Thursday, October 27, 2016

You Can't Get There From Here: Reds Nominate the Worst Places to Drive

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: As I mentioned earlier this week, I took Youngest to the Boston area on a one day college tour. (Her high school gave the day off to juniors and provided their own tours, but they were to schools Youngest has no interest in, ie, they were in Maine.) We saw Wellesley, which we both liked very much, and then attempted to make the noon tour and info session at Boston College. Attempted being the operative word. Despite its name, BC is located in Newton, which shall henceforth be known as Frikkin' Newton. I've tangled with Frikkin' Newton before. On a past college trip with the Smithie and friends, we visited Mount Ida College, getting lost in both a park and a cemetery before stumbling onto the campus.

This time, Youngest and I managed to find Boston College after backing and forthing several times on Route 16. We just couldn't get ONTO the campus. Despite having GPS and printed directions from the Admissions Office, we couldn't find Admissions, or the parking garage they suggested for us. We went this way and that, through suburban streets, always and ever finding ourselves returning to Beacon Street, like some sort of Twilight Zone episode. Finally we bushwacked our way back to the interstate and headed for Providence and the end-of-the-afternoon tour of Brown. Sorry, BC.

Our own Hank lives in Frikkin' Newton, on a street with no discernible name at an address that doesn't appear on GPS and befuddles taxi drivers. This is not unusual - the villages of Newton have any number of streets with no visible names, opening onto commercial avenues that take the hapless driver right back out into the tangled residential areas. The area was the early settlers' New Town, dating from 1630, and the streets were apparently laid out in the 17th century over cow paths and in the 19th century by developers with inner ear balance disorders.

I'm not even going to talk about the time Hank had to drive in front of me to get me from the charming New England Mobile Book Fair (which in the best Newton tradition is neither mobile, nor a fair) to the highway home. If it weren't for her and Jonathan, I'd be trapped there still. It's a wonder Youngest and I made it out.

For this and so much more, I vote Newton, Mass as the Worst Place to Drive in the United States.

Reds, where are your nominees?

HALLIE EPHRON: So little time, so many confusing places. I vote for the entire Boston area, where cross streets usually aren't labeled. And my GPS runs off its little rails whenever I drive through downtown through what we fondly remember as The Big Dig. The message: if you don't know where you are, you don't belong here. If I had to pick one place it's coming onto Storrow Drive and trying to get to Mass General.

Further afield, there's also a bridge you have to navigate through coming in or out of Pittsburgh with signage to too many connecting roads that is so confusing and comes too late. Ring a bell, anyone??

This is why I love GPS. When it says "Turn left, then turn left, then turn left..." it sounds so calm.

RHYS BOWEN: Oh yes, we had a fun time driving in Boston, taking almost an hour to get to an event with Hank that should have been fifteen minutes away. But things are just as bad on the West Coast. I pity people driving through LA for the first time because the freeways have names and don't actually say where they are going, and the off ramp is sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, across four or five lines of really fast traffic.
GPS makes things easier but I have learned the hard way to check their directions first... as when I was heading north from New Jersey and the GPS took me on a "short-cut" across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan during morning rush-hour.

Italian roads outside of cities are perfectly signed, however I once navigated John onto a street in Florence that was for taxis and emergency vehicles only. And once on this network of streets we couldn't escape because everything was one way. Luckily we didn't get caught. I think India probably takes the cake for the worst roads in the universe ( cows, camels, donkeys, overloaded trucks etc and only one strip of sealed road they compete for, but we've always had a driver so can just shut our eyes and pray)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Well, see, here's the thing. In Massachusetts, there's I-128. If you want to go south on 128 from our house, you have to take 128 North, because it goes north first. It's sometimes called I-95. It's kind of the same thing. The North End of Boston is east of Downtown, and South Boston is kind of east. And there's a neighborhood called the West End, but I'm not sure what it's west of.  93 South is called the Southeast Expressway, but you can't go any farther east, really, because you'd be in the ocean. I mean the harbor.  Routes 1 and 3 are also called the Southeast Expressway. And I live in West Newton, which is North of Newton center.

