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Tasteful San Antonio: The Drivening

As you may know, I have long been fascinated with the unique bad driving habits of people in the various cities in which I have lived. From the raw incompetence of the Chicago driver to the terrifying naked aggression of the Los Angeles driver to the life-hating insanity of the Phoenix driver, I have sampled many rotten meats in our nation's automotive stew.

Surprisingly, San Antonio drivers are not particularly bad. In fact, they probably tie with Twin Cities drivers as the least ragingly awful drivers I have ever encountered; their sole irksome characteristic is tailgating, which is doubly unnerving because approximately 75% of them drive SUVs or pickup trucks roughly the size of a convenience store. However, this still makes them less nerve-wracking than the drivers of Dallas or Austin, who have the same crowding tendencies and also seem to consider it a sign of effeminacy to let their speedometers drop below 80.

So, really, I don't have that much of a problem with the drivers here. The roads, on the other hand, are an unending nightmare of depravity and madness. It isn't even so much the traffic, which is much less awful than L.A. or Chicago or even Austin; it's just that the roads themselves seem to have been designed by a consortium of angry, half-paralyzed, one-eyed apes in the direct employ of Satan. I've said many times that this is the most poorly-designed city I've ever seen, and nowhere is this more evident than on the roads. Here are a few examples:

- Like many cities that experienced late-growth exurban sprawl, San Antonio built dozens of freeways rather than just expanding and streamlining the ones that already existed. Chicago, with 5 million people, essentially only has two major freeways, and does all right; Minneapolis, with a fifth of that population, has approximately eight hundred freeways, confusingly named and completely unintuitive. SATX has the same problem, and you often find yourself in the middle of a huge cluster of over- and underpasses, with your destination clearly visible but no way to get to it because you're on the wrong freeway, thus necessitating driving three miles to get somewhere that is 500 feet away.

- The condition of the roads here is absolutely appalling. A combination of low funding (no state income tax) and misappropriation (most of the road monies go to building still more freeways) means that the city streets are cracked, badly painted (lanes appear and disappear more or less at random) and pothole-ridden. There is a street near my house – and not a small one, either, but a major thoroughfare – where a huge, unavoidable, suspension-wrecking pothole sat for about six months, with the city's only reaction being to put a couple of traffic cones around it, thus causing drivers to have to hug the curb to get around it. Just last week, they filled in the pothole – but they didn't flatten the fill, so now, where there was once a foot-deep, foot-wide hole in the middle of the road, there is not a foot-high, foot-wide pile of rock in the middle of the road.

- This is something I have never seen before anyplace I have ever lived: on some roads – again, not little residential side streets, but major traffic arteries – the sidewalk simply disappears, and signs are put up indicating "no pedestrian traffic". The curb of the residences and businesses nearby literally go right up to the street, and there are low walls placed alongside the road, so you have nowhere to walk. What are you supposed to do if you're a pedestrian and you live in that neighborhood? Or have to walk there to get to work? Or get through it to get home? Walk two blocks out of your way, I guess, or go around the back and walk through the filthy alleys like a rat.

- Due to zoning, tradition, and good old incompetence, lots of streets in San Antonio are named one thing going in one direction and another thing going in another direction. There are also dozens and dozens of streets that are called one thing for part of their length and another thing for the rest of it. This can be confusing if you haven't lived here for, oh, 25 years. Additionally, in most cities, if you get lost, you can go to certain major roads and be assured that if you follow it long enough in the right direction, it will intersect with a street that gets you to where to want to go; no so in San Antonio. There are tons of major streets that run parallel with other major streets and never intersect with them, and there's very few streets anywhere that run all the way through the length of the city. The end result of all this shitty planning is that if you get lost, it's very difficult to just find your way back easily, since doubling back often puts you someplace totally different from where you started to begin with.

- Signage here is as half-assed and crummy as humanly possible. A few miles from where my mom lives, there is a freeway sign that is literally factually wrong – not just misleading (like the sign that says "take next right to Hildebrand", when in fact the next right takes you to West, which intersects with Hildebrand after about a mile with no signs to indicate this is about to happen and which if you follow it directly will take you in the wrong direction), but actually incorrect. It says "Lanark next right", when in fact, Lanark is the next left. Everyone knows this and compensates for it, but why the city can't just fix the sign is beyond me. Also, not too far from where I live, there's a bunch of construction on the I-10. The exit I take to get on the freeway is open, but the same exit is closed to get off the freeway, as are two before it and two after it, meaning I have to drive a long-ass distance out of the way to get home – it took me 20 minutes to get to the theater last night and over an hour to get back, with less traffic. But the truly amazing thing is that they didn't set up a detour, or even erect signs saying the exits are closed and suggesting a different exit to use -- they just put huge black plastic garbage bags over the signs to cover up all the text. It's like if Stalin ran the Public Works department.


