Driving a Manual in Traffic: It’s Not Really That Bad

When the conversation turns to manual transmission versus every other form of transmission that has ever been or ever will be, which it often does, someone will invariably mention that they prefer manual transmission except for driving in traffic. Well, I'm here to say that driving a manual in traffic isn't really that bad.

Now, you might be asking yourself what makes me so qualified to speak on this topic. Well let me tell you!

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  • During the past 12 years of living and working/studying in the San Francisco Bay Area I have only owned manual transmission cars.
  • I have driven a number of different commutes of various lengths with stop and go traffic through bridges, tunnels, freeway merges, toll plazas and various other hazards.
  • The Bay Area has some of the worst traffic in the nation. According to a recent LA Times article the Bay Area ranks 3rd worst behind only DC and LA.

The key to driving a manual in traffic is to leave a large enough cushion between you and the car in front of you so you can use that space to coast until traffic lurches forward again. This way you can cruise in 1st, and with smooth modulation of the gas pedal, it's the only pedal you need to use.

I will admit this system is not perfect. Sometimes traffic will come to a complete stop for long enough that you will use up all your cushion and have no choice but to stop and use the clutch. Jackasses making unnecessary lane changes will take advantage of your cushion and drive into it. Also, driving uphill in stop and go traffic makes it considerably harder (but also that much more important to maintain a cushion). But despite all that if you maintain a proper cushion you might be surprised by how little you have to use the clutch in heavy traffic.

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I will also concede that the ease with which this can be done will vary from car to car based on the temperament of the transmission. My 535i will happily coast along in 1st with the clutch completely out and no gas input until coming to an almost complete stop. However my Civic will start to buck, doing it's best lowrider impersonation, and feel like it's going to stall much sooner than the BMW at low speeds. But even then it's still manageable.

This doesn't just apply to manual transmissions either. Leaving a cushion when you're driving an automatic is a good idea as well; it's safer, smoother and more efficient.

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Now what I really hate is driving a manual between an endless series of stop signs, which is slightly ironic since that perfectly describes my neighborhood. I suspect the stop sign manufacturers colluded with the city planners when developing the area so that it would consist almost entirely of stop signs with a few houses thrown in for good measure.

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Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons and Google Maps

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