So, yeah. Italy is worse.   And our house is SO easy to find. You just have to know where it is.

JULIA: And they say Maine is where "you can't get the-ah from he-ah."

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh this is a really hard choice. I've ridden in the Boston area while intrepid Hallie drove. I couldn't get over the maniacs rushing past us in the right hand BREAKDOWN LANE! But LA is hideous as Rhys notes, and driving down the length of New Jersey is an exercise in taking your life in your hands, and around Miami is dreadful too, because of ridiculous drivers. I'm becoming one of those people who is constantly looking for back country road "shortcuts!"

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I'd have to say anywhere in UK traffic (I will be driving for a few days later on this trip, but not in city traffic!) but my worst ever driving award goes to the city of dreaming spires and Inspector Morse--Oxford. Even my English friends agree that Oxford is even worse than driving in London!

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? What are your navigational horror stories?


  1. Oh, my goodness, I’m having a panic attack just reading this. I pretty much get lost going around the block, so all of these left, right, north, east things simply boggle my mind.

    I can get the thirty-some miles from my house to work because I go the exact same way every day. As for the rest of New Jersey driving, I once drove north from my house to New Brunswick and, thanks to Miss Martha, my trusty GPS, I managed to get myself turned around and lost only half a dozen times.
    Driving south from home to our daughter’s home in Norfolk, Virginia is an opportunity for multiple missed turns and transitions to roads I never wanted to be on in the first place. [Everyone in our family knows that if you actually want to get where you are trying to go, you don’t let Mom behind the wheel . . . which is fine with me because, as I’ve noted a time or two, I despise driving. John, on the other hand, can find his way anywhere, even if he’s never been there before. I just ride along, dumbfounded.]

    I nominate the Los Angeles freeways as the worst place to drive. John used to tell me things like, “Go toward the mountains . . .” but there are mountains everywhere and I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to be going. Thankfully, the children all learned to read when they were very young, and they would always read the street signs and patiently provide directions for their panicked mom. If not for them, we’d still be lost somewhere along those miles of freeways.

  2. After reading these posts, I am again glad that I never learned how to drive a car. These GPS, nameless street horror stories have never happened to me personally. I just go wherever the bus, train, subway, taxi takes me. And I have been several times to Greater Boston (and Newton) and LA with no problem. I luckily have an excellent sense of direction. This comes in handy since I usually traveled alone to new cities/countries both for work and pleasure.

    Good luck to the Reds for future driving journeys!

  3. I think downtown Chicago's worse to drive in than even Manhattan at rush hour. I love Chicago, but only when someone else is driving. And OMG don't try to drive the Miracle Mile during Christmas!

    Downtown St. Louis used to have one of those last-minute one-lane-only exits to cross the river on I-70 that we always missed and had to drive around downtown and try three or four times before we made it. It was the only way to cross the river without going half a state out of your way, but they've finally put in some workarounds, so we never have to deal with that exit now.

    My friend, the brilliant writer, Marjorie Agosin, teaches at Wellesley. Tell Youngest she can't go wrong there. :-) Best of luck in the college hunt, Julia!

  4. Good luck beating downtown Ouagadougou. I am not kidding. Capital of Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta for those of you who haven't kept up on your world geography. I lived there for a year 98-99 with husband and sons. Half the time the power isn't on so the traffic lights are dead. A flood of people ride bicycles and mopeds three or four abreast along the side of the road - a woman with one child on the handlebars, two behind her, a baby tied to her back, and a huge open bowl of strawberries on her head next to a man with a live goat tied to the back of his tiny motor-scooter. I kid you not. And if a car wants to pass, it just passes - sometimes eight abreast even with two lanes of cars coming straight at them. No street signs of any kind in the residential areas - you have to draw maps for friends to find your house and give landmarks like, "turn right just after the shop with women braiding hair on the front steps." When you do stop at a red light, legless beggars hold out their hands for your spare change. Boston ain't got nothin' on West Africa.

