I get around

20 Feb

Anywhere in the world you go has its pros and cons relative to another place. This is a universal truth. Some places are better than others and some places are worse and no place is perfect. There are a lot of things I like better about Australia and plenty of things I miss about America.

Today I’d like to talk about what each country gets right and wrong about transportation.

One thing I really enjoy about living here is the ease with which one can get around without a car. In America, the sidewalks, if there are any at all, are disconnected, poorly maintained, and don’t really lead anywhere.

Most cities in America are not bike friendly and among the few cities that have bothered to put in bike lanes, they are often unconnected, following strange routes, and usually dangerous, as motorists there aren’t educated about sharing the road and aren’t used to watching out for cyclists.

A typical Melbourne tram

Then there’s public transportation. Only a few cities in America have decent public transportation and whether or not it is safe is another matter entirely. Most cities just have a bus service and in those cities, the buses are generally unofficially reserved for people of a certain colour and class and woe to you should you attempt to intrude on their territory without being one of them. I took this kind of public transportation once for about a year before the harassment, threats, and attempted attacks finally convinced me I’d be better off taking a car when I needed to go somewhere. Even in cities where all types take public transport (i.e. New York, Washington DC), I never felt particularly safe, especially in the later hours.

Melbourne is the complete opposite. There are sidewalks on every single road, no matter how big or small, with well marked crosswalks. Anywhere you need to go, you can walk to it safely without having to walk in the ditch or run through traffic, dodging cars as you try to get across the street.

One of many bicycle trails in Melbourne

There are bike lanes almost everywhere and even where there are none, motorists understand that they need to share the road and keep an eye out for cyclists. There are also plenty of dedicated cycling trails and they actually form a pretty extensive network of interconnected trails that actually lead to places you might want to go. As a result, I don’t see nearly as many fat people here. In fact, with traffic congestion, it’s often quicker to go by bike.

I’ve never had a problem with the public transportation here. I generally favour the trams over the buses or trains, but all are pretty good. They’re kept clean and the riders are usually quiet and respectful. No one group has claimed it just for themselves and everyone can ride it safely without any expectation of being singled out for abuse. Unlike in America, I’ve never felt unsafe using public transport here or waiting at a stop.

In America, all exits with services have these blue signs telling you exactly what you can find off that exit. Prefer Burger King to McDonald’s? Keep driving.

Of course, one thing America does do better- and by better, I mean better than any other country in the world- is roads. The American interstate system is unparalleled for traveler comfort and convenience. Every major city in America is connected via interstate. The lanes are wide, there are exits with services every couple of miles, everything is well signposted, speed limits are such that you can get where you need to go in a reasonable amount of time (speed limits here are horribly depressed). I don’t care if Germany invented the autobahn- I’ve been on their autobahns and they’ve got nothing on America. In America, you can also bypass most major cities via the ring roads- a major plus for long travels- which is something other countries still seem struggling to catch onto.

One traffic problem that seems ubiquitous in Melbourne is the lack of lanes appropriate to handle traffic volume. On the vast majority of streets, there are two lanes. The left most lane is used as a parking lane except during peak time, at which people are not allowed to park there. The right most lane is sometimes shared with tram tracks. There are NO TURN LANES!

This generates several problems. It effectively means that at every intersection, there is no through lane for traffic continuing straight. People turn right from the right lane- and usually there are no right turn arrows- and everyone behind them must wait. People turn left from the left lane, but only once they have gotten past the parked cars can they move into it, which takes a long time, as the whole line of cars is waiting on some selfish right turner at the front of the line. As a result, very few cars get through on each turn of the light and traffic builds up until it is at a standstill. This happens at all times of day in every part of the city.

Also, people sometimes turn right where there is no stop light and then they must sit and block traffic until an opening comes in the oncoming traffic. You can’t really go around them because- guess what!- there are parked cars blocking the left lane. There are some roads where there aren’t many shops and so not many parked cars, and then traffic will split into two lanes, which is great until the left lane comes upon a parked car and everyone tries to bail into the right lane. It’s a mess!

The center turn lane: universal solution to traffic jams

You would never see that in America. In America, there are always turn lanes, usually for both right and left, with dedicated arrows. On busy streets where people might be making turns across traffic with no light, there are center turn lanes. When traffic congestion becomes too much in places where it is not practical to widen the road, we turn them into one-way streets, effectively doubling traffic capacity. But Melbourne, a city of four million people, is comprised almost entirely of single lane roads (except at peak time when you get a whopping two lanes and only if people have remembered to unpark their cars).

On the whole, though, I think Australians are more laid back about driving. There are places in America where driving is a contact sport (the New Jersey turnpike comes to mind) and you have to be quite aggressive, even to the point of risking a serious accident, just to make a simple lane change.

