Driving in Portland: A Southerner’s Terror

Driving in Portland is unlike any driving experience I’ve had previously. Downtown is particularly bad (most downtowns are, I suppose.) It stars out all right enough. You cross a bridge over the river, heading into downtown proper. You’re just cruising along, minding your own business, when suddenly the lane you are in becomes turn only. Not having sufficient warning to change lanes, you are forced to turn and are now going 90 degrees away from your intended course of travel.

Then you realize that you’re in a bus-only lane.

Then you realize that the bus-only lane is demarked, on both sides, by the solid white line that indicates that you are not supposed to change lanes here.

You are now faced with the dilemma–break the law by driving in a bus-only lane (and really piss off any bus driver who happens to be behind you), or break the law by changing lanes illegally? Oh, and you need to make this decision and execute it in the next 50 feet.

Fortunately, those problems decrease with experience. For the first time in my life, learning a route doesn’t just require learning which streets to use–it requires learning which *lanes* in those streets to use. I’ve learned to avoid 5th and 6th street entirely, which have two whole lanes devoted to the bus, and off of which you can only turn in one direction (as you can’t cross in front of the bus-only lanes).

It’s the bicyclists and pedestrians who are the problematic bit.

I’ve never lived in a city where there were bike lanes along every road, much less bike lanes that are actually used. Unfortunately, no one stops you as you’re entering the city to hand you a primer on sharing the road with bicyclists. Thus, early in my Portland driving, I was faced with the difficulty: what happens when you need to turn right and the bicyclists (in the bike lane to your right) want to go straight? My reaction was to panic. “What do I do? What do I do? There are a thousand bicyclists and I need to turn right and I can’t judge how fast they are going in relationship to how fast I can turn and what do I do what do I do?!” Zack, ever the calm one, said dryly, “Don’t get hit things is generally a good guideline.” I amended that to the situation, which was really more of a “Don’t get hit” scenario. I yielded to the bicyclists. Crisis averted… that time, anyway. More recently, I found myself needing to turn across a bike lane. I thought the bicyclist was turning right, as I was. No such luck–the poor guy braked hard and shouted obscenities. I apologized profusely, but that probably wouldn’t have mattered to him even if he could have heard. Zack soothed my conscience by telling me that I probably gave him the best indignation boner. He probably spent all day telling everyone he encountered about how the horrible gas guzzler nearly killed him, and wouldn’t it just be better if everyone who drove cars died? Etc. etc.

So whereas the bicyclists are fast, angry, and unpredictable, the pedestrians in Portland are slow, oblivious, and unpredictable. All over downtown, there are special white-striped pedestrian crosswalks. In the UK, they call them Pelican crosswalks. Of course, in the UK, they also put nice little flashing lights on them, so you know when a pedestrian has stepped into the crosswalk. But this is America, and we can’t have nice things, so our stripey crosswalks are unlit.

That doesn’t deter the pedestrians from stepping into the street with impunity, without regard to the speed or proximity of the massive steel death dealers hurtling towards them. They step off the sidewalk with the innocence of babes, utterly assured in their belief that no harm will come to them, seemingly unaware of the possibility that one of the people operating the hurtling steel death-dealer might be a visitor in Portland. That that visitor might be from suburban Texas, where pedestrians are rare, and confident pedestrians even rarer. That the visitor might never have encountered a crosswalk where it is legal for a pedestrian to cross at any time. That the visitor might therefore be unaware that pedestrians are even something they need to be on the alert for. No, no, the pedestrians in Portland walk with the confidence of an animal that evolved in an environment without predators, In Portland, pedestrians are the top of the food chain. And they will step in front of your grill and amble, ever so slowly, across the street, not even looking at you apologetically for causing you to come screeching to a halt in order to avoid squishing their sorry patchouli-scented ass.

In other cities, pedestrians will at least acknowledge your existence. Even in Athens, where the pedestrians know that you have to step boldly into the street in order to cross it at all, those street-crossers pay careful attention to the traffic. You wait, you watch, and you choose the moment when you know that your boldness will impress the traffic to a standstill for your passage. In the American South, pedestrians have a nervous, prey-animal air about them. Even when they have a walk sign, they dart across the street, looking around, waiting for that one driver (it seems like there’s always one) who is going to come flying around the corner and cream you just as you’re about to reach the safety of the sidewalk. When a Southern pedestrian walks in front of you when they don’t have the right-of-way, they have the good decency to look apologetic. They give you grateful, doe-y eyes, a look that says, “Thank you, fossil-fueled death dealer! Thank you for not squishing me!”

Southern pedestrians get it. Southern pedestrians understand. They know their place, and, all philosophical questions aside, it isn’t the top of the food chain. It’s a simple question of physics:force equals mass times acceleration. Even if the car were moving very slowly, as slowly even as the pedestrian walked, it would still have a couple of tons of mass to translate into force. The pedestrian will not win that one. You can’t fight physics.

It took me a while to lose my Southern pedestrian sensibilities. Even in the pelican crosswalks, where I ostensibly had the right-of-way all the time, I would wait for a break in traffic. Sometimes, a driver would see me there, waiting for a safe time to cross, and stop to let me across. I would smile graciously at them, and hurry out of their way. I had taken to coaching myself across these crosswalks, “Act confident. Act confident. They’re not going to hit you. They’re not going to hit you. Don’t look at them. Pretend to be a local. Act confident. Keep walking.” I suspect I did not fool anyone. I suspect they could sense my anxiety.

But now, four months in to my life in Portland, my inner anxious Southern pedestrian has relaxed. Sure, I look when we cross the street–that’s just good sense–but I’ll also step into the pelican crosswalk when there are lots of cars in the road, instead of waiting until the road is empty. Sometimes, if I feel like it, I’ll smile at the cars that have stopped for me, but just as often now, I won’t pay them a passing glance, keeping my eyes instead on the path ahead of me. The cars have become a strange background object, like lions behind the glass at the zoo. It’s pleasant. It’s peaceful.

Well, until someone new to town plasters my sorry kale-carrying ass across their grill.

Driving in Portland: A Southerner’s Terror

2 thoughts on “Driving in Portland: A Southerner’s Terror

  1. Could not leave a comment on your piece “I’m a Racist and So Are you” so I decided to put it here. Also sent some tweets — not much for Twitter but thought it might reach you. As a bicyclist I fully appreciate what you say about PDX — I live in Corvallis but find myself in Portland on my bike and in my car (they always go together) fairly regularly. So your comments on pedestrian practice held my interest. But what you say about racism is even more important. There is a book group forming in PDX around the book “Blindspot” by the creators of the IAT (Implicit Assumptions Test), one of whom is a ethnic Persian/Iranian woman Mahzarin Banaji. Right now there are 8 women and 1 man (me). The doors are wide open, and it seems to me this would be right up your street (complete with pelican walkway!). I revised your webpage for my own use in PDF format (it being CC), and want to share it with you. I tweeted you a public link to my Dropbox so you can download it. The file contains my contact info (email, mobile) at the top. Feel free to contact me about the PDF, the book club, racism, white/male privilege, etc.

Comments are closed.