Dec. 26th, 2007 03:40 pm (UTC)
I wonder how Atlanta compares with San Antonio.
Dec. 26th, 2007 03:42 pm (UTC)
I've never driven in Atlanta, but the last time I was there, I remember being amused at the fact that the train only seemed to have four stops in a "+" pattern. I was less amused at the random white people who told me racist jokes about the train.
Dec. 26th, 2007 03:50 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that pretty much sums up the common perception of MARTA, at least in the northern suburbs (i.e. where the white folks live). Plenty of people only take MARTA to get downtown for sports events, and then expect some kind of medal for being around those *whisper* blacks. I took it to get to school for four years with no major problems.
Dec. 26th, 2007 04:32 pm (UTC)
I am absurdly proud of my navigational skills. I don't GET lost. But Atlanta defeated me!
Dec. 27th, 2007 12:18 am (UTC)
Actually, when I lived in Atlanta, I found the overall highway design to be pretty good -- 285 and 75/85 form a good hub-and-spoke system, with I-20 and 400 forming good secondary spokes. There were some serious problems with signage, though, particularly downtown: for example, a lot of the downtown one-way streets (of which there were many) were simply not adequately marked, causing several near-accidents that I witnessed. Also, a lot of the signs were simply cryptic; near where I lived, a lane ending was simply marked by an overhanging sign that said "NO." Very helpful.

I found the drivers to be not so bad, but I actually witnessed far more accidents than I do in Boston. I have a number of theories to explain that.

The whole state of MARTA says a lot about race politics in Atlanta and the car culture, but I think you summed it up pretty succinctly.
Dec. 26th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC)
ah, the signage....
oh God, the signage!! I hate how there is a sign for, say, the highway at one point, and then for 4 or 5 blocks, there is nothing. You just have to assume that you are going along fine.

But you missed my favorite: the intermittent frontage roads. On Saturday, M and I were going to The Quarry (to catch a movie on a rare date night), and we got off an exit early or late... and the frontage road (of 281) just dead-ended. The Holiday Inn had closed off the road's development. So we did what one would do in such a case, take the turnaround and get back on--but oh! too bad! There's no frontage road going the other way! So we couldn't go forward, and we couldn't go back.

It was then that M uttered a phrase that is now my motto: "We are not going to be victims of San Antonio!"

We took a side street and made it before our movie started.
Dec. 26th, 2007 05:04 pm (UTC)
Re: ah, the signage....
Right, and because there are fifty dozen freeways, the frontage roads often diverge for no apparent reason: if you're going east on the I10, it splits into the 410 frontage with no signs and no warning and all of the sudden you're at Sea World or someplace like 20 miles from where you wanted to be.
Dec. 26th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)
We took a wrong turn near the Alamo and ended up stuck on 410 trying to get back to Austin a month or so back. We tried to navigate by the position of the moon as there were no signs to anywhere outside the 410 loop but I don't think you have the same moon in San Antonio as the rest of the world and we ended up, predictably, at Sea World.
Dec. 26th, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC)
I am now suddenly gladder than I would have thought possible that I don’t live in San Antonio, because I think that would drive me out of my freaking mind.

There seems to be a really weird process by which funds for road maintenance and repair (among other things) are distributed in the city of Brooklyn. For a long time, I assumed it was based on income preference, with the whiter, wealthier neighborhoods getting the lion’s share of the money. And that’s probably at least somewhat true, but doesn’t really explain things completely. For instance, Bay Ridge, where I live now, has awesome streets for the most part, and if anything the insane frequency with which perfectly sound blacktop is torn up and replaced would seem to suggest (rather loudly in fact) mob influence more than political cronyism. But equally affluent neighborhoods, like Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, often have absurdly, dangerously ill-maintained streets. This is probably at least partly because those neighborhoods are much, much older, and the infrastructure is more deteriorated, but when it reaches the point where even a pedestrian notices how bad the roads are, that’s probably a sign that the roads are, in fact, really really bad.

I say all this because I was going to tell an amusing story, but now I realize it would be too long, so I will instead put it here (http://roseyv.livejournal.com/54099.html), for anyone who actually gives a rat’s ass.
Dec. 26th, 2007 05:51 pm (UTC)
The Mafia-maintained arbitrary road repair service is also a fixture in Chicago.
Dec. 26th, 2007 06:33 pm (UTC)
Sounds like Northern Virginia, only several stages closer to total societal collapse.
Dec. 26th, 2007 07:00 pm (UTC)
My extremely vague recollection of driving in northern VA is that it's pretty much a nightmare all the way to the Beltway.
Dec. 27th, 2007 03:32 pm (UTC)
There are also dozens and dozens of streets that are called one thing for part of their length and another thing for the rest of it.

Oh, this is my least favorite "innovation" in streets ever. Although your later complaint of "signage that assures you something is about to happen but actually happens if you take that left about a mile down" is not unique to SATX; my girlfriend pestered me for miles about "When does this street hit 95 North, huh? When?" the other day.

The city of New Haven, where I live, has approximately three "No Turn on Red" signs for every resident. Rendering an altogther-sensible concession to reality (that, y'know, people can tell when turning right on red is actually feasible) entirely moot.

Edited at 2007-12-27 03:36 pm (UTC)


flavored with age
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Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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