I feel like the pervasive use of social media these days tends to skew our reality of other’s lives and make it appear as if everyone is living in some sort of wonderland. For instance, by looking at my Instagram account, you’d think our life was all sunsets and beach days and fun hiking adventures. However, in addition to all the cool new experiences, there are also a lot of frustrations that come with living in a new country and trying to navigate your daily life in a different place. So, in the interest of full-disclosure, I’m planning to write a series of posts about the challenges we face living here in Australia. The issues are all, as Matt like to call them, “first world problems” that are really only frustrations because of the level of comfort we are used to; however, we do confront them each and every day and they do greatly define our overall experience of living abroad. So, for the first post, let’s talk about driving!
I had never driven on the left side of the road before moving to Australia. I had been a passenger while driving in England, New Zealand and in a few countries in SE Asia that all drive on the left side of the road, but never had the guts to to give it a go. I knew that in order to have any sort of independence while living in Australia I’d have to get behind the wheel and figure it out. I was nervous, but very determined. Well, it turns out that driving on the left side isn’t nearly the hardest part about driving in Australia.
As a quick aside, I thought I’d dawn some light on the reason why some countries drive on the left and other countries drive on the right. It has been a question that has come up in numerous conversations since we made the decision to move to Oz and I finally decided to do some research and find out why.
It turns out that driving (or rather, traveling, since it was originally by horseback or carriages) actually started out on the left. In violent or feudal societies, swordsmen traveled on the left so that their right hand would be nearer to their approaching opponent and their scabbard or sheath which held their sword would be further from their approaching opponent. Also, most right-handed people find it easier to mount a horse from the left side, and it made sense to mount from the side of the road, rather than the middle of traffic.
However, when large wagons became commonplace in the late 1700’s in America, the driver usually sat on the left rear horse. Since he was sitting on the left, he wanted others to pass him on his left so he could see them, and so therefore, kept to the right side of the road. France similarly adopted this custom and it was spread throughout Europe during the French Revolution of 1789. [source]
It felt a little odd climbing in to the driver’s seat on the right side of the car the first time and my first few hours of driving on the left were definitely a little intense, requiring a lot concentration (in addition to having to navigate and listen to a screaming toddler at the same time). I quickly settled in though and within a week or two stopped having to think super hard about staying on the left side. Driving on busier roads actually turned out to be easier too, because usually there are lane markers that help you to stay centered in the lane and because you can follow the cars in front of you through turns at an intersection.
It is taking quite a bit longer to adjust to the little things. Like climbing into the driver’s seat on the right side and not the left. Countless times I have come out of the store and climbed directly into the left side of the car and have actually gone as far as to reach forward to put my key in the ignition only to realize there isn’t a steering wheel at all and I’m on the wrong side. It’s a bit embarrassing, so I usually fumble around in the glove box or my purse for a second pretending I meant to get in on that side before climbing out and walking around. I also mix up the windshield wipers and turn signals quite often (and Matt even more so) since they are reverse. The center mirror is probably the oddest part. I always glance up to the right before glancing left. Also, I swear that in the U.S. you can see yourself in the center mirror when riding as a passenger, although maybe I’m remembering incorrectly, but you certainly cannot here without really stretching and intruding on the driver’s space.
So, now that I’ve overcome the fear of driving on the left and am no longer concentrating like crazy every second to remember to stay in the left lane, you’d think driving would be just as easy as it is in the U.S., right? We are in Australia after all, not Europe where the streets are cobblestone and super narrow or Asia where there are thousands of motorcycles everywhere. But it is still one of the most stressful parts of my day.
We live in an outer suburb of Sydney and I would be no means describe our area as crowded either. The streets are lined with single-family homes, shopping plazas, malls, etc. There aren’t many high rises and it is not at all a busy downtown area. Nonetheless, it feels like true city driving.
