The Keys to Driving in the City


Driving in rush-hour Pittsburgh traffic is brutal. It’s a cut-throat business. It’s a battle of size and strength and wits. It will weed out the losers from the winners. It is a fight to the finish. The one with guts gets all the glory.

I used to be terrified of driving in the city. It was quite literally my biggest fear. I was forced to get over this fear when the organization I work for moved offices. And of course we moved to a place that is farther away and harder to get to, across two  rivers, over five bridges, under three overpasses and through one tunnel. Oh wait, two tunnels. There was nothing I could do; I had to face my fear.

It took me about a week and a half before I felt confident enough to put away my GPS. Even now, a month later, I still keep my phone on the seat next to me, just in case there’s an accident, or a fire, or a water main break, and I’m forced down an unfamiliar road.

Now, I’m almost a pro. I say almost because, like I said, driving in rush-hour, city traffic is cut-throat. And I do not always come out on top.

In order to drive in traffic across two rivers, over five bridges, under three overpasses and through two tunnels, one must be aggressive. Never drive in the slow lane if you think you could be going faster or you might want to go faster later. You will inevitably get stuck behind a large 18-wheeler or a mom in a minivan, and they do not care how slow they are going.

One must merge into lanes forcefully. Make the decision to cut in front of someone and stick to that decision. If there is not enough space for your car, the person you are cutting in front of will just have to stop and let you in. Because you are in it to win it.

On a similar note, merge at the last possible second. Too many people try to merge the second they see the lane on their left, thus stopping all traffic behind them on the ramp and firmly positioning themselves too far back in the line. If you keep driving in the merge lane until you can drive no further, think of all the cars you will pass, stuck in that traffic.

After you’ve merged, don’t let any space get between you and that car just ahead of you. You never know who might try to sneak in at the next ramp. Don’t make eye contact and don’t give an inch. You earned your spot in line and you’re going to keep it.

Drive on the shoulder of a ramp when you are positive that no one will hit you. Driving outside the lines, on the rumble strips sometimes cannot be avoided. This is part of the battle. You just have to drive around those people who tried to merge too soon and cut in front of the lazy drivers.

When coming to a traffic light, one must run the yellows, even at the last possible second. It is legal to drive through a yellow light. So do it. If you stop at every yellow light you get to on a 45-minute drive through the city, it will end up taking you an hour. Or you will get rear-ended because the car behind you was planning on running the yellow light after you.

If the left-turn-signal on the traffic light goes out, you have about five more seconds to make a left-hand turn before the oncoming traffic actually starts to move. Use that time wisely and make your turn. But be aggressive about it. If you hesitate, you will lose your five-second advantage and be stuck in the middle of the intersection.

Which leads me to my next point. One must never stop in the middle of an intersection. You will get beeped and honked at, especially by buses because they’re big and clumsy, and you will probably get hit and smashed. Enough said.

If you manage to make it through all the bumper-to-bumper traffic, avoid the distracted drivers on their phones, eating a sandwich, balancing coffee while painting their nails, and arrive at your destination on time, give yourself a small pat on the back. Because you’ve survived only one half of the nightmare that is driving to work, because you have yet to go home. Getting home at the end of the day is often worse, after people have gotten crap from their bosses, worked overtime, and spilled their lunch all over their shirt. This is when the real fun begins.

This is when you show no mercy. It’s the big trucks and the tiny convertibles who think they are invincible, so you have to show them you mean business. All the above rules go into overtime at this point. Merge like you mean it, get into the fast lane ASAP and don’t budge. Pedal to the metal, and all that jazz.

This is war. And you, my friend, will emerge victorious.



UPDATE (2/22/13): Due to concerns expressed by several readers, I would just like to make a note that I do not in any way condone illegal or reckless driving. I advocate strategic driving. When driving in Pittsburgh, one must find humor in small things or one will go crazy.