  5. Got to love Rome, too. I love being a pedestrian in Rome… Everybody just waits by the corner until you have critical pedestrian mass, and then you just go. The big crowd of people, just go. Because no cars are ever going to stop. Not ever.

  6. Grace, so interesting that you never learned to drive! Will you tell us that story?

    Joan, in our family, we wouldn't admit we had a poor sense of direction, even if we did LOL (pointing no fingers...)

    Okay Edith, you win!

  7. The week we moved to Atlanta, I barreled down hwy 400 and had a choice, Greenville or Birmingham? I had no idea in which state those two destinations were located. I learned.

    Grid-lock traffic. Ten streets all named "Peachtree". Unnamed roads. Winding two lane country roads with deep, snake-infested ditches on either side.

  8. Lucy: There were a lot of factors both within and not within my control which led me to decide to never learn to drive. Although I was born and raised in Toronto (Canada), my father was very old school Japanese, so both my mom and I were not "allowed" to drive. None of my closest girlfriends (6 of us) knew how to drive, so it was just natural to take the subway/bus everywhere when we went out. I also have real lousy eyesight and have no peripheral vision, so I was told I would never pass a driver's test. And I did major in environmental studies at university and spent most of my 30-yr career working for Environment Canada (federal government), so I am generally pro public transit.

    Worst place to travel by car (not as a driver) would be parts of rural Japan where my relatives live. I travelled there 3 times as a child/teenager. There are not many street signs and most homes do not have house numbers. So I wonder how GPS works there!

  9. Definitely anywhere in CT, MA, NYC, and NJ! The south and Midwest are great- so polite and more aware of traffic laws!

  10. My husband will tell you Atlanta and the Washington DC area. Both are pieces of cake for me. If you ask me, in this country, it's Miami. OMG - drivers are so attached to that little bit of real estate in front of them. Put on your indicator and the driver in the next lane develops a magnetic attraction to the car ahead of them. Turn off the indicator, they open the space, in you go--fast as you can. Miami is also the only place I have had someone cross four lanes of interstate traffic horizontally, coming directly at my car door to get to the exit lane. It was heartstopping.

    Note, I've said this country. I've driven in Rome in the 1970s. Sidewalks anyone? Fortunately, I was young enough to cope. Even Paris seemed stately and well controlled after Rome!

    Laugh all you want, I drove in Boston for a week and when I returned to Miami, commented on how polite everyone on the road was. Even transplanted Bostonians thought I needed professional help, but that's my story--I'm sticking to it.

  11. Hallie--I know that bridge in Pittsburgh--be in the correct lane as you go across or heaven knows where you will end up! I'm a nervous driver at the best of times and don't like GPS--too distracting and the directions aren't always accurate or the best way to get somewhere. Like Joan, I can count on getting lost at least once and I've often had to drive by myself long distances for work--northern Ohio to middle Tennessee or to the other side of the Mississippi River--working at home has distinct advantages!

  12. I say anywhere in England. London is impossible unless you are a cabbie, and everywhere they drive on the wrong side of the road. I mean, REALLY.

    I tried to drive exactly once, in Salisbury, just up the road to the non-existent parking lot, got involved in a myriad of one way streets and right (left?) turns. Eventually I noticed a bunch of people standing on a corner and waving frantically at me. It was Julie and a fair amount of the staff of the Red Lion Hotel, which has been doing business as such since 1412. I was directed to pull into the carriage house where on site parking magically appeared, handed over the keys, and got sent to my room.

    I don't know how the English survive to adulthood, with all those narrow lanes, streets that change names every other block, and WTH are all those yellow lines for anyway?

  13. This discussion is bringing back nightmarish memories of being driven around city streets in Florence by an Italian, zooming down narrow but two-way streets. Closed my eyes and prayed.

