Random thoughts on American driving

 | 4 min

This post wraps up my series on American culture. I have already dealt with American food, shopping, and TV. This post is mostly concerned with roads and driving.

One of the worst parts of the Auckland motorway system is Spaghetti Junction, and the worst feature of Spaghetti Junction is the Newmarket on/off ramps. Southbound, traffic comes on at Kyhber Pass to find itself in an exit only lane that exits at Gillies Ave. This traffic has to change lanes to get into a lane that continues south, meanwhile all the traffic on the motorway that wants to exit at Gillies has to change lanes to get into the exit only lane. The same thing happens northbound as well. This is one of the biggest bottlenecks in Auckland.

Intersections like Greenland and Ellerslie-Penrose are much better because all the exiting traffic leaves, thinning out the flow of cars before the entering traffic merges in to take their place.

A long time ago I read a letter to the editor in the Herald stating that the reason the Khyber Pass/Gillies intersections were so bad was that they were designed by Americans who thought we drove on the right-hand side of the road. However, a moment of mental spatial manipulation should reveal that even if we did drive on the other side, these would still be badly designed. So it wasn't that the American's didn't know what side of the road we drive on.

Nope, it was that the Americans (or Californians at least) think this is good freeway design! The freeway system in LA reminded me very very much of Auckland and the Newmarket section in particular. Pretty much all onramps come into an Exit Only lane, often a fairly short one, making everyone rush to quickly switch lanes. It's a bit worse in LA because Americans do not seem to understand the principle of merging like a zip. Nobody lets anybody in, ever.

Apart from the wrong side of the road thing, LA freeways were very much like our motorways. The signage is the same. The architecture (using the term loosely) of the freeways, overpasses, on and off ramps in LA also seems the same as here. It would not surprise me in the least if we originally based all our motorway designs on California.

By contrast, Texas freeways are somehow much more attractive. Part of the aesthetic value could be because they bother to paint the concrete rather than leaving it bare. But there is something about the very form of their structures that is aesthetically pleasing in and of itself. Perhaps they are better proportioned, I don't know. But they are certainly much more attractive.

Not only are they more attractive, but they are way more functional. Every freeway has frontage roads - ordinary two lane roads that run parallel tothe freeway on each side. Every few miles there is a set of on and off ramps, coupled with either a bridge over the freeway, or a tunnel under it. At any point you can easily get off the freeway and access any of the businesses on either side of the freeway, and easily get back on again. They are also very forgiving if you make a wrong turn, offering U-turn lanes so you can go back if you made a mistake. And if you miss your exit, you can just take the next one and backtrack on the frontage road.

The architecture of American fast food restaurants also makes perfect sense in this context. Distinctive building with huge sign up a pole so you can easily spot it from the freeway (in either direction). Building is freestanding with lots of parking all around it, because space is just not an issue like it is in the much more densely populated areas. Plus there's a drive-thru if you are in a hurry.

I've also reconsidered my opinion of things like rubbish bins angled so you can use them from a car, or drive-though ATMs. The initial opinion of most people from NZ to these things is to decry how hideously lazy Americans must be if they can't even get out of their car for that.

But the thing you have to remember with America (and Texas in particular) is that it is huge. We inherited an architecture based on density from our British heritage, who were accustomed to trying to squeeze as much as they could into London. We consider the appropriate means of transport to be walking. We use cars to travel longer distances to put ourselves in another area to traverse on foot.

It doesn't work like that in Texas. They have heaps of space. Distances are huge and everything is much more spread out than it is here. To get anything done, you have to go and do it by car - there is no other way. A car is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Their entire landscape pretty much co-evolved with their cars. Because of the distances involved, people spend a lot of time in their car. Given that this is the case, things like drive thru food, ATMs and rubbish bins are are simply trying to be efficient. It isn't being lazy and wasteful, it's good usability. Texas is optimised for driving.

Another example of this is all the rest areas. In NZ, this means an area with a few picnic tables and maybe a grotty long drop. In the US, it's got picnic tables and toilets, but also vending machines and wireless internet.

To me, America seems both progressive and curiously backwards. They bleep the god out of goddamned on TV, but they provide free wireless internet in roadside rest stops in the middle of nowhere.