On Traffic and Driving Stick

Chelsea

When I’m asked how I drive a stick shift in congested, traffic-laden Los Angeles, I respond with the fact that having a manual is actually the only way I could deal with that traffic effectively. I don’t think it’s ironic; I just think people don’t really know what they’re talking about. Probably 90% of the cars in Europe are manual – you don’t think they have bigger traffic problems in even smaller streets than we do?

If you just stay in the proper gear and coast, you press the brake pedal a lot less times than in an automatic because the gear just slows you down. So it saves you brakepad wear and it’s more fuel efficient – plus, you have more control over your accelerations. To me, nothing is more frustrating in traffic than a slushbox. I don’t really care that I have a clutch to depress with my other foot – it’s as much a part of accelerating and decelerating as the gas pedal. It makes me feel as if driving were an activity, a skill to improve upon. Though I was tempted by the new technology that is, for instance, DSG or other transmissions that shift faster than a human ever could, I am not excited by paddle shifters. I get excited actually rowing through the gears. After all, if I can avoid being a robot inside my metal pod, I’ll take my chances.

I was on Facebook chat with an old friend from grade-to-high school and she asked me how I could fit anything in my Mini. See, there is plenty of room in Wisconsin and far less parallel parking to worry about (Can I just brag about the number of times I’ve fit into spots no one else could? It’s awesome.). The city is my context. And I don’t need a lot of carrying space as long as – *ahem* – I’m mooching rides from fellow snowboarding friends with their 4×4 vehicles to Mammoth during the winter. The Mini is great. Plus, I’ll pick any of them up and drive them around with the top down, any time they ask. Commuting in all forms is a team effort.

My best girlfriends and I drive stick. It’s a point of contention, because all our first cars were stick as well. When B got a lease on an automatic MKIV Jetta (last generation), we gave her a lot of crap for it. She also missed the point-and-go-ability of her old car, so when her lease was up she got a MKV manual Jetta to replace it. We welcomed her back to the club and she was glad to be back.

You know that annoying thing people do in Hollywood when they:

  • honk at you if you’re not out of the blocks a half-second before the traffic light turns green?
  • aren’t watching for the yellow when they’re yielding on the left turn?
  • idling on top of paint that says “KEEP CLEAR” in intersections

These are examples of the hyper-aware and the unaware in L.A. traffic. Seriously, does that extra half-second matter to you in the grand scheme of things? Or couldn’t you keep the flow going and get out of keep out of the middle of the intersection so more cars behind or to the side of you can also have their turn. Just simple consideration. Flow is good.

There are also more subtle driving fouls that I see around the area, what with the image-conscious quality of the city playing a part. For instance, people with nice cars. You can tell a lot from a person by their car. You can also get nothing from it (it could purely be a form of transportation for them, which is exactly what it should be), but then I see these guys with nice and/or loud cars who race from stop light to stop light. A few things on that:

  • Just because your car makes a lot of noise doesn’t mean it’s fast; it means it’s obnoxiously loud.
  • Just because you drive fast doesn’t mean you don’t look stupid weaving in and out of traffic.
  • If you tailgate, it doesn’t mean that you have a fast car – it just means you drive like a jackass. What are you trying to impress with – your reaction timing?
  • I know gas is coming down in price, but sheesh – would it hurt to develop some fuel efficienct driving habits?
  • Your mom has a fast car.

Okay, honestly now. This is not to say that I haven’t scared my fair share of passengers in my own car. Especially out-of-towners. Typically, their voices get kind of higher pitched when I make a few turns in a row, a quick lane change or a U-turn, for example. “Look and go,” I always say. I can see their heart rate go up too. After awhile, it usually sinks in that … at least I know the area, and maybe even know what I’m doing and where I’m going.

The true test is looking for a parking spot while equipped with whatever parking karma that’s been bestowed that day. When you see a parking spot, you stop right away. Never go around the block; it’ll be gone by the time you get back.

Scoping for open parking spots is a lot like life. The spots are like opportunities and are open for just a little while and it’s up to you to seize them or become complacent and watch them go by. Who are you (not) willing to cut off to get there, and what are you willing to do? Sometimes, you miss and get lucky and they’re still open when you circle the block. If not, it just wasn’t meant to be. And it’s up to you to bounce back. Don’t give in to paying for valet.

You know what happens when you pay for valet. You give the valet your keys and money and the next thing you know, they’re grinding your clutch on their way to the parking lot laden with potholes and putting dings into your rear quarter panel with the bottom corner of the neighboring H2 driver door. Or they’re taking stuff from your trunk because you forgot to lock it up and give them the valet key.

Then again, some people were made to be trusted and some risks are meant to be taken. It’s a hard call. Take your chances. Soak it up.