In 1982 Missing Persons sang, “Nobody walks in LA.” Los Angeles has long been criticized for being a city on wheels—you must have a car to survive. But…not necessarily true. There’s an efficient 100-mile rail system that includes connections from the Valley to downtown, and from East LA to LAX, a web of protected bike lanes, creative bus schedules, and walkable urban neighborhoods.
Houston has the sprawl of LA without the charm, the palm trees without the whimsy, the hot weather without the beaches, and the traffic without the beautiful people in their beautiful cars. Even the bumper stickers reflect how LA and Houston residents feel about their respective cities.
Houston has the worst drivers, with the worst road rage, driving on the worst roads, and carrying weapons. Not a comforting mix for a Northwesterner who comes to a complete halt at a stop sign, yields the right-of-way, and has never fired a gun. As one Houston traffic-forum commentator said, “In Washington and Oregon, unlike Texas, I don’t feel like people are out to kill me with their driving.”
General resistance to mass transportation, a transit authority faced with blocked funding and corruption, a political system that discourages bike and pedestrian traffic, and decades of deferred road maintenance have created a hostile driving environment, complete with painfully long red lights and streets full of cracks and potholes, where forward movement is reduced to a crawl.
The Houston sprawl has created long commutes with extended travel times, so frustrated drivers are always in a hurry. Within this culture, the car—and its driver—reigns supreme. Anything that slows progress, such as traffic laws, pedestrians, bicycles or other drivers, is annoying and often disregarded. Lax traffic enforcement adds to this mindset and invariably leads to a high number of accidents as motorists ignore traffic signals and common sense without fear of punishment.
I dunno, maybe the flood of new residents from Paris, Rome, Mumbai, Mexico City, Lagos Nigeria, Sao Paulo and Beijing are used to a no-rules approach. Maybe American-born Houstontonians (or is it Houstoners), who make up the majority of the lousy drivers, have evolved to deal with the we-don’t-care attitude of their leaders. But I, for one, don’t get behind the wheel unless the trip is mission critical.
Shout-outs to Houston drivers:
- Silver Camry, “Congratulations, you finally found your turn signal. Using it doesn’t allow you to just move over into my lane.”
- Big, square SUV on Kirby with tinted windows, “A red light does not mean, three more cars. See you at the next stoplight.”
- Beat-up construction-crew pickup, “Thanks for leaving that ladder in my lane, next time I need one, I’ll know where to look.”
- Teenager texting and driving the Mercedes, “At least I know that your tires will be stolen and your dad will be mad.”
- All of you who left mattresses along the side of the road, “Uncharacteristically thoughtful gesture, but I’m not sleepy right now.”
- Fat guy using his stomach, with iPad balanced on top, to steer, “I’m not kidding, you can blow up the zombies once you get home.”
- Petrified woman driving right next to the Metro Rail on Fannin (that would be me), “Don’t worry, the train’s not going to hit you. It only hits pedestrians.”
- Tricked out NASCAR-style Camaro going 95 on the 610, “Are your pants on fire?”
- Texas Medical Center drivers (you know who you are) who cross from the far left lane to turn right in front of me, “Really?”
- White pickup on the West Loop with ⬇️ in the window,
- Tall, black four-wheeler, who refused to take turns at that four-way stop Monday and crashed into me while using his phone, “I was hoping to get out of Houston with my fifty-five year, accident-free record in tact. Now I’ll probably lose my AARP Silver Driver badge.”
Here’s probably where I should soften my rhetoric and present a more positive tone. Although I have driven extensively in LA and San Diego, managed to survive in Seattle, Portland, and Northern California, I haven’t faced the daily grind of city traffic for a long time. During our trip last year to the East coast and back, we faced heavy, mind-numbing traffic in every major city on our route, so it could be that the good old days of a Sunday drive are over. But Houston has kicked my butt, as they say, and dented my fender.
There’s no recipe this week. I’ve been spending my time in auto body repair shops—drinking weak coffee, reading old Motor Trend magazines, and watching Wheel of Fortune reruns.