Car culture in Hong Kong?

A recent trip to the USA, the Los Angeles/Orange County area in particular, brought to mind some of the differences between living in a ‘car culture’ such as southern California, and a compact urban environment such as Hong Kong.

What are some of the signs that the LA area is the ultimate ‘car culture’?

The freeways. The Family Tall arrived at Los Angeles International Airport at 7:00 in the morning. Since we needed to stay awake all day to beat jetlag, we decided to pick up our rental car immediately and drive down the Orange County coast, where we’d spend some time on the beach absorbing fresh air and photons in our quest to stay conscious. This plan worked well – our jetlag was minimal – but goodness, was the drive in our rental car out of LAX a rude start! Mrs Tall suggested I take the wheel, given my familiarity with US roads and driving, but I must warn you that a decade and half away from the USA leaves one quite unprepared to deal with the barely-organized maelstroms of cars and trucks that are the 405 and the 710 freeways.

Not all of the freeway driving we did was this bad, but none of it was pleasant. The LA area is crisscrossed by an astonishing number of huge traffic arteries, dividing the city into ‘islands’. This is a mixed blessing at best: yes, it’s often possible to go screaming across the city at 70 mph, but it’s not for everyone. For example, when we were flying out of LA, we listened to a long disquisition on LA Life from the woman in the row behind us. (I could not help overhearing; she had the kind of braying voice that makes auditory escape impossible.) She was discussing, with some pride, the way she’d arranged her life so as to avoid freeways entirely. ‘I just live in my little bubble!’, she remarked, brightly. Her commendably patient seatmate, on the other hand, was ruing his more-than-an-hour daily commute, almost all on those same freeways.

Parking. We spent that first day in Laguna Beach, a lovely little town on a magnificent stretch of Orange County coastline. But before we could enjoy it, we had to find a place to park our car. In my addled state, I made a wrong turn, and as we found ourselves cruising along – and along and along and along, right out of town – looking for a place to turn around, we noticed that this road was lined, on both sides, with parking meters. They were empty, since it was a mid-week morning, but it gave some indication of what parking in Laguna Beach would be like on, say, a nice Sunday afternoon.

Another insight into the SoCal parking situation was offered one evening on a local news broadcast. Christmas was coming, the area malls were mobbed, and this station had sent a reporter to survey the scene:

Reporter: I’m standing in the parking lot at Consumption Heights Mall. And as you can see, there’s not a parking space to be found. Ha ha ha! Just look at the dozens of circling cars! Let’s talk to one of those unlucky idiots who’s: Too Late To Shop.

Frantic, pathetic driver of a random unparked car: I gotta find a space! I’ve been circling for an hour and a half, and I almost had one, but a guy cut me off, and then I tried to knife him but he got me first with his tire iron, and – hey, are you TV people going to be moving your van now? Can I have your space? I’ll give you fifty bucks if –

Reporter: Ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! And now let’s go back to the studio.

News Anchor: Wow, Ashley, it’s awesome to see everyone getting into the Christmas spirit out there!

Reporter: Yes, Steve! You could almost say they’re Ho Ho Ho-micidal!

Sprawl. On another drive, this time through Anaheim, I was thinking: is there another place on earth that combines such magnificence of landscape and climate with the utter hideousness of what’s been built upon it? I suppose there must be, but I haven’t seen it. We spent three days in Orange County, and the weather was so glorious I don’t know how to describe it adequately: it’s actively pleasant, as if the warm sun and cool fresh sea breeze compete in trying to make you feel good. But as you drive along the main streets of Anaheim, for example, what do you see? Miles of parking lots, strip malls, and generally ugly car-friendly sprawl.

The Family Tall’s return to Hong Kong posed the same jetlag challenge. We had a day to recuperate before we returned to school and work, so how best to get some refreshing outdoor exposure? A trip to Sai Kung filled the bill perfectly.

And what a contrast: the road to Sai Kung is just one lane in either direction, but even on a public holiday, with beautiful weather, there were no traffic jams. We sat upstairs in a double-deck bus, and could enjoy the scenery with no driving stress, as we poked each other to try to stay awake.

Sai Kung was crowded, but still pleasant, with lots of al fresco dining and drink options, and a long waterfront promenade to wander along.

I don’t mean to sound too simplistic here: LA of course has plenty of al fresco dining, waterfront vistas, and nice twisty rural roads for cruising. And Sai Kung shows disturbing signs of being overwhelmed with traffic at times: on the day I’ve just described, the parking garages were full, and there were drivers looking longingly at filled-up street-level spaces and lots as well.

My point is simply to highlight the costs: with car culture convenience come costs (sorry about the dime-store alliteration), and this trip reminded me to be thankful for some of the unique advantages it’s sometimes easy to overlook in Hong Kong.


Driving & jetlag

Mr Tall,

I'd vote for saving the driving until after a good night's sleep if at all possible. The first time I hired a car in the US was around 10 years ago for a trip starting in San Francisco, and I feel lucky to be here to tell you about it.

It all started well, with me feeling quite bright after landing at around 9am. No problem finding the rental co, or making my way to the collection lot.

First problem - the driver's seatbelt was hooked on the window post just to the side of the windscreen. Now I'm used to it being on the doorpost by my shoulder - I could see a little track where it was supposed to move to the doorpost, but how to get it there? I tried pulling, reading the userguide, pressing a few buttons, and gave up. Of course once you turn the key in the ignition, zzzzzzzt, and the seatbelt automatically slides back in to place.

Ok we're off. Hmm, performance of these new cars seems pretty poor. I grind my way to the exit, and hand my documents to the man at the gatehouse. Who looks down and in a most polite voice advises, 'Sir, you may wish to release the handbrake'. Ah, yes, splendid idea.

Yes, that definitely makes for a smoother ride. Drive out, repeating the mantra 'drive on the right', and we've made it to the freeway. Why are these three lanes so busy, but the outside lane is empty? Seems a bit silly. Mmm, we're in the oustide lane and we're cruising. (It wasn't until the trip back to the airport I read the signs about it being a carpool lane - luckily I didn't get stopped).

Off to a business meeting. (Yes, my youthful bravado had me spurning advice to get a good night's sleep first). The meeting was ok, but by lunchtime I just really, really wanted to go to sleep. I could hear the words that the other person was saying, but they just wouldn't stick. If you have to keep asking someone to repeat what they say twice and it still doesn't make sense, the options are limited: start smiling & nodding? plead illness? pass out in your lunch plate?

Thankfully lunch ended, and I was back in the car. And lost. Pull over to check map, but once I'd worked out where I was I couldn't get the car back into gear. Scrutinise the owner's book, and finally find you have to press the brake pedal before it will go into gear (you're probably getting the picture I hadn't driven for quite a while, and had never driven an automatic).

Sped off, Bang! and stopped. I'd forgot to repeat the 'drive on the right' mantra, completely misjudged a gap, and hit a kerbstone, blowing out the front tire. At least changing a spare wheel is something I could manage. And since you have to drive slowly on the skinny spare wheel there was no temptation to get into the carpool lane.

The final hurdle was trying to fill up with petrol before returning the hire car. There was no way I could get a drop from the pump, and ended up having to go and ask the person in the cash booth to come and help me. From the look on their face they were obviously having great trouble understanding how someone could be so stupid!

Innate stupidity or jetlag? You be the judge.