Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Red Light, Green Light

Living in Singapore every day, I forget sometimes that some seemingly “normal” parts of our lives would once have struck us as pretty strange.

Singapore driving, in particular, has subtly changed our way of life. Partly it’s because of Asian culture’s lack of any need for personal space, as we’ve experienced on the MRT, buses, and elevators. On the roads, we’ve had to get used to people, cars, buses, motorcycles regularly coming within a foot of the car. We often share a single, skinny lane with a motorcycle - or even two, one on each side. And since driving here isn’t all that fast, people tailgate and pass without an inch to spare.

But even with basic skills like parking, we’ve had to make some adjustments. These days, we’d have difficulty just turning into a parking space - forward, that is. Instead, it’s perfectly natural to follow the local custom of backing into the space, flashers on, rear sensors beeping as if we were maneuvering a Mack truck into place for a delivery. Then there’s the essential extra step of pushing the little button (that comes standard on almost every car in Singapore) to pull in our side mirrors. Otherwise, we’d never get the door open in such a tight space.

And of course to get to the parking spaces, we nearly always have to negotiate our way through a “car park,” or parking garage. Who’d have thought that driving to the grocery store would involve two dollars in parking fees and a cautious roll down a dark, spiraling ramp with no room for error, all for the privilege of squeezing into a parking space apparently designed for a Fiat?

On home leave in American suburbia, we were amazed by the huge open-air parking lots at the malls. We felt so exposed, out there in the open: what if it rained? And what a waste of land: surely these were excessively roomy parking spaces, and why were all these spaces spread out over just one level? On the other hand, we’d almost forgotten that “free parking” was anything but a square on the Monopoly board.

The sudden strangeness did make us uncharacteristically sympathetic to other drivers who were experiencing the culture shock of driving American-style, though. Once, during our home leave, we stopped at an intersection just as the light turned red. Across from us, the minute the light turned red, a man confidently drove his minivan (surely a rental) through the intersection to turn left. Cars going the other direction honked, swerved, gestured at the driver. But we shook our heads sympathetically. “That poor guy. He has no idea the left-turn arrow comes after the green light. He thinks it’s normally after the red light - just like in England and Singapore.”


Cory said...

We'd always give a smile and a nod whenever we'd see a 'new' expat turning with their windshield wipers going. It took a while for me not to signal with my wipers.

Anonymous said...

It reminds me of driving in Boston, only the drivers there are not as polite!

BB said...

You make an interesting connection between free parking and the US style of sprawling land use. It makes sense that a car park would cost more - after all, you have to build this whole structure to hold all those cars in the air (or to put them in the ground). But I wonder: if we factored in the environmental costs of using up all that land and covering it with impervious paving, would it really be cheaper, or just a payment deferred 'til later?