(photo via)


The Complete Guide to Getting Lost

I wish I had a hidden video camera filming me while I drive my car because the utter confusion and exasperation I feel when I’m driving around the streets of Pittsburgh would make a really funny YouTube video.

I’m a pretty good driver who has a terrible sense of direction in new places. Not exactly an ideal combination. And unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to drive around the city of Pittsburgh very often throughout my life. Everything I needed was already within the two-mile radius of my house in the suburbs. So imagine my anxiety when every other week or so I have the fabulous opportunity to drive someplace that I’ve never been.

I think that some cosmic force has decided that I really must get lost every time I go someplace new. No matter how many directions I print out or how well I’ve memorized Mapquest or how accurate my GPS is. I have never gotten somewhere without driving the wrong way or completely missing it first.

Driving in Pittsburgh is terrifying for someone who doesn’t do it often. There are one-way streets and ramps and exits everywhere. A ramp that looks like it will take you where you want to go actually veers off and goes over and under and around and pretty soon you’re not even in the city anymore. If you go across a river, it takes awhile to find a way back across. If you go through a tunnel, forget it.

So I have a very strict routine that I keep when driving to and through the unknown. I meticulously write down the address on at least two post-it notes. I type the address into a notes app on my phone. I search for the destination on MapQuest and when I print out step-by-step directions (with helpful hints), I make sure to enlarge the font so that if I’m driving and have to read the paper, it’ll be easier to see. I calculate the time it will take me to get to the destination, add fifteen minutes for traffic, five minutes for parking and ten minutes for wrong turns, to determine what time I’ll have to leave my house. And this is all the day (sometimes the week) before the “trip.”

I might sound like I’ve never driven anywhere in my life, but as I have found out, all of this preparation is apparently necessary. Because as soon as I start driving, nothing goes according to plan. The MapQuest directions look easy, the total time it should take isn’t long, I know the general direction–I think. And then come the winding ramps and streets of Pittsburgh. How are 376, 279 and 576 all the same road? And why did MapQuest tell me 376 but the GPS voice (whom I’ve named Ginny, trying to build a relationship with a piece of technology so she doesn’t take her wrath out on me) tells me its 576? When I’m completely positive that my car is positioned under the correct sign for the correct exit, then suddenly Ginny calls out–“Recalculating.” How?!

You know that extra gravelly space to the side of the exit that was made for people who decide to turn at the last possible second? Yes, I use that. Suddenly realizing I should be turning, or taking that exit, not the next one, I wrench the wheel across that extra space. Watch out for people like me.

As soon as I relax because I made that exit, Ginny lets me know that the next exit is on the left and I have approximately two seconds to cross over three lanes of traffic before the ramp takes me across a river where I do not  want to go. I merge into traffic, make the next exit and again relax a little. I have two minutes until I reach my destination.

Driving along, driving along. “Your destination is on the right.” Emphasis on the words “on” and “right.” (I wonder what nationality Ginny is…) And I drive along, cursing, talking aloud, like what? where? I don’t see it! And I quickly drive right by, saying “oh there it went.” Then I have to find a place to turn around, make a U-turn, do whatever I have to do to go back, and find some place to park. Parking is not fun either. A car is a very big thing to find a spot for and if there is nowhere to put it, what do you do?

That’s just half my battle. I haven’t even started home yet. Getting home is even better because as meticulous as I was making sure I had directions to get to my destination, I didn’t print out any to get home. So I must rely on Ginny, who firmly decides not to have a signal. So I drive, make a turn, this road looks familiar. Oh wait, this ramp is actually taking me the wrong way. And suddenly I’m going across a bridge, towards a tunnel that is definitely in the wrong direction.

By the time Ginny finds out where she is in the world, I have driven around and through the whole city of Pittsburgh and must now untangle myself from the one-way streets.

Ginny always gets me home though. And every time I go to the same place, it gets a little easier. Maybe someday I’ll be able to navigate the Burgh but right now I’m struggling. And if I had a video camera in the car with me, it would be hilarious. After I get where I’m going.


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