Now, I admit I am sometimes one of those drivers who pushes and shoves through traffic. I do get extremely annoyed with slow drivers or people who aren’t paying attention. So many drivers in America are just trundling along paying attention to anything but driving and I feel a need to teach them a lesson, especially the morons who hang out in the passing lane while not passing anyone or making any attempt to pass anyone. Not such an issue here, fortunately. Although, I am strongly opposed to the necessarily slow speed limits and omnipresent speed cameras in Australia. Maybe I’m just overly full of myself, but I don’t believe I need a sign and a camera to indicate to me what a safe driving speed is for the current road conditions and Australians are kidding themselves if they really believe those measures are driven by a concern for safety rather than a concern for revenue.

Conclusion: America is better for driving, hands down. Australia is better for everything else. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to rain much here in Australia, so riding a bike or walking is no big deal.

8 Responses to “I get around”

  1. jannath11 February 20, 2012 at 3:56 am #

    I had quite the chuckle at your description of the jersey turnpike being a contact sport style of driving. So true. We’re in philly so we’ve had to deal with jersey drivers… well.. far more than I’d like to. GAH!

    • housewifedownunder February 20, 2012 at 4:03 am #

      The entire Bos-Wash megalopolis is on giant traffic jam. I took G with me on a business trip last November to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington and I asked him if he wanted to drive. He said he was too afraid to drive and was most of the time too afraid to even open his eyes. He nearly had a heart attack one day when we were driving in bumper to bumper traffic and twice I had to veer onto the shoulder to avoid being rear-ended. Not to mention, tailgating is common practice there. Can’t leave too much space or someone will budge in front of you. Fortunately, driving anywhere in the midwest is not so bad. But the first time I drove up the east coast, it was white knuckles the whole way and it definitely took some getting used to. It’s certainly not for beginners! Los Angeles drivers are almost as bad as East Coasters, but not quite. And New Jersey drivers are definitely the rudest, most obnoxious, most dangerous drivers on the planet!

      • jannath11 February 20, 2012 at 4:09 am #

        oh my goodness.. your poor hubby. Yeah, driving here in the US is a whole other world to me sometimes. Road rage galore (some of it may have rubbed off on me lol). Ever try Boston? that city is insane to drive around in. The ever present road construction is CRAAAZY.

      • housewifedownunder February 20, 2012 at 4:19 am #

        I haaaaaaaate Boston. Haven’t been there in a few years, but I remember it being really horrible. As a city by itself, Boston is probably in my top 3 worst places to drive.

        And I am all about road rage! I’m constantly cussing up a storm and flashing my lights at people and honking. But hey, I do always get where I need to be on time! And I’ve never had an accident.

        A lot of times I feel like Melbourne drivers are typical Aussies- very laid back and carefree. I’m always like, “Hello! I’m in a hurry! Stop dawdling!” They just cruise about 5kph under the limit, stopping for every yellow light, yielding to every person who wants to turn in front of them, giving way to every jaywalking pedestrian. It’s maddening! I just want to run them over!

  2. The Modern Home Economist February 20, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    Interesting that you are happy with Melbourne’s transport system. As a native Melbournian, many of us have several complaints about it.
    – We have very expensive public transport system
    – We have the worst train system in the country
    – The trains are full to the brim (during peak hour you will inhale other people’s hair)
    – You would want to ride your bike on most roads unless you have a death wish

    The lack of right hand turn lanes (and lights) is appaling and creates so much traffic, expecially due to the existence of trams (which most people cannot drive around)

    But yes, the footpaths are good 🙂 and I am glad you are enjoying the roads…

    • housewifedownunder February 20, 2012 at 5:34 am #

      I’m happy with it to a point. Driving is a nightmare, but the public transit seems to work well. Yes, it does get pretty full, but I usually avoid it at peak times. And so far, I have not had a problem with cycling. I’ve been on the paths and on the roads. The only thing about riding on the road is that a lot of times, you end up having to ride next to a whole row of parked cars and I always worry about getting doored by someone who doesn’t look before getting out of their car. Where I used to live, I had to drive 35 minutes outside the city just to find a suitable place to ride. I like that I can just hop on my bike here and go anywhere, anytime.

  3. Cosette May 18, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    Good observations. I also think that Melbourne drivers are more considerate (well, compared to Miami drivers, which rank among the worst in the U.S.), but I do think that driving is more nuanced there for the reasons yo u mentioned. I’m nervous about driving in Melbourne. Did it take you long to get the hang of driving on the opposite side of the car and the road?

    • housewifedownunder May 19, 2012 at 12:02 am #

      I’ve lived in the UK before, so driving on the other side wasn’t new to me, but I do find I have to pay extra attention going back and forth to America. Last time I went back to America, I really had to think about what lanes to turn into and in my jet lagged tiredness, I made a few mistakes. But after two weeks driving on the right again, when I got back to Australia I had to make a conscious effort to keep left for a few days.

      Nothing to fear driving here. I find it very sedate and boring as there is little opportunity for behind the wheel excitement. One thing you might find helpful is reading a driver’s manual because some rules are a bit different.

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