    This is why I love the T and the MTA, rapid transit in any city that has it.

  14. And Julia you were in Chestnut Hill (No, there's no hill) in Newton on what's probably the single worst day of the year to drive there, when the kids arrive at college.

  15. I'm pretty good at getting around Boston. I've been driving here for many years. My bugaboo is East Boston. I can get there but apparently I can never figure out how to get out.

    The worst driving experience I had was in Rome. I was driving, I'm the calmer driver in cities, and my husband was navigating. He made a last minute decision and had me take a rode to the left. Once on the road he realized it was the wrong move. I pulled into a gas station and he jumped out to ask directions. Really, this is something he would adamantly refuse to do on any road in the US. Thankfully the guy at the gas station spoke enough English. There was no other choice for us but to pull a u-turn across 4 lanes of morning rush hour and tour bus traffic. I said that we would be living at the gas station until midnight. He said 'give it a try'. I put on the directional signal and slowly inched into traffic. A tour bus stopped for us and then everyone else did too. We made the turn. I was excited for about 10 seconds. Then I had to make a second left to get us back to where we needed to be. This one was easier because it involved an actual light.

    There is a lot to be said for taking public transportation in big cities!

  16. Hallie and FChurch - I believe you are referring to the Fort Pitt Bridge and I-376, one of the main arteries in and out of the city (especially if you are going to the airport). Yes, coming into Pittsburgh it's a beautiful sight - best view of the skyline IMO. You get thirty seconds to enjoy it because there are at least four lanes, each with it's own destination and signage, so God help you if you get in the wrong lane. It's not that much better going out of the city (only four lanes but cross your fingers and say a prayer if you need to cross all of them to get to your desired lane because Pittsburgh drivers WILL NOT give you much space or time).

    I remember trying to get to Duquesene University when I first moved to Pittsburgh. I could see the campus - I just couldn't see how to get there. Wound up going across a bridge and a river. Good times.

    I haven't done much driving in other cities (been a passenger, but you just sit back and hope the native drive knows where he/she is going). Pittsburgh's charming cobbled, twisty streets, plethora of bridges (446 of them, more than Venice), rivers and mountains are enough. My particular favorite: the street that "ends" and picks up again two blocks down.

    I drove Diane Vallere to the airport when she was in town. I remember telling her, "I promise I'm not going to get you killed. Hang on." as we entered the Fort Pitt Bridge leaving town.

    But I also remember driving in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Stop lights? We don't need no stinking stop lights! Basically, the light turns red and traffic continues until some brave soul on the cross street makes you stop.

  17. Actually, you get about three seconds to enjoy that skyline - now that I think about it.

  18. Wellesley has such a beautiful campus! My middle daughter was in the second graduating class at Olin, in nearby Needham (she would have been in the first, but chose to take a by year, the first student in their short history to do so). On our campus tour, we also tried to make an appointment at BC, with zero luck finding a parking spot. On our third trip over the Charles again Robin said, "Forget it, Mom. It's way too urban, anyway." So we went to Harvard and MIT, instead. Olin had a reciprocity agreement with Wellesley, Babson, and a couple other schools, so she ended up taking one or two liberal arts classes there, kind of through the back door.

    My husband was an Audubon lecturer for 25 years (his dad did it for over 40), and he used to drive all over the US, four to eight weeks at a time. If he was going to Florida in the winter I'd join him, and I caught the bug of the road. In the last 38 years I've driven in every state but Alaska, and just in the last two years have crisscrossed the country three times. Add our three daughters living all over, and the miles pile up.

    The worst places to drive, from my standpoint: Atlanta, Miami (the people are insane), Chicago area (it's taken me two hours to drive from one side of the city to the other, a distance of less than 30 miles), New Orleans (because of the massive potholes; the people are very polite), LA area (because everyone drives 20 miles over the speed limit, as they do in Atlanta), Washington DC area. Anytime there are more than three lanes going the same way there is guaranteed chaos, often from tourists or timid drivers vs. drivers with zero imagination about the consequences of driving at breakneck speeds without using turn signals.

