Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Grand Prix, Southern Style

Lately, I've been thinking of writing an article about Atlanta driving.  Many of you locals reading this blog will be quite familiar with the things I'm about to say, but for others, there may be some surprises.  Don't get me wrong, I love my home city, but we have a monopoly on novel driving techniques, and I say this having driven all over the United States.  Let's just go ahead and rev up the engine, shall we?

Headed home in the afternoon
To begin, Atlanta is one of those large metropolitan areas that spreads in every direction.  It has no natural barriers other than a couple of rivers (we would have called them "creeks" when I was growing up in Tennessee) which might otherwise halt development, so over the years, it has sprawled like a sleeping lion.  Now, getting from the farthest reaches of northern suburbia to the farthest southern counterparts requires at least two hours plus, and that's cruising at expressway speeds with good traffic.  Fortunately, our roads are in very good condition, so that helps, because we certainly see enough of them.

The problem we have is our secondary roads.  They wind thread-like through leafy green neighborhoods, and they carry an enormous amount of traffic, much more that would be expected.  When you first visit or move to Atlanta, you are always getting lost, because the major roads are laid out along the vestiges of Indian trails...there is no grid system whatsoever.  Growing up in Memphis, driving was relatively easy...I was all over town without much trouble by the time I was 17.  When I lived in Chicago, I commuted into downtown every day for years, traversing the Loop like a cab driver.  But when I moved here, it was like starting all over again, because I could not determine in which direction I was traveling at any given time.

The truly fabulous thing about Atlantans, however, is that we drive as if we know precisely where we're going, and generally, we do this at a fairly high rate of speed.  This is ironic, given the preponderance of two-lane roads throughout the area.  Tiny roads often have higher speed limits than divided thoroughfares...it's all backwards.  And navigation is off the charts, pardon the pun, because when people visit, one of their most common lines is, "I surely hope you know where you're going!"  And yes, we actually do, and that's the scary part.

Because of the difficulty of navigation, coupled with the extremely high traffic volume, Atlanta drivers have developed a keen sense of using parking lots, drive-thrus, and gas stations to get where they're going.  One day, I missed my entrance to our local mall, and I decided to cut through a bank parking lot to get there.  Before I knew what had happened, someone had actually passed me on the left while I was cutting through the lot.  Such is life.

Somehow, we make it all work.  I think we've become so inured to the whole process that we consider getting around as something of an adventure.  The best advice I can give is to grab a cold drink, crank up some decent music, turn on the nav system (if you have one), and then just sit back and enjoy the ride.  After all, you'll eventually get where you're going, maybe not quite on time, but this is the South after all, and people generally understand.

Of course, I'm still trying to figure out how to get into the parking lot of Pollo Loco on Holcomb Bridge in Roswell.  If any of you locals know the secret, please shoot me an email.  I'm desperate.