Friday, June 7, 2013

The Displaced Commuter

It may have been George Carlin that said “anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot; anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac.” It’s funny, because, well, it’s true. Like most Americans that dwell in city or suburb, I commute to work. Adding to the world’s environmental woes, I travel in a non-fuel-efficient, 15 year-old pickup along I-5 (or “The 5” to keep true to my Southern California vernacular.) I make this commute 4 or 5 days a week, from the Portland suburb of Tigard to the not-quite-Portland suburb of Wilsonville.  From house to freeway to high-tech industrial campus, I pass any number of bus stops and rail stations that could be waypoints in my journey from home to work. But no, like many Americans, I drive, and I drive alone.
My alter-ego as a commuter started at age 22. I say alter-ego because let’s face it—we’re all different people behind the wheel. The kind-hearted grandfather boils with rage and flips off the overly-cautious Asian-American software engineer because of a slow right turn. The Asian scowls back, yelling profanities as grandpa leaves a smoking trail of rubber down the otherwise quiet parkway. If they had met in a bank line or grocery check-out they might have made small talk about the weather or gas prices. But no, out here on the roads, it’s kill or be killed.
It’s a strange phenomenon, really. What is it about sitting behind the wheel that makes us impervious to the outside world? Not only will we flip people off and shout random insults but we’ll pick our nose and sing at the top of our lungs. Imagine doing that in the bank or a convenience store: “Sweeeeet Caroline!!” erupting behind you at 7-11 as a middle-age mother of two digs into her nose with gusto, rooting around to capture an elusive snot-goblin. And imagine your continued surprise if she started belittling you for taking a bit too long to punch in your pin number or decide on a brand of cigarettes. The truth is, our behavior behind the wheel is often deplorable.
I’m no exception. I drive well over the speed limit. I tailgate in the fast-lane (it’s the fast-lane! Move it!) I’ll squeeze to the far-right lane between two cars 1/16th of a mile before my exit. I’d like to think I have an excuse though—I learned to commute in Southern California. And more specifically, I cut my teeth driving between Orange County and Long Beach on the most infamous of L.A.-area freeways: The 405.
If you’ve never lived in the L.A. area you likely have the misconception that people there drive like shit. Not true. Yes, L.A. drivers are aggressive. Sure, they don’t slow down in the right lane of the freeway to let you merge, and god-forbid you do any less than 75 or 80 MPH in the fast lane. But the thing is, L.A. drivers know how to get where they are going with the most efficient use of time, space, and conditions. If that means cutting you off, riding your ass, or swerving across five lanes of traffic mere feet before an exit—well, it is what it is: places to go, people to see, and limited time to do it. Like a monstrous mechanical ballet of grand proportions, the L.A. freeways buzz along, bumper to bumper at speeds of 80 MPH and faster.
 Unless it rains. Then all hell breaks loose. That’s another post altogether.
Segue to my move to Oregon. My first trip to Portland I rented a car at PDX and did the 205 south/84 west/5 south routine to the city. I passed car after car, weaving through the slow-moving traffic wondering all the while what was going on. Is there a cop somewhere? Do these people know something I don’t? And that’s when I saw it as I dropped down through the 84 to 5/405 interchange in Northeast Portland:
That’s the school-zone limit in most Southern California cities.
Much to my surprise people were not only abiding by it, they were even driving under the posted limit. I mean, really? Driving under the speed limit? Preposterous!
Portland is a great place to call home. People are proud of this city and region and I often find myself touting its exceptional qualities to my friends and family that don’t live here. It has so much to offer from outdoor activities and a thriving food scene to a unique (albeit sometimes pretentious) urban culture. I’ve been here for over 8 years and have no plans to move in the near or distant future. Perhaps a home on the coast someday, but I’m in the Pacific Northwest for good.
I’m sorry though, many of you Portlanders drive like shit.
And notice I didn’t say “you Portlanders drive like shit.” No, not everyone here drives like a senior citizen on Sunday afternoon, but a surprising percentage of you do. Overly cautious and polite to the point of being hazardous, your driving irks my Californian commuter sensibility to its core.
You don’t slow down to let someone merge! Those cars had better be going freeway speed by the time they get on the freeway! And you use every last bit of what’s left of that “right lane ends” space before trying to merge over, and don’t you dare try and change lanes into the backed up traffic in the next lane when there’s a good ½ a mile of clear freeway beckoning you forth. What? Do you think you’re cutting? You folks that drive the 405 to 5 south interchange headed out of the city know exactly what I’m talking about.
How many times have I seen a vehicle stopped, motioning for some idiot, jaywalking pedestrian in 4 lanes of busy traffic with no crosswalk to “go ahead, go ahead” as cars hurtle by in either direction? Are you kidding me?
I suppose in a case like that I should be resigned to let that whole “survival of the fittest” thing run its course.
                But again, the speed limit—it’s merely a suggestion. It’s bad enough the interstate limits are 65 and most of the freeways in the city are set to a molasses-like 50. The average cop will tell you you’ll never get a ticket for going 5-over on surface streets and up to 10-over on the freeway. And unless there’s an inch of water on the road, a locust swarm, or Mt Hood is spewing forth a plume of lava and ash that has blanketed every road in the city, you never, ever, drive under the speed limit.
Portland, I do love much about you. Sure, the rain gets old come April (and maddening come July,) and I could do without so many hipsters and fixed-gear bicyclists (my truck will win you know,) but really, I do adore you, City of Roses.
 I just wish you’d learn how to drive.