These days I’m often in London and despite the generally held opinion that London is the last place in the world you’d want a car, I’m usually behind the wheel on my visits. While my motivations for picking up the car keys are largely financial as well as a dash of convenience – why spend twice the cost of the fuel on a train when doing so would result in a massive hike to the tube as well as a change at Baker Street which is never an enjoyable experience – I’ve found my driving time has allowed me to make some rather amusing and somewhat tongue in cheek observations on what it is to be a London driver.
Firstly, space between cars. In conventional driving it is considered to be rather bad form to be up another drivers boot lid however in London the opposite is true. This is because a driver who leaves too much space is making the queue longer and has, de-facto, prevented a person further behind getting out at the lights, usually resulting in much honking of horns.
Traffic lights, while most certainly to be obeyed at all times (many have cameras to prevent red light jumping) are an opportunity for position posturing. In an effort to reduce traffic jams at junctions, London roads widen from one lane to anywhere between two and four lanes. While this sounds like a good idea, what you don’t realise until being right up at a set is that the road narrows once again almost immediately on the other side of the junction, resulting in a massive bun fight for “head of the queue” in the single file line of traffic that is to follow. Drivers at the white line by the lights (affectionately known as the starting line by initiated city motorists) vehicle occupants glare at each other in defiance through the quarter-light and twiddle with their hi-fi, not for a second however taking their eyes from that red glow up above. Cars are always to be left in gear, clutch point a mere millimetre away from taking the bite, in readiness at a chance to take the leading position in the head of the queue. Even if you’re not at the front, there’s no reason why glory can’t still be yours – you may have a Subaru in front of you and someone with a dodgy clutch to his left – second place is surely in reach. The fact that this whole exercise will release more CO2 than a 20 mile motorway journey and is to be repeated in another 100 yards at the next set of lights is immaterial. Participation became mandatory the moment your car crossed the M25.
Multiple carriageways are surprisingly common and present plenty of opportunity for vehicular shenanigans. Filters to join and exit may be left or right which presents ample opportunity for sat-nav engrossed motorists to swerve violently across 3 lanes to their goal. Speed is also an important factor. While heavily populated with fixed cameras, the road regular will know that average speeds are usually below the legal limit and so seek to maximise their speed by switching lanes (ignoring all pretence of the rule concerning not overtaking on the inside) to increase their average on each 100yd stretch by 1mph or perhaps even more. The switching of lanes in this way is an art, with success usually being measured by how many car lengths you gain on vehicles in your general vicinity. No distance between your own rear bumper and the front of the car behind and to the side is too small to prevent pulling out and zipping past the vehicle in front on either side. Indicating is usually considered only as an after thought and thus is rarely used by regular London drivers. While some motorists may let others get away with such daring over/undertaking manoeuvres this is frowned upon and a good thumping of the horn, a glare and full beam on the headlamps for the next half mile is usually practised, even if many attempts are made at apology.
Traffic jams are a common occurrence and a driver has few options, with the ones that are available being varied in success rate. Simplest is to sit tight, roll the windows down, blare out some music in an anti-social way and pretend like a central London traffic jam is *the* place to be and that you really wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. While not helping your forward progress, this increases your public visibility for those you’ll never see again and there is always the chance that any alternative route will be more snarled than yours. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if one bridge is clogged, heading up/down river and crossing at another will get you through. In the time it has taken you to think that, over 1000 other motorists have thought the same and the other crossing option is now snarled also. This is not to say that taking an alternative route doesn’t have some appeal. There’s the option of the crazy u-turn in front of a bus followed by a rapid darting down residential streets, snaking your way left and right in an easterly or westerly direction until you hit the next main road and hope that you can somehow bypass the jam you were previously in. Most people have a great time for the first five minutes until they realise they are lost. In fact when parking, the car you’ve just seen drive past for the fifth time is probably just such a motorist. Take no time for pity for you would never do such a thing, at least that’s what you should tell yourself when you next wind up an hour late and on the wrong side of the city because you were “avoiding traffic”.
Cyclists own all roads inside of the M25. This is regularly demonstrated by their passing through red lights, cutting across your path when you have the right of way and damaging your vehicle when you are stationary in traffic without stopping or making any effort at an apology.
Parking, compared with all that moving about, should be easier but that’s rarely the case, especially in areas of free parking. The motorist in search of free parking is akin to a gannet, circling, waiting for the opportunity to get their share. If you’ve been driving round for five minutes looking for a spot, don’t kid yourself that the car in front is just using the road as a means to an end. They’ll surely take the parking space that you’ve just seen free up ahead. Parking space search fatigue is common. This is where you spot something that looks like a space, but actually you’d have to be really rather lucky to park a wheelie bin in the gap. You attempt to park anyway, denting your own bumper and cracking someone else’s number plate in the process. Circling resumes. Serious fatigue is when you try the same “only fit for a wheelie bin” space again later, this time cracking your headlamp and inflicting further damage to the other individual’s vehicle. When you finally do park and walk off on your business, don’t congratulate yourself too much. Even if you’ve parked perfectly you’ll almost certainly have a parking ticket for poor parking or have had someone else dent your car while trying to get into the space in front or behind.
When all is said and done, far be it from me to discourage the budding London driver. Remember all this excitement pales into insignificance when you consider some other cities such as Milan where any attempt to articulate rules is simply replaced by carrying out the desired action anyway and uttering the words Mi Scusi!