Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Driving Time

Very early on in my American experience, I discovered that there is a language gap between the Brits and the Statesiders. And I don't mean the one most famously referred to by Winston Churchill when he called us two nations divided by a common language. No, I am thinking of the way we perceive distance.

Ask any Brit how far it is from Birmingham to London and he will say that it's about 110 miles. But if you ask an American a similar question, say the distance between Oklahoma City and Dallas, and he will tell you it's four hours. On hearing this, the Brit will wonder how long an hour has been a measurement of distance. He will understand what is meant but will not see why the Americans view distances in this way. To him, it's a simple question requiring an answer in miles or kilometers; if he'd wanted to know the driving time, he'd have asked.

This illustrates a fundamental difference in the thinking between the Brit and the American and it stems from very different experiences of driving. British roads are always solid with traffic, particularly the motorways (multi-lane highways). Before he sets out on a journey, the Brit wants to know how many miles he will have to do. From this he will calculate an approximate time for the journey but he knows that it is a guess only. The likelihood is that traffic jams, road works and diversions will make his calculations seem laughable. In effect, by setting out on a journey, he is casting his fate to the winds.

In America, however, the interstate highways are empty in comparison to the motorways in Britain. The American driver gets out onto the highway, sets his cruise control at the speed limit, and waits for the required amount of time to pass. It makes sense for him to measure distance in hours because he needs to know at what time he is likely to arrive at his destination. While the Brit is doing feverish mental calculations in an effort to maintain his average speed, the American thinks only of whether he will stop at a McDonalds or a Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch.

Distances in America are of a whole new order in comparison to those a Brit is used to; they are continental. We are used to hearing that England could fit into a corner of the States; in fact, England would fit quite comfortably within the borders of one state, Texas. From Dallas in the North of Texas to El Paso in the South West is 620 miles, approximately the same as the distance between Cornwall and Northumberland. And that isn't taking into account the Panhandle, which reaches even further North. When we open our vision to include the other states, we begin to get some idea of just how vast this country is.

To take just a few examples:

New York to Los Angeles (East coast to West coast): 2,790 miles
Seattle to San Diego (North to South along West coast): 1,260 miles
Seattle to Miami (North West to South East): 3,300 miles
Boston to Miami (North to South along East coast): 1,520 miles

These are airline distances, comprehensible only if you're going by plane. In a car, you'd be thinking in terms of how many days the journey will take. It's no wonder the American thinks of distance as a matter of duration.

Population density has an impact on driving experience too. In America, approximately 300 million people live in 6 million square miles; in England, a sixth of that population, 50 million, live in 120th of that land area (50,000 square miles). Even taking into account the fact that car ownership per head is higher in the States (and remembering that you can only drive one car at a time, no matter how many you own), that still means that traffic density in England is almost unbearable.

As an example, a journey from Coventry to Cornwall, a distance of 300 miles, is a major undertaking. It will take you all day and you will arrive exhausted by the constant strain of driving in heavy traffic. You will have taken the motorway for most of the distance and paid for it by sitting stationary for an hour in a traffic jam just North of Bristol. In Cornwall itself, your optimistic plans for average speeds will have been torn to shreds by a solid block of traffic moving at the pace of the slowest vehicle on the road. Presuming that you're here on vacation, you're going to need those few days in the sun to recover from the journey and prepare yourself for the return.

In contrast, a journey from, say, Oklahoma City to Dallas (about 390 miles), is guaranteed to take no longer than four hours and will be interrupted only by having to pay your dues on the turnpikes (toll roads) beloved of Oklahoma. There'll be some traffic but the great open spaces ensure that there's plenty of room for all.

It's a different world. To speak of distances in journey times in England is optimistic, to say the least; in America, it's the only way to get your head round the concept. For journeys beyond the next state, it makes more sense to fly and so most Americans do. Which probably lowers the traffic density on the roads yet again...

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With reference to an earlier conversation Sydney to Cairns is 1,553 miles.
Date Added: 25/01/2006

Gone Away
Okay, Mad - so you know what kind of distances we're talking about (incidentally, Harare to Pitermaritzburg is about 1,200 miles).
Date Added: 25/01/2006

"For journeys beyond the next state, it makes more sense to fly "... Depends on which states you're talking about, Texas or Rhode Island? Big difference in traveling across Delaware than say...Oklahoma.
Date Added: 26/01/2006

Gone Away
True, Rollo. I was generalizing too much, thinking only of the rectangular states of the center. But tiny states like Rhode Island and Delaware are few and far between, after all. Once those pioneers got out into the hinterland and began to realize just how much land was up for grabs, the new states became much bigger. ;)
Date Added: 26/01/2006

So Online Map programs must be interesting in the UK. Distance 240 miles, Estimated Drive time: Before Hell Freezes over. Thank you for visiting us today. (P.S. I really am kind of back, good to visit again)
Date Added: 26/01/2006

Gone Away
Good to see you back, Janus. And I see you've been reading British online map programs... ;)
Date Added: 27/01/2006

Interesting theory, Clive. I dunno if I have had the same experience. I am going to have to ask some more people how far away things are and see what answer I get. However, I was considering a trip to the UK at sometime in the future. Having read your description now, I am envisioning something along the lines of Disney World type crowding without any of the neat roller coasters, amusements or giant Goofy and Mickey Mice running about to make it bearable. Perhaps I will wait until I can afford to bring my own helicopter with me.
Date Added: 27/01/2006

Gone Away
Now that you mention it, Matt, your vision of Disney World without the amusements or Goofy and Mickey could be the perfect description of London in the summer! But I admit I may have exaggerated a little for effect. Pick the right times to travel and the right roads and you should get where you're going. Eventually... ;)
Date Added: 27/01/2006

Just get a motorbike instead and then it doesn't matter how heavy the traffic is... :p
Date Added: 30/01/2006

Gone Away
Of course, then you might spend much of your vacation in bed, staring out of a hospital window... ;)
Date Added: 30/01/2006

Windy Lea
I think that is a great perspective (or, rather, set of perspectives) with which to examine the difference. I have actually heard people within America discuss distances differently. Midwesterners do generally speak in terms of time traveled. That I can guarantee. I will say, though, that the decision to go by plane rather than vehicle at any given time can be more complex than just state borders and state size. If it's summer, college students have no problem making a road-trip of their efforts to visit somewhere. Flying is very much the practical solution in terms of time limits, and may even be so in terms of price. Gas prices add up after a while. I know plenty of people who have flown from Oklahoma to Texas, and even within Texas from Dallas to San Antonio, but there were time constraints involved. I also know people who have made thirteen-hour (give or take a couple hours) drives in order to visit relatives for a few days. ^_^ The information you've provided has certainly offered me an entirely different appreciation for the relative emptiness of the Midwest's highways and--annoying though they are--turnpikes.
Date Added: 09/02/2007

Gone Away
I suspect that some Americans even commute by plane, Lea - at least, I've been on flights that seemed to be filled with people going home after work. It's a different world to a Brit.

Just one thing, however - never tell a Brit your gas prices are high - they pay about four times as much per gallon for theirs... ;)
Date Added: 09/02/2007

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