Monday, March 24, 2008
What Portland Oregon Doesn’t Want You To Know
Since two different colleagues have recently accused me of civic boosterism, it’s time I confessed that there is one thing about my adopted home town that drives me barking mad. And that is – well, driving. Portland has the worst drivers of any town I’ve ever lived in. And I developed motorist survival skills in Manhattan, Los Angeles and San Francisco (where I learned to drive a stick, can you imagine?). Three notorious snake pits of automobile dystopia. Driving L.A.’s freeways always reminded me of being tossed into a pinball machine. But you know what? People in those places all knew how to drive. They had to.
Not so in Portland, where you can tell from the plethora narrow streets that the town anticipated the town having heavy traffic. Many residential streets are barely wide enough for two lanes, and a ten-mile drive here is often considered too far to travel. This is part of Portland’s charm, I admit it; but its corollary is a gobsmackingly high percentage of motorists who can barely manage to keep their cars on the road.
People just plain drive slower here – which wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily, except that the slowness pervades more than just driving speed. You see it frequently at stop lights, where some people go into a trance of sorts while waiting for green light to turn to red. Here is the sequence:
1. Realize that the light must have changed to green since the cross-traffic has ceased to move.
2. Look left to see if anyone’s coming.
3. Look right to see if anyone’s coming.
4. Make a decision to move forward and prepare to act on this.
5. Ease out into the intersection, blissfully unaware of how few people made it through that light because of your inattention.
Many Portlanders (not all, but I do mean many) have no concept of right of way. Perhaps Driver’s Ed isn’t taught in high schools here, I don’t know, but confusion reigns in just about any situation where a right-of-way protocol should exist. The most hilarious exemplar of this is the four-way stop. Here are a few reactions to it that I see every single day:
The person on the right has the right away if s/he’s anywhere in sight. Never mind that s/he’s nowhere near the intersection yet.
Opposing traffic is supposed to wait till you’re nearly across the intersection and then go, thus doubling the wait for the people on the left and right.
Every driver should examine the faces of the others to see if they feel strongly about going first.
Once you’ve determined that it’s your turn, look for oncoming traffic and wait till it has come to a full stop, just in case it doesn’t understand that it has a stop sign.
Things really go to hell when someone needs to turn left at a four-way stop. In L.A., the accepted custom was that if you’re turning left, you ease into the intersection while the opposing traffic goes by, then make your turn. Try that in Portland and panic ensues; people will think you intend to hit them.
In fact, stop signs in general flummox Portlanders. God help you in pedestrian-heavy districts like the Pearl, because – no exaggeration here – about a third of drivers there sail thoughtlessly through stop signs. Another third of them come to a dead stop at intersections where there is no stop sign; then they sit there blankly wondering why pedestrians are staring at them. Thankfully the remaining 1/3 of drivers actually look to see whether there’s a sign or not and act accordingly.
The comedy goes on and on. Many drivers here do not know they can right on a red light, and will sit blankly at a light with no other drivers in sight. And then, yes, as aforesaid, when the light finally changes these same people will usually look both ways and then consider making the turn before finally up and actually executing it.
Finally – this is not an irritation, more like a mere quirk. But apparently there’s an unwritten law in Portland that states you’re supposed to use your windshield wipers as seldom as possible. Here we are in a wet climate, but unless the rain is blindingly torrential, there’s this reluctance to use the wipers more than intermittently. How come? Maybe they’re afraid to wear them out? I don’t know.
And I’m just getting warmed up. I could go on and on and on….but I’ll spare you. Just remember if you come to visit and you’re renting a car, be prepared to take your time getting into town. I assure you everybody else is!