catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 19 :: 2013.10.18 — 2013.10.31


The roads that break us

I flipped off a guy behind me at a stop sign.  While my kids were in the car with me.  And my daughter was in the driver’s seat.

Yes.  I did that.  And I regret it very much.

Truth is, it felt really good to spend my anger on someone, a stranger.  The man had driven behind us for a few blocks and blasted his car horn at my daughter at two different stop signs.  I’m not sure what was bothering him.  Maybe she wasn’t pushing through the intersections as quickly as he’d like.  Either way, he did more than blow his horn, he pushed my buttons.  Big time.

If I remember correctly, we were also running late to get somewhere. Probably a church event.

Somewhere in the fog of fury, I thought that jerking my head, crooking my elbow and letting the middle digit stand tall protected my daughter. And it felt really, really good.

Then I remembered that the man blasting his car horn at us was also a parent.  There was a baby in a car seat in the back of his vehicle.  Also, my daughter made it pretty plain she did not feel protected by my rage.  Not even a little bit.

Last week — another day sputtering against Austin’s traffic, roads and drivers — my husband and I finally figured out the word we’ve been feeling since we moved here two plus years ago:  disrespected. Who ever thought infrastructure could compel such strong emotion?

We’ve heard often the tale people tell about Austin’s coming of age — from a relatively small state capital city to one of the quickest growing cities in the entire country.  Every once in awhile I sit at a stop sign studying bumper stickers.  Next to the “Coexist” compact there’s the “Don’t Move Here” pickup truck.  We’re pretty sure the latter crowd built the roads around here.

I have not cried behind the steering wheel or cussed more in traffic than in the past two years I’ve lived here.  In short: Austin roads infuriate me.  And I know I’m not completely crazy; even the travel guru Frommer’s Guide agrees:

Driving in Austin is a bit of a challenge for visitors… A number of major downtown streets are one-way; many don’t have street signs or have signs so covered with foliage they’re impossible to read. Driving is particularly confusing in the university area, where streets like “32 1/2” suddenly turn up. Multiply the difficulties at night, when you need super vision to read the ill-lit street indicators.

The city’s core is hemmed in on the west and the east by two North-South thoroughfares: Mo-Pac Expressway on the west (built along the former Missouri-Pacific rail line, but locals say it’s name is actually an abbreviation for Mo’ Packed) and Interstate 35 on the east.

Here’s what Frommer’s Guide has to say about them:

Highways are rife with signs that suddenly insist LEFT LANE MUST TURN LEFT or RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT — generally positioned so they’re noticeable only when it’s too late to switch. I-35 — nicknamed “the NAFTA highway” because of the big rigs speeding up from Mexico — is mined with tricky on-and-off ramps and, around downtown, a confusing complex of upper and lower levels; it’s easy to miss your exit or find yourself exiting when you don’t want to. The rapidly developing area to the northwest, where Hwy. 183 connects I-35 with Mo-Pac and the Capital of Texas Highway, requires particular vigilance, as the connections occur very rapidly. There are regular lane mergers and sudden, precipitous turnoffs.

Last week our city architect — a wonderful man and a member at our church — facilitated a conversation about Christians and urbanism. Turns out I’m not the only one feeling disrespected by Austin’s traffic infrastructure.  In Kit Johnson’s opinion, I-35 not only creates a gigantic boundary between central and east Austin, but also between the historically white and black neighborhoods in the city.  Since the interstate was built in the 1960s, segregation came long before the steel structure.  Perception is a hefty matter though, and in Austin, racial segregation is often weighed in steel tonnage.

My little traffic irritations aside, I’m grateful for people like Mr. Johnson who are imagining solutions to make our city roadways a more hospitable, people-centered infrastructure.  Whether that requires we bury I-35 or add more sidewalks, bike lanes and train stops, there’s hope for Austin roads to better represent the better nature of its citizens — one of welcome and hospitality. 

In the meantime, I’ll say no to road rage.

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