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From the Roadshow archives: Crazed by your commute? There’s always Bismarck

From the Roadshow archives: Crazed by your commute? There’s always Bismarck

Editor’s note: Mr. Roadshow wanted to share some of his favorite columns and stories from more than 30 years of informing, entertaining and getting things changed for Bay Area (and beyond) drivers. He’ll be back on the road with new material soon. In the meantime, please keep sending Mr. Roadshow your comments or questions to mrroadshow@bayareanewsgroup.com.
This story originally was published on Feb. 2, 1997.

 

This is it. Commuter heaven.

The fewest traffic problems of any significant city in the entire U.S. of A. No traffic reports every 10 minutes. No carpool lanes. Metering lights? Bah, humbug. Triple left-turn lanes? Not here. Driver rage? You gotta be kidding.

Places Rated Almanac ranks the capital of North Dakota No. 1 in the country when it comes to the shortest and least stressful commute. People here actually live five blocks from work. Compared to us, they gain an extra three weeks of vacation a year in time they save motoring to their job.

“Driving in North Dakota is a time for reflection and contemplation,” said Beryl Levine, a retired state Supreme Court justice who last summer moved from North Dakota to Palo Alto. “It’s a wonderful respite from your cares of the day.”

Whooooa.

We gotta – just gotta – check this out. A place to actually get in your car and chill out.

And, I do mean chill. In Bismarck, it’s a BIG one.

Like minus 22 degrees (that’s right, 22 below zero) on Monday night when Mr. Roadshow landed. In three days it never warmed above zero. That’s cold. The Diet Coke I left inside a rented four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer turned into a cup of black ice within minutes. That’s really cold. I was freezing – despite wearing snow boots, a full-length down-filled coat that could warm a grizzly, gloves and every turtleneck I could scrounge up. Man, I looked geeky. Really, really cold and geeky.

Then the bitter, bitter wind blew, bringing tears and sniffles to crusty Mr. Roadshow.

Some commuter heaven.

“We really don’t have traffic here,” smiled Lenor Dollinger of Bismarck as she ate at a north side breakfast hot spot, Perkins. “And the weather isn’t usually this bad.”

Uh-huh.

Ah, Bismarck. Second-largest city in the state, where the mighty Missouri River roars by . . . when it’s not frozen over to a glacial state. Where nearly 60,000 people live – a 7 percent increase since 1990. Where a new intersection on the north side is the engineering talk of town. Where traffic lights turn green as you approach. Where, despite claims this winter, it’s not a blizzard year ’round.

Oh, my cynical Californians.

I can hear you all now: “No one lives in Bismarck. That’s why there’s no traffic. . . . Do they count snowmobilers? The good life is the Bay Area, not where the wind chill hits minus-60 degrees.”

Hey, Bismarck ain’t perfect, but it is snappy behind the wheel.

You can drive from the north end to the south end of town in 14 minutes. Years ago, wise traffic engineers turned problem streets into one-way thoroughfares. They even have an expressway . . . that’s one expressway.

What’s the rush?

When the drive is no sweat (in a North Dakota winter, there is no sweating), would-be lunatics behind the wheel are transformed. They drive slower. Why speed when your destination is seldom more than five minutes away? Some look out for older drivers (there are lots of ’em). That may be the city motto.

“You can’t survive here without your neighbors,” Dollinger said. “You have to depend upon them.”

When power went out this winter, drivers approaching blank traffic lights all stopped (which is what the law requires). When the power went out in San Jose last summer, so many drivers blew through dark intersections that traffic cops pleaded for a newspaper story to tell ’em they had to stop.

“When you are not in your car for an hour a day each way, the drop in stress is incredible,” said Almanac co-author David Savageau. “You actually have time for other things.”

Like eating, sleeping or chatting with the wife and kids.

Bismarck drivers spend 27 minutes going to and from work each day; we spend nearly 50 minutes. Count those poor souls commuting from Tracy or Hollister or Santa Cruz or any other relatively far-off spot and our average time soars to nearly 1 1/2 hours a day. While we stew in traffic, Bismarck drivers are home cooking stew for dinner or ice skating.

Grass isn’t greener

Few of them would move to California. “Your traffic stinks,” said Gayle Schuck.

Of course, few of us would move to Bismarck, where that awful weather makes us shudder.

We’re talking trade-offs, folks. Great weather (even with the rain), the 49ers, beaches, mountains and culture to burn vs. no traffic, low cost of living, Norman Rockwell lifestyles and, as North Dakotans always say, a great place to raise kids.

But what do you do when it turns cold?

“We put on a coat,” said George Schempp, a parking lot attendant at the state capitol.

And when it hits 60 below?

“We zip it up,” he said.

But, come on. Is it all smiles behind the wheel? Does no one here ever get mad at a stupid driver or slow traffic light?

No, they don’t get mad, two dozen folks replied with knowing smiles. They are pretty nice people, they claimed. Even if another driver does something dumb, they can’t get mad. Heck, we probably know the other guy, they say.

Pure as the blowing snow . . . well, not quite. Vicki Voskuil, a reporter at the Bismarck Tribune, confessed to running a red light once. “I’m not used to waiting for lights,” she said, “and I ran one.”

Naughty. But, jeez, is this the worst you can do? One scofflaw. Are you folks perfect or what?

“The drivers here are terrible,” said one.

Time out.

Who is this lone voice from the frozen plains?

Why, she’s (almost) one of us. Karen Zahn, a Southern California native who moved to Bismarck three years ago. She once did the L.A. commute, so she knows traffic California style. We can trust her.

“No one in Bismarck even bothers to use their turn signals,” an exasperated Zahn practically yelled in the American Automobile Association office.

“They don’t know how to drive. They’ll come to a stop in the middle of an intersection even if the light is green because they are looking for a turn,” she railed.

“And if they want to make a right turn, do they pull into the far right lane? No. They’ll turn from the far left lane. Drives me nuts.”

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The cold facts

Hey, we can relate. But perhaps we can forgive them, for they have crosses to bear – scraping a quarter-inch of ice off the windshield or hearing the engine chug-chug and not turn over after another 22-below night.

“When the inside of your teeth hurt, then you know it’s really cold,” Zahn said. “Nothing compares to this cold.”

The natives were amused at this shivering California reporter sent nearly 2,000 miles to the land of snow drifts. Glad to have you, they said, but a story about Bismarck traffic? In January?

Why?

“The editor who thought of this should have his head examined,” Schempp said, “and the reporter who agreed to do it should be committed.”

Boss, you listening?