In our column, What the Heck, Seattle?, newcomers to the city can ask us to explain some of this city’s quirks, intricacies, and inner workings. We’ll do the best we can to offer a local’s insight on our weird little corner of the world. Have a question for WtHS? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org; maybe we’ll answer in the next installment.
Andi wrote to us to inquire about why Seattleites are such bad drivers, but also cut us off at the pass: “And don’t just blame it on Californians,” saying she’d been there and they drive just fine. But Andi, blaming Californians for Seattle’s problems is a longstanding and much beloved tradition for us here! Without Californians, we just might have to face our own flaws.
But you’re right: an Allstate study in 2016 ranked Emerald City drivers 183 out of 200 metro areas (potential new slogan: “Not as bad as Boston!”). In defense of the “blame California” attitude, I have to point out that among the 17 cities Seattle ranked ahead of, were Oakland, Garden Grove, Fullerton, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Glendale, California.
So why are we such bad drivers? Our passiveness — often manifested as either passive-aggressiveness and timidity, neither of which makes for good driving — is part of it. When you’re stopped two cars back at a five-way intersection and the cars behind you are doing the “you go” - “no, you go” dance, that chill, relaxed vibe that’s awesome when hanging out at the bar becomes pretty enraging. Alternately, when you’ve just spent twenty minutes waiting in the “Exit Only” lane just to have someone try pull in front of you right at the exit, that passive is likely going to become passive-aggressive pretty darn quickly.
But there’s something in common with these two examples which I think, in part, highlights the root of Seattle’s terrible driving: this city’s roads were apparently planned by three blind mice and their army of evil henchmen. Ever need to get to downtown from 520? Nothing quite like crossing those five lanes of traffic in a few hundred yards. Or, as my favorite bible of Nimby-ism, 101+ Reasons NOT to Move to Seattle, says, try a game of “Guess the Exit,” in which, after navigating your way to the right-hand lane for your desired exit, you discover yours is the rare left-hand exit. In her bestseller 'Where’d You Go Bernadette', Maria Semple explains that there were once six separate grid systems, which over time, bled together without a master plan.
That’s Seattle, take it or leave it: a place where rather than arguing about how to make a grid system cover the city, Doc Maynard, Arthur Denny, Carson Boren and the rest of their band of merry marauding white dudes just made six separate ones — the ultimate in passiveness (or passive-aggressiveness, depending on their motives). So forget blaming California, let’s place the blame right where it belongs: on the folks who decided that seven-way intersections would be a good idea, that we need only two lanes of freeway through-traffic in downtown, and that floating bridges are somehow efficient methods of moving people.
Because while blaming Californians is fun, the fact is they are mixed in with locals and other people who moved here from all over the country and world. What ties us together? We all have to drive on these streets.