The worst of the worst it turns out are right turns, or really, the lack of them. They are prohibited in so many places that you often have to drive an entire kilometer or two out of your way before you can finally turn right. Or, you have to make a bunch of lefts in a huge circle, but even that doesn’t end up usually working out. Any time I try to drive anywhere new, I can’t rely on my knowledge of the major streets and navigate my way there. I’ll be almost at my destination just to find out I can’t make a final right turn, and then will get totally lost as I try to work my way back to where I was going. In addition to memorizing all the streets, I have to memorize all the intersections and which ones allow turns which way.
The intersections where you can turn right aren’t that simple either. In many cases, there is a separate right turn arrow, but no separate lane. So, you will be waiting at a red arrow to turn right, however, the person in the lane behind you will have a green light to go straight. But they can’t go straight because you can’t go anywhere and are blocking them. So then, you finally get the green right turn arrow, by which time their light has turned red. It happens in reverse too, where the person in front of you wants to go straight, but has a red light and you want to turn right and have a green, but can’t go anywhere because of the car. The same is true for left turns, which also have their own turn arrow that usually doesn’t coincide with the straight light, but often shares a lane. And there are rarely signs on the light posts that indicate which lane is for left turns, right turns or straight – you just have to choose a lane (my new motto is – when in doubt always choose the left lane!). So, depending on how everyone has chosen to queue up, an entire light cycle can happen with no one getting to move through an intersection since everyone was blocking everyone else. Oh – and there are also no left turns on red, except in very rare instances.
One of the other whacky things they do here is they have something called “clearways”. Most of the major roadways are either two or three lanes in each direction and the lefternmost lane is usually designated as a “clearway”. This means that during traffic times no parking is allowed, however, during other hours, it can be used for parking or driving. I don’t think you are technically supposed to drive in it when it is not traffic time, but lots of these lanes switch back and forth from clearways to all the time driving lanes to bus lanes at various segments of the road. All of a sudden you will enter a clearway segment during a time when parking is allowed and a parked car will suddenly appear in front of you in what was just a travel lane. We’ve had some pretty near misses almost crashing into the stationary parked car more times than we want to admit.
Technically, these clearways are actually pretty clever ways the city is dealing with their massive traffic issues, and as anything other than a new driver in Sydney I would actually be quite pleased with them. Dedicated bus lanes are another great way the city is promoting transit and the bus is actually a very viable and common way to commute to work here. I don’t know a single person who rides a bus in San Diego, but Matt says that it is all business people on his very packed bus every day to and from work and almost everyone I meet says they take the bus if they work downtown.
There are also lanes marked as T3 or Transit 3. Matt and I drove together to his work one morning after dropping Theo off at daycare since I had some errands to run near his office and were marveling at how empty the left-most lane was when the two right lanes heading in our direction were completely stopped. So, we decided to drive in it. It was marked “transit” so it obviously wasn’t a parking lane. After zipping past all of the traffic we decided to Google it since it seemed a little odd that no one else was driving in it and realized it was actually a carpool lane and required 3 people to be in the car. Oops, too bad Theo wasn’t in the car with us. Why don’t they use something a little more descriptive like “carpool lane” or “high-occupancy vehicle lane”. How is one supposed to know that T3 means 3 people in a car?
Like the clearways and bus lanes, the T3 lane is another good transit measure on the part of the City; however, considering that there are clearways, bus only lanes and T3 lanes all on the same roadway between our house and Matt’s work, it is really quite confusing as to where you are and aren’t allowed to drive.
While I spend most of my time driving wondering what in the world the Sydney traffic engineers were thinking when they designed the roadway system, there are some major ways that Sydney got it right (especially compared to car-dominated San Diego). My favorite are the roundabouts. I actually wish they used them more often than they do, although compared to the U.S. they are everywhere here. You can turn right, left or go straight with ease at any roundabout. And, if you are truly confused about which direction to go, you can just keep going round and round until you figure it out. They are truly genius.