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

Look back at when Mr. Roadshow went on the road to the town with the least stressful commute in the nation

Mr. Roadshow wanted to share some of his favorite columns and stories from his more than 30 years of informing, entertaining, and changing things for drivers in the Bay Area (and beyond). He’ll be back on the road soon with new material. Meanwhile, please continue to send Mr. Roadshow your comments and questions to This story was first published on February 2, 1997.

That’s all there is to it. It’s commuter heaven.

The city with the fewest traffic problems in the entire United States of America. There will be no traffic reports every ten minutes. There are no carpool lanes. Light metering? That’s a bummer. Triple lanes for left turns? Not in this case. Road rage? You’ve got to be kidding me.

The capital of North Dakota is ranked first in the country by Places Rated Almanac for the shortest and least stressful commute. People here live only five blocks from work. In comparison to us, they gain three weeks of vacation per year due to the time they save driving to work.

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


We have to – just have to – look into this. A place where you can actually get in your car and relax.

And by relax, I mean it. It’s a big deal in Bismarck.

It was minus 22 degrees (that’s right, 22 degrees below zero) on Monday night when Mr. Roadshow arrived. It never got above freezing in three days. That’s freezing. Within minutes, the Diet Coke I left inside a rented four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer turned into a cup of black ice. That is extremely cold. Despite wearing snow boots, a full-length down-filled coat that could keep a grizzly warm, gloves, and every turtleneck I could find, I was freezing. I looked like a nerd. Extremely cold and geeky.

Then the bitter, bitter wind blew, causing crusty Mr. Roadshow to cry and sniffle.

This is commuter heaven.

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


Bismarck, oh Bismarck. The state’s second-largest city, where the mighty Missouri River roars by… when it isn’t frozen over to glacial proportions. Where nearly 60,000 people live, representing a 7% increase since 1990. Where a new intersection on the north side is the talk of the engineering community. As you approach, the traffic lights turn green. Where, contrary to popular belief this winter, it is not a blizzard all year.

Oh, my jaded Californians.

“No one lives in Bismarck,” I hear you all say. That is why there is no traffic… Do they keep track of snowmobilers? The good life is found in the Bay Area, not in places where the wind chill is minus-60 degrees.”

Bismarck isn’t perfect, but it’s quick behind the wheel.

It takes 14 minutes to drive from the north to the south end of town. Years ago, astute traffic engineers converted one-way streets into two-way thoroughfares. They even have an expressway… er, expressway.

What’s the big deal?

Would-be lunatics behind the wheel are transformed when the drive is no sweat (in a North Dakota winter, there is no sweating). They drive more slowly. Why rush when your destination is usually less than five minutes away? Some people keep an eye out for older drivers (there are a lot of them). That could be the city’s motto.

“You can’t survive here without your neighbors,” Dollinger asserted. “You have to rely on them.”

When the power went out this winter, all drivers approaching blank traffic lights stopped (as required by law). When the power went out in San Jose last summer, so many drivers sped through dark intersections that traffic cops begged for a newspaper story to warn them to slow down.

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

Such as eating, sleeping, or conversing with the wife and children.

Every day, Bismarck drivers spend 27 minutes driving to and from work; we spend nearly 50 minutes. Count those poor souls commuting from Tracy, Hollister, Santa Cruz, or any other relatively distant location, and our average time per day rises to nearly 1 1/2 hours. While we are stuck in traffic, Bismarck drivers are at home cooking stew or ice skating.

The grass is not greener.

Few would relocate to California. “Your traffic stinks,” Gayle Schuck said.

Of course, few of us would relocate to Bismarck, where the weather makes us cringe.

We’re talking about trade-offs here, people. Great weather (even when it rains), 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 children.

But what happens when it gets cold?

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

And what if it drops to 60 degrees below zero?

“We zip it up,” he explained.

But, c’mon. Is it all fun and games behind the wheel? Is it true that no one here ever gets angry at a bad driver or a slow traffic light?

No, they don’t get angry, two dozen people agreed with knowing smiles. They claimed to be pleasant people. They can’t be upset if another driver does something stupid. They claim that we know the other guy.

Not quite as pure as the blowing snow… Vicki Voskuil, a Bismarck Tribune reporter, admitted to running a red light once. “I’m not used to waiting for lights,” she explained, “and I accidentally ran one.”

Naughty. But, jeez, is this the worst you can come up with? One miscreant. Are you perfect, or what?

“The drivers here are terrible,” one complained.

Take a break.

What is the identity of this lone voice from the frozen plains?

She’s (almost) like one of us. Karen Zahn, a native of Southern California who moved to Bismarck three years ago. She used to commute to Los Angeles, so she is familiar with traffic in California. We have faith in her.

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

“They have no idea how to drive.” “They’ll stop in the middle of an intersection even if the light is green because they’re looking for a turn,” she complained.

“And do they pull into the far right lane if they want to make a right turn?” No. They’ll take the far left lane. “It drives me insane.”

The hard facts

Hey, we’ve all been there. But we can forgive them because they have crosses to bear, such as scraping a quarter-inch of ice off the windshield or hearing the engine chug-chug but not turning over after another 22-below night.

“You know it’s really cold when the inside of your teeth hurt,” Zahn explained. “Nothing compares to this bitter cold.”

The locals laughed at this shivering California reporter who had traveled nearly 2,000 miles to the land of snow drifts. They were glad to have you, but a story about Bismarck traffic? In the month of January?


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

Are you listening, boss?

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply