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Traffic is a killer

Traffic is an unbelievable problem here. After having driven a car in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, I thought I was prepared for narrow roads, weird signs, roundabouts, and all other quirks of the Old World driving. True, very little of my vacation driving was within boundaries of major cities. Still, I had no idea that traffic could be that bad day in and day out.

Becky’s school is less than five miles away from us – not within walking distance, obviously, but nothing overly remote either. (For comparison, I used to take a bus to the City from Old Bridge Park & Ride, which is about 4.5 miles away from our NJ house). There is no direct public transportation – connecting buses or one stop on the train and then bus. In any case, maybe we all used to walk to school five kilometers uphill in deep snow when we were young kids, but I am not very comfortable letting my 12-year-old daughter get on the bus on her own.

Kimmy’s school is about a mile away, which, in nice weather, is not an unpleasant walk.

Becky needs to be in school at 8:25 am. Kimmy’s school does not open doors until 8:55 am.

Oh, and did I mention that the school bus concept does not exist here at all?…

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get both girls to school on time. It would also be nice to not be late for any meetings at the office…

There is no way in hell for Natasha to manage it herself without waking Kimmy up a whole hour earlier than necessary, then having her suffer through driving to Becky’s school and back and in the end probably be at school 10-15 minutes earlier than opening bell. If the opening times were reversed, she could leave Becky at home herself, while taking Kimmy to school, but that is not the case.

The only workable solution is for me to get up with Becky, drive her to school, drive back home, then get on my train and go to the office. Natasha, in the meantime, can get Kimmy ready and then either walk her or drive her, depending on weather.

At the end of the school day, Natasha can pick up Kimmy and then go get Becky. That actually works quite nicely, given that Kimmy finishes at 3:10pm and Becky at 3:45pm. In any case, being late to pick up Becky should not be a serious issues, as her school is open until 6pm and there will eventually be tons of stuff for her to do there, clubs, library and all…

Driving back home after dropping Becky off is an important stage in the morning, for obvious reasons of having only one car in the family.

Now, to be in office by 9, I have to make 8:22 train out of Mottingham. For that, I need to pull into my driveway no later than 8:15. Becky has to get up early and be at school a good half-hour earlier than needed, but she does not have to stand outside waiting for it to open as it opens at 7:30. She is inconvenienced, but will have to cope. So working backwards, and knowing the distance, we figured out that getting up at 6:45 and leaving house at 7:30 (don’t forget – we share one bathroom with a single sink in the mornings!) will get us to school around 7:50, then me back home around 8:10, give or take a few minutes.

Ri-i-ight! On Monday, taking the route suggested by ever reliable GPS, I spent 40 minutes on the way to school. The trip back took less than 20 minutes (it is mostly going against the main flow) but adding in the time to park the car and to walk Becky to school – it was her first day, after all! – I spent over an hour on this exercise. Not only did I miss the 8:22, but I also missed the next one at 8:42, after which – Murphy’s law in its glorious action – starts the biggest interval between two trains in the entire day, until 9:20. I was in the office by 10. Thankfully, no important meetings. Needless to say, Natasha could not wait for the car, and had left the house with Kimmy before I came back.

On Tuesday, I slightly modified the route according to the road atlas that already faithfully served me in the past. And voilá! Only about 25 minutes on the way in, dropping Becky off is less than a minute long, then under 20 minutes coming back, pulled in at exactly 8:15, briskly walked to the train – perfect timing! Natasha still chose morning exercise, and walked with Kimmy, despite the fact that the car was available.

On Wednesday, I am thinking I got it made. We even leave house 5 minutes later (the logic of which now escapes me). Taking the same route as on Tuesday, I manage to arrive at Becky’s school… in 40 minutes. I then take a different route home – primarily for exploration purposes – which not only confirms that all different ways in are equally dismal, but also takes me more than 20 minutes to get back. I then take a bus to a different office, but still arrive late for a 9 o’clock meeting.

So, after three days, simple observations suggest that the route that I devised on Tuesday has got to be the fastest way in. All back roads are choked off at intersections with the major ones, so trying to be inventive will not get me closer to my optimal time of 25 minutes or less. Coming back by that same route is definitely the fastest thing. I still hit at least one unavoidable congestion, and then have to slow down by the speed cameras, but I am quite confident in the under 20 minutes timing.

Still, this is terrible. I have occasional 9 o’clock meetings (and a whole upcoming week of workshops that start at 8:45), and I apparently have no control over whether I can make it or not. We spend hours discussing how to make it better. Having already rejected the notion of sending Becky by herself via public transport, we either need to get a second car (which will transform my nice evening commute into yet another ordeal) or move closer to Becky’s school…

And the cause of this is that British traffic is simply brutal. The reasons are many, not least of which is roundabouts.

Ironically, I just read in Economist that Canada, as well as some areas in the States, are starting to embrace roundabouts. The studies apparently show that roundabouts are better in controlling intersections and cause less congestion. I don’t know what morons conducted those studies. When there are few cars on the road, you may need to spend somewhat unnecessary time standing on red, but you may also be able to not stop at all, if you approach the intersection on green; under a similar condition at a roundabout, you may be able to enter it without stopping, but you will always have to slow down considerably – remember, cars already on the circle have right of way! – which means that anyone behind you also slows down, and so on in a classic domino effect.

When the traffic is heavy, roundabouts cause huge delays. Your ability to enter the circle is affected mostly by the incoming traffic from the next immediate entrance on your right (we are driving on the left side of the road, which means that roundabouts flow clockwise). So, imagine an intersection of two streets with a roundabout. You are in the heavy traffic in the rush hour going north, which has the obvious complement of almost no traffic going south. Since there are very few cars entering the circle from the north, the cars traveling westward have an easy entry… which means that cars traveling northward – you included – are stuck with long periods of having no right of way. With a big car volume in such position, it may take 10, 15 minutes to cover several hundred yards.

I’d draw you a diagram, but it’s almost midnight. Hopefully, you get the point.

Add in the roads too narrow and not suited to such heavy automobile flows, the slowing-down implements that may serve a purpose when the traffic is light, but only restrict maneuverability when traffic is heavy, together with the the stupid roundabouts and you arrive at having virtually no chance of driving from point A to point B and not hitting a serious congestion or three. And with the time constraints that I am operating under, hitting even one delay of several minutes screws it all up.

It is not only mornings. Natasha went to IKEA today – 11 miles away (compare with IKEA at Elizabeth, which is about 25 miles away from out NJ house and is normally reachable in under half an hour). She spent an hour and a half driving to it and two and a half hours driving back from it. In the few minutes in between, she managed to buy some nice and necessary things for the house, but the driving was simply ridiculous.


Not that it is related in any way, but Becky is studying Mandarin Chinese in school. French and Spanish are compulsory, and then there is an additional choice between Latin and Mandarin. I always failed to see the point of studying Latin, and Becky, in her own way, came to the same conclusion…