It starts with a vague idea of where you’re going; a GPS with a vague idea of where you’re going; and a sunny disposition.
it should be easy enough: everyone else seems to have it nailed. Effortlessly gliding between lanes and dancing around corners as the symphony of traffic lights changing colours and pedestrians running to cross the roads plays out alongside you.
An hour outside the city you start to feel a little bit racecar. You line up and take down the cars in front of you, wondering why your 110kmh is so much faster than their 110kmh. You know to avoid the slow lane and its caravans, first-timers, and bemused drivers somehow stuck there. Avoid the fast lane and the certain death that every fifth driver or so seems to wish as they shoot past – their 110kmh definitely much faster than yours.
You can’t drive like you sometimes do in smaller cities, meandering around roundabouts, thinking, “Whoops!” as you shoot off into the wrong direction and have to circle back around again but see cool stuff along the way and generally have a rad time of it, thinking about how life is funny and it doesn’t really matter the route you take if you get there in the end. Then you take this sunny disposition to the big city.
You get to choose your approach, at least. The most direct route, or set your GPS to ‘avoid tolls’ and enter via Narnia.
You take the tunnel: It’s lit bright orange, merging onto a multi-laned road. You hope to god you’re in the right lane because there’s no way you can cross six lanes of traffic before the next set of lights in the beeping of horns, the yelling, the swerving to not hit a weaving cyclist or a psychotic jaywalker and who designed this thing and built these apartment blocks here anyway? There’s not even a view?
Mercifully you get to the right lane, even if you miss your first turn off. You’ve always figured that it’s better to miss your turn than to die in a car crash while taking down everyone around you. Everything happens for a reason. You missed the turn, got stuck behind the slow car, nearly took out a bike courier, and had someone shake their fist at you for a reason.
The system is imperfect. It would be better if there weren’t five million cars speeding up and down three parallel streets and throughout the tens of mostly one-way interconnecting alleys, wide enough for a car and a half to pass through and already half blocked by a food delivery van just parked there for kicks. Nah it’s cool, you’ll squeeze past, trying not to scrape paint off both cars, or you’ll reverse back into traffic. Both solid options.
The signs aren’t what you’d call unmissable, and when you spot them, they’re like brain teasers. “No right turn” in massive letters: “Vehicles under 6 metres excepted” in tiny letters underneath. Wait, so can your make the turn? How long is your car? If you’re 173cm, and you lie down lengthways, would you reach the second set of wheels? The car behind you is honking. You must be able to go. You put your faith in their impatience and accelerate.
Into the bus lane. Oh god, the bus lanes. Surprise! The normal lane you were just driving in has turned into a bus lane. And there’s a bus lane camera that may or may not be on. I guess you’ll find out in the mail in coming weeks.
Trying to find a park: trying to find a multi-storey building to turn into and give away your life savings to. There’s plenty on the other side of the road, just past the opposing traffic and the double lines.
And then the moment of realisation that washes over you with ice cold panic and a punch in the guts:
Is this a one way street? Am I about to drive into a tram?
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Or you take the Narnia route.
You avoid the merge onto the freeway, which is nice. You get to see some scenery: fields; country roads. Also nice. You take a random left onto a main thoroughfare and there are two lanes in each direction, running through the busiest inner suburbs in the city. You get to drive past your friend’s house at about 4kms per hour. That’s nice.
Which lane do you choose? Left lane, good choice. It’s pretty free flowing, unless it’s outside of peak hours and then it turns into kerbside parking and you keep getting stuck behind cars that look like they’re waiting but really their owners have parked and abandoned ship to go have thai or get a kebab. (There’s really good food along New Canterbury Rd.) Then all the cars behind you get cut, and all the ones to the right of you just pretend you’re not there so they don’t have to let you in: it’s pretty good times.
Right lane, good choice. It’s the fast lane, who doesn’t love the fast lane? Definitely better than getting stuck behind parked cars like those suckers in the left lane. it’s a steady pace in the right lane, with its peaks and troughs, gradual rises and sudden divots into potholes that jolt your entire car awake.
Except when a car somewhere in front of you decides to turn right, and it has to wait for a break in the oncoming traffic, and there is no break, because it’s peak hour. The entire right lane of traffic stops. You’re gonna be here for a while. And all the slow and steady types in the left lane speed up and you consider whether or not to take your split second chance: to squeeze into the lane, to trust that the car you’re merging ahead of will slow, to trust the car behind it to slow.
Alternatives? Weave from left to right, in and out, be aggressive, get your blood pumping and your heart racing. But who has the energy for that after a five hour drive? You probably shouldn’t have stopped for fast food if you wanted your nervous system to be kicking. It’s all learning.
You’re almost home free, just as soon as you can overtake this cyclist. Who is doing twenty kilometres an hour, making you do twenty kilometres an hour, and you’re starting to feel a bit like you think the cyclist would be if this was a hill.
You put your faith in your GPS. Except that you haven’t updated it for a while and the city roads are always changing. Do a few circles, and then a few more. All the buildings look exactly the same. You pass a group of harassed looking pedestrians twice, maybe three times. It’s like how pilots must feel when they have to circle the runway before landing, waiting to take their moment. Except they know where they’re going.
The GPS is being sketchy so you ask Siri and she sends you in a different direction. Now the man on your GPS and Siri’s patient voice are drowning one another out. Now you have two choices and you don’t know which one to take because Siri is using Apple Maps and your GPS seems like it’s out of date. Now you’re driving over the Harbour Bridge when you really just needed to get somewhere near central station.
DRIVING IN THE CITY IS FKED! You text your friends. Three weeks in a row. Because you accidentally did this three weeks in a row.
You guess it’s about the unfamiliar being uncomfortable and figure that with enough hours logged, you’d get used to it, become a natural. Thrive. You can’t beat them unless you join them. But it seems like you’re always going against the traffic; like you always have a different destination in mind. So you find a different way.
A few short hours later, the streets are mostly clear, and you’ve got your run of the place. It’s almost like you should’ve timed your trip to arrive then: but you would have missed the punk rock show, and spending time with your brother, and those things are always, always worth even the gnarliest drive.