Few types of motoring test one’s patience and nerves as driving in a city. If it just weren’t for those damn pedestrians and other cars, city driving would be a whole lot more fun.

Cities can be downright petrifying, because there is just so much more of everything to watch out for. A city has a completely different kind of energy, where it often seems there’s a million near-misses every day between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. But it is a system based on calculated risks, quick assumptions, and exquisitely honed timing that miraculously works most of the time.

Driving in such an environment obviously takes a whole different mindset than when you’re just tooling down an expressway or a rural road. The biggest thing to keep in mind is, be prepared for ANYTHING, anything to happen, at any moment.

For instance, in a city, if you are in a far left lane on a one-way street, you need to watch for —

  • Cars ahead of you turning left but stopped because they are waiting for pedestrians to cross
  • Pedestrians crossing at the walk signal, if you are turning left
  • Double-parked delivery trucks
  • Slow-moving traffic looking for parking spots
  • More pedestrians
  • Bicycles sharing the roadway on the left side
  • A fast-moving car darting out of a parking spot
  • Your lane suddenly becoming a left-exit lane only
  • Cars quickly darting out of parking garages
  • Did I mention the pedestrians?

If you are in a far right lane on a one-way street, you need to watch out for all of the above (except of course, that everything is oriented to the right), plus —

  • Buses slowing down or parked at bus stops
  • Cabs pulling over quickly or double-parked to pick up or drop off passengers
  • Cars unexpectedly parked on the right side of the street when previously it was a traveling lane

If you are in any lane, or in two-way traffic, also add these:

  • Flagrant jaywalkers
  • Disoriented pedestrians who just don’t give a damn, walking against the traffic walk signal
  • Drivers turning left who are waiting for oncoming traffic to pass
  • Police or emergency vehicles with sirens going
  • Gawking or lost tourists (both on foot and in cars)
  • Road construction, detours, and related crews
  • Gaping potholes and wheel-bending cracks (often in serious clusters)
  • Poorly timed streetlights
  • Intersections that are too short, causing major congestion at rush-hour times

It’s enough to make anyone want to stay home. And this is not even including those pesky one-way streets!

Here’s a video I took driving through a particularly tricky Seattle street:


But there are some ways to make driving in a city easier and less stressful:

Try to stay in the middle lane (if there is one) if you are going to travel straight for a while. This way you won’t get stuck behind vehicles waiting for pedestrians in the crosswalk, stopped buses, and double-parked vehicles; you can avoid the cars darting out from parking spots or garages; and, for the most part, you won’t have to worry about your lane most inconveniently becoming a right- or left-turn only exit lane. If there is no middle lane, your best bet is the left lane, rather than the right one.

Be alert, and prepared to change lanes quickly if necessary. Sudden lane switching is a normal (and often necessary, unlike on the highway) part of city driving, as people move quickly to avoid obstructions. If you’re a novice driver or not used to city conditions, traffic pulling swiftly in front of or behind you may seem very unnerving, but if you drive for any length of time in a city, you will soon understand why this happens.

Pay attention and try to scan the road ahead for possible obstructions that might affect your speed and progress (such as a bus ahead that might be stopping, a driver turning left, a bicyclist, a pedestrian waiting at a crosswalk that does not have a traffic light, or a lane that suddenly exits to the right or left). Gradually you will learn, through trial and error, which lane to be in where you can travel with the least disruption. As with all driving, your goal is to drive as smoothly as possible, without sudden braking or acceleration.

Lane Hygiene, Part 2: In the City

Another one of those damned pedestrians holding up traffic.

If you have a GPS or in-vehicle navigation system, use it. Today’s modern navigation systems are a godsend, and few situations are handier for applying this fabulous technology than finding an unfamiliar address in a busy city. These systems tell you which lane to be in and gauge the distance until your next turn, which takes the guesswork out of which lane to be in and at what time. Some systems will even tell you what side of the street your destination will be on. Best of all, if you miss a turn, the system will automatically recalculate the route and redirect you—all without chewing you out and making a fuss.

Practice good lane hygiene. As in all sorts of driving, if you know that your presence in a specific city lane is going to hamper traffic flow in any way and you don’t need to be in it, make a point not to be there. This goes for the right lane, where drivers may be trying to merge or exit and buses may need to stop suddenly. If you know that the lane you’re traveling in will become an exit lane and you need to not be in it, move out of it well ahead of time. Don’t wait until the last minute. Always signal your intentions, especially when making a left turn. The best way to help ease congestion and avoid accidents is to drive smoothly with the flow of traffic at as even a speed as possible, without sudden braking or acceleration.

Lane Hygiene, Part 2: In the City

Lying in wait, emerging from the depths of the parking cave.

Concentrate on your own driving, not that of others. City driving is full of unique challenges, and it is easy to get flustered or angry with other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, who may seem downright reckless and rude. Sometimes we take things too personally. However, getting emotional is not productive, and it takes away from what should be our real focus—to pay attention to your own driving. Particularly if you are a novice, it is critical to go at the speed at which you’re comfortable and not feel rushed or pushed (and this can be difficult until you are more experienced and self-confident). Other drivers will go around you if they feel they need to, and that is their prerogative, as everyone has different skill levels and agendas. It is your responsibility to drive safely and watch the road, and not be a hazard yourself.

Be considerate. Be patient with others struggling to park or find their way in this busy, confusing environment. I see this all the time—drivers needlessly honking because the driver in front of them is taking a nanosecond longer to wait for the pedestrian to finish crossing the street before the light turns yellow, or because someone needs to get out of the lane that suddenly turns into an exit. Bicyclists, pedestrians, multitasking cabbies, and tourists especially bear the brunt of this impatience, which may have its root causes not so much in the driving situation itself as the cumulative stress of daily life that’s getting taken out behind the wheel. Getting to your destination two minutes quicker is not going to make that much difference in the timing of the rest of your day, but it will save a lot of unnecessary stress, aggravation, and maybe even a life.