While driving the Autobahn is an activity I gladly partake in, navigating the streets of Düsseldorf is a different matter. I actually don’t mind driving. I even think I’m pretty good at it (who doesn’t, right? take my word for it though, I’m good). But there’s something about the chaos that is Düsseldorf traffic that makes my palms sweat.
For the longest time I resisted driving in town. I know, the best way to overcome your fears is to just jump right in. But why force the issue? The few times I did drive, it was a necessity and I did it with as much aplomb as possible (ignoring the sweaty palms).
I greatly prefer being Toby’s passenger. He skillfully maneuvers the streets while I sit back and enjoy the ride. Although, there are times when I think to myself, ‘Holy shark tails! How can he stay so calm, cool, and collected?!’
There are a number of factors contributing to the excitement that is driving in Düsseldorf. Lanes can be repurposed at a moment’s notice. You’re happily driving straight in your lane when all of a sudden you realize it’s become a turning lane. Signage is minimal, although there are lots of arrows painted in the lanes themselves. Speaking of lanes, they’re much narrower here, leading to the feeling that you’re about to embed your side mirror in one of the parked cars. And, in case that isn’t enough excitement for you, street cars and the occasional bike rider often use the same lanes as the cars.
When you get to an intersection, you have to remember to look a little lower and more towards the right since the stop lights don’t usually hang over the center of the intersection. The drivers of the first cars at a red light are always craning their necks to watch for the green light. If you’re looking for a street sign, it’s often posted on the corner of one of the buildings at the intersection. Although I haven’t figured out which corner it always is. There are lots of one-way roads, so you may not always be able to turn where you thought you wanted to. And when you turn, you always have to remember to check behind you to make sure there isn’t a bicyclist that is going straight. (There are lots of us, and we appreciate that extra moment.)
Along with these structural factors are the behaviors of fellow drivers. Your lane might suddenly be blocked by a delivery truck parked in the ‘second row,’ a taxi picking up or dropping off a passenger, or a car preparing to parallel park. Procedure = blinker, quick look, controlled swerve.
All of this is just a side effect of the fact that there’s a lot less space here. Much of the city was designed and built before there were so many (big) cars on the road. But that’s how it is, and people deal with it very well. Everybody (almost) seems to be hyper aware. A blinker is taken seriously and treated with respect. It also helps that the in-city speed limit is 50 kmh (31 mph), which allows for better reaction time and shorter breaking distances. I have to admit though, with so much going on, 50 kmh still seems fast.
Even if/when I do get comfortable with driving around Düsseldorf, there’s still the obstacle of parking. You want me to parallel park into a space big enough to fit my car plus a half-empty roll of toilet paper on each end? And to do it quickly because the street car is coming? But that’s a topic for another day….