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From somewhere small: Transport in the USA (well, Seattle)  

Just over three years ago I packed up my Guernsey life to come and work for Microsoft in Washington. I thought it might be fun to share some things I’ve learnt. This one is about transport.

Customs & immigration

Be prepared for cross-referenced questions and mandatory fingerprinting to make you feel like a replicant even though you’ve done nothing wrong and your eyes don’t glow in the dark. The gatekeepers at immigration are all-powerful and take their job seriously so you should too as I found out when I had a case of the giggles.

Some countries need a Visa to visit and while the UK (and Guernsey) doesn’t if you’re coming not to visit but to work you’ll require a work visa. Mine took a mountain of paperwork and a lot of work (for Microsoft) to get an all-important H1-B which means you have “mad skills we need”. The application is filed before April 1st and if there aren’t too many applications that year (there is a limit) and everything is ok you start work on October 1st for 3-years (extendable to 6).

Once approved you get an I-95 card stamped into your passport. You turn this in when you fly out of the country but if you’re driving up to Canada and coming back soon they may let you keep it. Scan it after you arrive and don’t lose it as it takes over 3 months to get a replacement and they’ll need the number as they can’t look up.

The TSA

The Transport Service Authority are the guys and gals tasked with keeping air travel safe.

Taking off shoes is compulsory because somebody hid a bomb in a shoe. Liquids are only allowed in tiny quantities because somebody planned a liquid bomb and many airports want to bombard you with x-rays or technologies to peek beneath your clothes because somebody blew up his underwear.

The Americans are pushing back against this last-threat-chasing approach and loss of dignity but Congress have no idea what it’s like as they fly private charter flights. For now you can at opt-out of the potentially dangerous x-ray and backscatter machines.

Airports

US airports are much like everywhere – full of shops and restaurants for you to roam while you wait – but feel less crammed than Heathrow or Gatwick (with the exception of JFK).

Seattle’s main airport (SeaTac) has free WiFi which is unusual but welcome – it has that in common with Guernsey’s airport.

Rail

Trains in the US were a casualty in the love affair with cars. The routes and timetables are limited with high fares high and long journey times. The lack of investment is quite apparent and a real shame as it’s hard to watch the beautiful country and road at the same time.

Esteemed entrepreneur and philanthropist Warren Buffet is pouring money into rail – whether this is an investment or a charitable donation time will tell.

Bus

Busses are regular and punctual in Seattle and some offer free WiFi. The reserved lanes let them blast past the traffic at busy times and even the rnon-Express routes can be quicker than driving at peak times.

The time-table at each stop lists not when the bus will arrive but when it starts the route from somewhere else which save printing a time-table for each stop but also renders it useless. Fire up your mobile device with an app or Google Maps although the latter throws curveballs (and not just for buses). I wondered if was a ploy to disrupt the Microsofties but a visit to San Francisco showed it just as confused in their own backyard.

Anyone hoping to catch a bus in downtown Seattle should be aware that many routes downtown are inside a large underground tunnel beneath the roads and the entrances are not clearly visible.

Roads

Do people drive SUVs because of the potholes or do they cause them?

The naming and numbering system is simple and the biggest begin with I for interstate because they span more than one state. In Seattle this includes the I-5 which starts at Mexico, comes up through California and Oregon and right through Seattle before turning into the BC99 at the Canadian border and on towards Vancouver. We also have the I-405 which runs parallel to the I-5 but only from Seattle to California and the I-90 (not to be confused with the immigration form of the same name) which starts in Seattle and spans across to Boston on the east coast. Interstates are like English motorways and there is nothing like them Guernsey.

Highways are smaller and get just a number. The most popular here are the 405 that runs north-south parallel with the I-5 for a while but on the east-side and the 520 east-west between downtown Seattle and Redmond via Microsoft HQ which runs almost parallel with the I-90. Both the 520 and the I-90 cross Lake Washington which sits beautifully, if a little inconveniently, between downtown Seattle and “Eastside” where everything else exists. They are comparable with dual-carriage ways and there is nothing like them in Guernsey… well, maybe the 50 meters leading up to the town roundabout.