    I've twice driven, by myself, through the NYC area on Friday, at rush hour. Never again.

  19. Hallie: I agree the T and MBTA are very good for travel in Greater Boston. I went to 2 Crime Bakes (before I knew any of the Reds), and travelled easily to Dedham via the MBTA. |I have been to more than 30 of the US states, so I am a fine user/evaluator of the public transit systems in many small and large US cities.

  20. Oh, yeah, and Vegas. NO ONE ever stops for red lights. Three, maybe even four cars will turn in the left turn lane AFTER the light changes. And Phoenix, with all its urban sprawl, has gotten almost as bad.

  21. I drive mostly between Philadelphia and Boston, with the occasional trip up to Maine, and for me the worst driving is between New Haven and Philly, on I95. Nothing but one big traffic jam at the best of times, in my experience. Tho - having lived in Newton MA off and on for 10 years, I agree it has a goodly set of challenges! btw, it’s easy to get back to 128 from the Mobile Book Fair — take a left out of the parking lot, and inch your way down the street to the on-ramp, about 2 miles along. But…. is taking a left easy? Not so much, given the level of traffic.

  22. It's not navigationally complex, but for the sheer number of boneheaded moves I've seen, Route 495 from its northern terminus at Route 95 down to say, Route 2, is AWFUL.

    Speed-freak drivers. People who use the breakdown lane as though it is just another right lane (and a fast one at that!) Drivers who talk on handheld phones while plugged into earphones veering from the far left lane to the right in a space of about 20 feet while going 80 mph. Yikes!

    For tricky directions, Newton is tough, but I'm not sure it holds a candle to the suburbs around Philadelphia, where all of the streets have a similar look and have names that vary only a tiny bit, e.g., Guelph Road, Guelph Park, North Guelph . . .

    Julia, if Youngest wants to take a look at Bryn Mawr, forget the GPS and find a local guide.

  23. Brenda, thanks for the tip!

    I've driven through a lot of the USA at this point, usually on book tours, and I can manage people going like maniacs down a three or four lane highway - as long as it's well signed. I had no trouble navigating around the greater LA area, because they tell you two miles beforehand what exit is coming up. Of course, it still takes you seventy minutes to go fourteen miles...

    Grace, I love public transit, and enjoy visiting cities that have a good system. When we attended The Sailor's graduation from basic at Great Lake, IL, we didn't rent a car. Chicago's bus, EL and Metra service went everywhere we needed to go, with no worried about parking!

  24. Julia: I agree that Chicago's public transit system is very good and affordable for visitors. I first went to Chicago for Bouchercon 2005 which was in the Loop area, and several other times since then on vacation from Toronto. For me, a good public transit system has to get you from the airport to your destination cheaply and easily...and Chicago has a train from O'Hare.

    Toronto started a new train line from the airport to downtown in 2015. But the UP train is ridiculously expensive ($27 each way!), so they had less than 15% occupancy and have now reduced the rates to I think $12 each way which is still too pricey for me. I used to take the Toronto bus/subway from the airport to home, which was only $2.75 each way but it took over 90 minutes travel time (sigh). I love Toronto, but their public transit system has been deteriorating for years. It should be ok though in the downtown where Bouchercon 2017 will be taking place.

  25. Driven most places noted in this post but I'd nominate the BQE both directions to and from NYC. Traffic aside roadway is always being repaired and potholes never seemed to disappear. So hazards galore and shock absorbers working overtime constantly stress driver's nerves.

  26. I walk or use public transportation in the Boston area wherever possible--I remember my parents getting lost there from years ago.

    But now I nominate north-central New Jersey. My sister and I spent three and a half hours trying to go six miles between two towns we had been to before. We stopped and asked six different people: half had no idea what we were talking about and had to check their phones (yes, we had already tried that). The other three gave conflicting information. Plus you have to turn right to go left in NJ. Don't think I'm going back any time soon.

