This site is an informal guide on how to survive — and ultimately enjoy — driving in California. It is aimed mostly at tourists and foreigners who are traveling or moving to California; it could also be useful to out-of-state Americans driving in California.
It’s intended to answer questions like: How do you survive driving in a place where maybe half of all turns and lane changes are done without signaling? How do you survive driving in a place where drivers on the freeways drive in whatever lane they feel like, depending on their mood, regardless of their speed relative to other cars? A place where even relatively trivial health problems can bankrupt you? A place where you may need snow chains and air-conditioning in the same hour while driving? A place where the SUV (with or without an assault stereo) is still king? A place that has stop signs on all four entrances to many intersections? And why is that idiot behind me shining a red light into my car?! And what does that blue painted line on the curb mean? Who do I have to tip to get service? And how much? Why are there so few brick buildings in California? Why do shopkeepers treat me like a child when I give them $5 for a $5 book? Does every Californian carry a gun in their car? Can I use my Australian or European GSM mobile phone in San Francisco? What does it take to drive the beautiful Californian deserts? And, above all, despite all the problems, why is driving in California so rewarding?
Firstly, remember that California’s a car culture. You won’t survive for long without a car in California — California was designed for cars. Californian urban and suburban planning typically assumes that every adult has access to a car, and nearly all tourist facilities, shopping centers, workplaces, etc., are built on the assumption that almost everyone will get there by car. Without access to a car, you’ll be inconvenienced or even in danger. In some suburbs, streets are deliberately built without sidewalks to discourage pedestrians; in other areas just walking around outside on those sidewalk-less suburban streets can be enough for the local police to stop and question you (as once happened to me in Los Angeles).
By European or British standards, California is nearly inaccessible without a car. As someone who’d lived for years in both Sydney and London without owning a car, moving here was a shock: I quickly learned that I needed a car to do almost anything I needed to do on a daily basis (get to work, go shopping, visit friends, etc.). If you’re a tourist taking a vacation in California, you’ll soon discover that, except for small parts of the San Francisco or Los Angeles regions, most tourist areas or naturally-beautiful places are only realistically accessible by private car or tourist bus. Most people who fly into California, whether for business or for vacation, will rent a car when they get here — there’s simply no cheaper or more convenient and safe way to get to and from the airport and your other destinations. In nearly every part of the state, it is always quicker, cheaper, more convenient, and safer to take a car than to use public transport — assuming public transport even exists where you’re going at all. Similarly, if you’ve just moved to California (or are thinking of doing this), you’re almost certainly going to need a car to get to work, do the shopping, and generally survive.
Unfortunately, being a car culture, everyone drives — meaning there’s a lot of bad and dangerous driving out there. Respect for common sense and the law is rarer than in places where driving is considered a privilege rather than a natural right. Also, if you’re a tourist, things Californians take for granted — how to use the phone system here, how much and who to tip, how to order food, how to decode quintessentially American addresses such as “10511 E. 12th St.”, or how to pronounce “Nikon” the uniquely American way — can be bewildering or intimidating.
This site touches on all those things and more.
A Note On The Photos
If you want to see full-sized versions of the photos heading each page, check out the Gallery. Other images in the text itself are sometimes clickable to get the full-sized versions there on the page, but not always.
Thanks to Atanu Ghosh for originally suggesting I write it all down instead of repeating it for every visiting UniSoft Gnome; to Nancy Blachman, Peter Wisnovsky, Jenny Schaffer, Jan Dreisbach, Michael Schippling, Dan Debrunner, Garrett Cheng, Jon Bright, Yvonne Zhou, Robyn Chan, Jeff Lichtman, David Comfort, Tish Davidson, Loren Seibold, Tom Tilley, John Tranter, Wayne Johnson, Drake Christensen, Andy Stone, and a cast of hundreds from all over the Web and the Usenet newsgroups ca.driving and rec.travel.usa-canada for proof-reading and helpful suggestions; and thanks to Brad White for the life-saving “big turn” / “little turn” advice billions of years ago in Oxford (or was it Sydney?).