Traffic

The speed limit in Guernsey is 35mph so getting comfortable with 60mph can take months. I’m never sure it will feel completely natural but there’s nothing wrong with being alert and edgy on these roads.

Driving at 60mph means I want to leave the proper distance between myself and the car in front. Unfortunately that space will immediately be filled by three cars and a semi-articulated truck. There is no sweet spot where you get good stopping distance nobody will fill.

Be aware that people drive with little concern for their own safety let alone yours.

Lights

Many towns and cities are laid out on a grid and almost every intersection has traffic lights.  I wondered why so many sit on highway traffic jams when smaller roads exist and now I know it is impossible to keep momentum through the grid.

You do get to turn right at red lights after stopping and yielding though – unless a sign says otherwise.

Everyone here goes through on orange and call it ‘squeezing the orange’. Don’t squeeze too hard though or it’ll be red and you’ll find a souvenir to capture the moment for prosperity arriving in the mail and a bill for $70.

License

Get a license as soon as you arrive even if you don’t intend to drive. Rental companies are confused by a Guernsey driving license, bars only accept passports and US drivers licenses and insurance takes how long you’ve had a US license into consideration. Domestic flights require government ID and carrying your passport everywhere is a liability given how hard it is to replace your passport, I-94 and visa. Trust me on that.

The test is easy. Sit down in front of a PC for traffic rules and regulations (most of which are like the UK except regarding school buses.

The DMV is efficient once you get to the front but getting there can run to hours so Go to their web site, find all the offices and keep an eye on wait times for a few days to spot a good time and location. If you can’t find one go and pick up your number, subtract 15 minutes from the wait time and then go and have lunch, meet friends, start a family and then come back and take your turn. In my case it was 2 hours better spent elsewhere.

Insurance

Is going to be expensive at first – your maximum no-claims-bonus isn’t going to help so get that license early.

With more people comes more danger and add in crazy hospital costs and litigation the policies will need high limits and people should be careful on the roads. They’re not in both cases.

Accidents

Accidents are common and we sat in traffic for over 45 minutes while somebody had a Carbeque (car on fire).

As a pedestrian I’ve been almost hit 3 times. Some factors I suspect are:

  • Rear windshield (windscreen) wipers are rare – drivers never look behind
  • Orange turn signals (indicators) are often absent – a flashing red brake light is much less obvious
  • Automatic and cruise controls exist – concentrate on anything but driving
  • SUVs, minivans and trucks obscure the visibility of all around them – and give a false sense of saftey
  • Drink driving is less strict – many will happily drive after a few
  • Lack of spacial awareness – also a problem in supermarkets with carts (trolleys)

Automatic vs manual

Driving on the ‘right’ side of the road isn’t difficult. The steering wheel can still opposite the curb so all is well unless you drive an import (don’t) and it is easy for the entire left-side of your body to fall asleep with nothing to do. The hard part is remembering to look left first then right when arriving at a junction.

All rentals are automatic.

If you do buy a manual (or stick as they like to call it) then choice disappears quickly, fuel economy improves and resale gets harder. We went with a Subaru Impreza for AWD winter ski trips and a hatchback for transporting stuff. You’d be shocked at how few models support manual AWD hatchbacks that aren’t an SUV here.

Don’t let this put you off, it’s a great place to live, work or just visit… but bring a raincoat.

[)amien

One response  

  1. That pretty much sums it up (especially the rain part). I live in Vancouver, so you would know the public transportation is vastly better, but the highways are correspondingly awful. I would highly recommend getting a Nexus card for travel, except that “random border checks” can sometimes still take 2 hours. :( I unfortunately don’t envision train travel becoming a reality in North America anytime soon; the geography and vastness of the continent conspire against it becoming economically viable. The only region of North America that it might work would be the north-east, but even then, it requires a steep initial investment that wouldn’t get a return for 20-30 years. North Americans aren’t farsighted enough to consider the benefits.

    Kurtis – March 13th, 2011

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