  27. Along with others I nominate Miami. I live in Tampa, and believe some of the shell-shocked drivers wandering in my neighborhood are lost souls escaping Miami.

    My worst ever driving experience was the cantilever bridge approaching Charleston SC from the west. It was nick named the roller coaster bridge. Was built in 1929 and designed for Model T's. At that time it had reversible lanes.. it seemed like all cars and the demons of hell were coming at me. Fortunately I only needed to use it once. Otherwise, I would have turned over my keys and walked.

    Julia, New College in Sarasota FL is an unsung gem.

  28. I love traveling around D.C., but not by car. I so love the Metro there, and when my husband was stationed at the Pentagon and lived in Arlington/Crystal City, a Metro stop was conveniently close to his apartment building, and if I flew in to Reagan, he was just two stops away. He did, however, have to drive in D.C. traffic and hated it.

    Worst place I was ever in a car was Acapulco, in the city. This has been at least 36 years ago, so maybe it's improved by now. However, when my husband and I rented a car at the hotel outside of town, we drove into a nightmare. There were no lanes, only opportunities for you to move forward whenever you found a space. We had a young boy with us as a guide, and he was somewhat helpful, but it was still quite a shock.

  29. Genova (Genoa), Italy. Absolutely. No one pays any attention to traffic lanes, and the Vespas surround you on all sides like the wasps they are. Terrifying (and I was merely a passenger).

  30. Nothing beats Boston for a frustrating drive!! As for Newton -- where my husband grew up (the apartment was exactly where that hotel straddles the Mass Pike) -- well, they built the Mass Pike through it. Historians will look back on the explosion of highways through cities (ones I am familiar with are Poughkeepsie, NY and New Haven, CT) and wonder what the hell people were thinking.

    But BOSTON! I have never been so lost. I actually think the freeways in LA are well-marked, and I have driven in Manhattan and Brooklyn and the DC area.

  31. In CT I hate driving on I-91 and I-84. Almost every time I've driven to or through Hartford I've missed a turn and missed it so badly that there was almost NO getting there from here! I have a firm rule of refusing to attend any event in Hartford unless someone else is driving.

    New Haven is not too far from me but I still can't find my way around it most of the time. All the one-way streets stress me out. Often I can see the building I'm trying to get to but all the streets near me are one-way in a different direction. When my sister had to move to a nursing home in New Haven a few years ago I was relieved to discover I didn't need to take the highway (and then back track) to get to it. It's right off the Boston Post Rd (Rt 1.) She's been in and out of Yale New Haven Hospital a few times and I frequently got lost getting to or from the hospital, using I-95's down town exit. One day after she was back at the nursing home I realized that the large set of buildings down the street from it were part of Yale New Haven Hospital. There's no need for me to use the highway to get to the hospital -- I just drive about three or four blocks past the nursing home, and then pull into the hospital parking garage. All the times I took the highway to get there I was probably putting twice as many miles on the car as necessary, thanks to all the back tracking!

    I have experienced the craziness of driving in north central NJ, and I agree with Sheila that it is indeed crazy!! I have a sister who lives there. I used to drive to and from there to visit, but now I let Amtrak do the driving!There are the places where one must go right in order to go left, and there are numerous traffic circles in which it seems that the wrong direction has the right of way.

    Deb Romano

  32. Boston! I say that not having driven in India or Pakistan, but I'm guessing Boston's up for the challenge. Lane markers? Signals? Merging? Don't make a Boston cabbie laugh! And roundabouts? In France, people are so polite and respectful when you go around more than once because you have no idea which exit you're supposed to spin off to. In Boston, they're killer sharks waiting for that split second of hesitation.

  33. After trying to navigate Springfield, MA recently I made the comment that it was worse than Boston to get around. So Springfield gets my and bad signage.