First of all, you must realize you're not meant to drive in downtown Madison. It's a basic fact of life here, like the ungodly cold winters and the packs of drunken high school students who roam the streets on tournament weekends. Learn the bus system (it's quite good), walk, use your bike, but don't drive if you can help it. Obey this simply caveat and your life here will be immeasurably simpler. You will be spared a great deal of aggravation, frustration, and the occasional urge to do violence to slow-moving trains.
Just the other evening I realized again how true this was. It was a draggy Friday night, about a quarter to ten, when we decided to hop into our aging AMC Hornet, cruise down to the University Square Theater, purchase tickets and popcorn, then glide into our seats just as the curtain on Animal House went up at ten. Sure, and the Tooth Fairy lives in Madison, too. Foolishly, we had forgotten the obvious: Friday night in downtown Madison means at least three traffic bottlenecks and a diamond hunt for a parking place. Fatally delayed, we limped back home to watch Metereologist Marv give the weather.
They Do It On Purpose-that's the rudimentary truism you have to understand about traffic control in Madison. As a matter of policy, the city does everything in its power to discourage driving. I like to think of it as a thinly veiled conspiracy that reaches from the highest corridors of power in the City-County Building down to the orneriest meter maid on the street. They're all in this together.
Hizzoner takes time away from his stamp collection at least once a day to dispatch a crack crew of city workers to block off a key intersection at the height of rush hour. The city engineering department routinely hires contractors to tear up blocks of street at random and reroute traffic. And when these unindicted co-conspirators are at their evilest, they reverse the traffic flow around the Square.
Your best bet is not to drive at all. You'll be contributing to the betterment of the city, as well as improving the prospects for those of us who attempt an occasional foray through the isthmus. But I you insist, poor fool, here are a few pointers from someone who's been there.
State Street: The hippy-dippy anarchistic spirit of Madison comes to full flower here. All rules break down to a syndicalist's dream. Cars, bicyclists, pedestrians and assorted crazy people all converge in one glossolalian traffic jam.
Keep loose, don't speed. If you should happen to clip an unlucky bicyclist or jaywalker, an angry crowd will more than likely pull you from your car and set the offending vehicle on fire. The proper strategy is Slow But Aggressive.
Trying to cross State Street from Gilman: Slowly edge out until you've blocked traffic from both directions, then cross.
Williamson Street: Only a fool parks his or her car on Willy Street after 10 p.m. That's when the drunken drivers begin roaring down the street, caroming off parked cars like they're cushions on a pool table. I've got a friend who's been hit twice like this and still hasn't figured it out.
Football Saturdays: Never, never drive on a major thoroughfare between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and from 4 to 5:30 p.m. when the Badgers are playing at Camp Randall. The most unbelievable traffic jams form. Lines of bumper-to-bumper cars stretch from here to the Interstate. If you carry a pistol in your glove compartment, go for it now.
Parking: Forget it.
The Beltline: If you're a student here and spend four years nestled in the downtown-university cocoon, the beltline is going to be as foreign to you as the Yukon. It's a stretch of highway that girdles the city to the south and west and serves as a "feeder" to Madison's major traffic arteries. Stay off it at rush hours as a matter of course. Occasionally, one hears distressing reports about overturned trucks and California-style chain reaction fender-benders. Also, you might wind up in Sauk City.
Shortcuts Around the Capitol: There are none. For two years I've tried to figure out the fastest route from Jenifer to State Street-by way of John Nolen, Wilson or Doty Streets? I still don't know. All I can say is that it depends on the time, and on what routes the city workers have decided to barricade that day.
Out-of-Towners: If you can help it, don't drive behind a car with out-of-state license plates. The drivers never know where they're going and have an alarming tendency to turn the wrong way on Gorham Street.
The Square: Stay off it. More than one trustworthy person has told me there is no legal way for anything but a bus to turn off the Square. You just keep going in circles. Just the other day an elderly farm couple from Boscobel had to be hospitalized for exhaustion after they spent two hours circling in vain for an exit. Their truck finally ran out of gas and a policeman on a bicycle found them babbling incoherently. Doctors said it was a rare form of psychosis brought on by contradictory road signs.