here are nice behind the wheel!).

I’ve had the occasional close call or asshole-driver encounter, but they’re the exception, not the norm. I don’t have to rush because it’s so quick to get anywhere. I’m disinclined to rush, and so are most other people. You have to be alert in Portland because of all the bikes and pedestrians (and you are expected to stop and give way, especially to pedestrians!), not to mention skateboarders.

Folks here mostly drive cautiously and politely, and I had major culture shock having to get on the road in the Bay Area. I was so relieved to get back up here where people are nice and actually let me change lanes in front of them rather than speeding up to pass me before I can get over (because god forbid you have one more car in front of you!).

I love Portland for a lot of reasons, but it was really impressed upon me that the driving environment is a big one.

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