If all those other motorists could find some other roads to drive on, operating a manual transmission vehicle would be easier. Unfortunately, you don’t get the road to yourself. That’s especially true when you’re driving in town or in the city.
Besides other drivers, cities have spotlights, stop signs and both wide and narrow streets. Most have hills, curves and sharp corners. Many stick shift drivers put in most of their miles on these kinds of streets. You need to understand all the situations you face and the techniques for managing them.
General Rules for Driving a Manual Transmission Car in Town
When you start off down the street, whether it’s from a stoplight or pulling out from a parking space, you should shift up through the gears until you reach the one that most suited to your speed.
Once you get rolling, don’t spend long in first gear. Unless there’s traffic slowing you down, shift almost immediately into second gear. You can drive in 2nd gear at speeds of up to about 20 MPH. You shouldn’t stay there too long, either, unless you’re in a parking lot, school zone or somewhere else that requires low speed.
By the time you get to 20 MPH, shift into third gear. You can drive in 3rd gear up to 30 MPH or even a little higher. You might do a fair amount of urban driving in third gear, especially if there isn’t a long stretch between stop signs or stoplights.
At around 30 MPH shift into fourth gear. Fourth is a good choice for a lot of town and city driving. Many business and residential roads are suitable for 4th gear.
Go to fifth gear at around 40 MPH. 5th gear is suitable for boulevards and through streets where you can maintain that speed for the equivalent of several blocks. Sixth gear, if you have it, is an overdrive gear. There’s usually no reason to use it in town.
Use a similar guideline coming back down through the gears. If your speed slows due to traffic or a change in the speed limit, shift to a lower gear. If you’re watching the tachometer, keep the RPM between 1,000 and 3,000. Shift up as you get close to 3,000 and down as you drop toward 1,000.
When you’re downshifting it’s acceptable to skip gears, particularly if you have to slow significantly from a higher gear. While it’s possible to shift gears on the way up, it’s tricky and there’s no advantage to doing so.
When you downshift, you may optionally give the gas pedal a quick “blip” while you’re making your shift. This increases the engine RPM and eases the transmission’s manual shift into a new lower gear. It may save just a touch on transmission wear. This was more important in older cars, but modern transmissions do a good job of equalizing RPM between gears.
When you’re a new stick shift driver, there’ll be times when you find yourself in too low a gear and the engine will rev loud. There’ll be times when your gear is too high and your engine will struggle, hesitate and possibly even stall. With experience you’ll learn to identify from the sound and feel of the car when to shift.
Be sure to note that these speeds are guidelines and not hard and fast rules. Each car is a little different. Also, there’s a certain amount of personal preference permitted. For example, if you’re quicker to shift up, favoring a higher gear, the engine won’t work as hard and you’ll get better fuel economy. Just be aware that you’ll need to be prepared to downshift quickly if you slow for some reason.
On the other hand, if you need to get up to speed quickly, you can “wind out” to a little higher speed and RPM in each gear. You might want to do this, for example, when you’re pulling out from a parking space or a side street into traffic. Just don’t take the tachometer past the redline.
It would be nice if you had the streets to yourself and could leisurely shift up and down, concentrating on your own vehicle and its shifting. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There are plenty of complications in town and city driving, not the least of which is the fact that there are other cars on the road.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car in Stop and Go Traffic
Most of this type of driving will be done in first gear or second gear. As long as you’re not going more than about 10 MPH, you may stay in first. Keep at least a car length between you and the car in front. Vary your speed primarily by varying throttle, and keep your foot off the brake pedal and clutch pedal as much as possible. Remember that your brake lights can cause people behind you to brake as well.
Make small and gradual changes with your right foot on the accelerator pedal. Don’t speed up quickly. If you maintain that space in front, you won’t have to slow suddenly. Think about more than just the car ahead. Look several cars beyond to anticipate speedups or slowdowns that might be coming.
It’s possible to maintain a smooth ride by “riding the clutch.” That’s when you keep the gas pedal engaged and adjust your speed by varying a partially depressed clutch pedal. It feels comfortable and can give you a sense of mastery, but it’s hard on the clutch. Most of the time the clutch should be either fully engaged or fully disengaged.
A car driven frequently in stop and go traffic gets a lot of shifting and is likely to need a clutch replacement earlier than one driven only on the highway. Don’t make it worse by riding the clutch.
It takes a bit of practice, but in time you’ll find you can control your speed in stop and go traffic at least as well as with an automatic car and perhaps a little better.
Coming To a Complete Stop
City streets not only have heavy traffic; they also have stop signs and stoplights. You may be stopped at one of these or you may be stopped well back in traffic where it’s not clear what the hold-up is.
Whatever the case, when you come to a complete stop, you have a choice. You can shift the gear shift into neutral, or you can leave the gear shifter where it is and press the clutch pedal to the floor.
If you expect to go again in just an instant, keep the clutch pedal depressed and put the shift lever into first. If it’s a stoplight that isn’t going to change soon, or dead stopped traffic, most experts recommend shifting into neutral gear and taking your foot off the clutch. There may be a little less wear this way, but with today’s car manufacturers that may not be as big a deal as it once was. It does give your left foot and leg a little break.
The strongest argument in favor of staying in gear is that you’re more ready to move out when the light changes or the car on front of you moves. If you do this, make sure the clutch pedal is all the way to the floor. If it’s even a smidgen off, the clutch is partially engaged and you incur wear that can be avoided.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car on the Urban Interstate
Some people think driving on the interstate is a challenge, and others think there’s nothing tougher than heavy traffic. On the metro freeway, you can have the worst of both worlds! It’s no wonder this is where road rage events take place.
If traffic is heavy and speeds are slow, it can be easier to merge onto the freeway than under lighter conditions. You can more comfortably shift up as you drive the on ramp and easily match your speed to traffic.
A lot of the best advice for crowded conditions applies to both the manual car and automatic transmission car. Look ahead and leave room to the vehicle directly in front. Avoid cruise control. For the most part pick a lane and stick to it. Find one that moves at your speed. When it’s time to exit, start moving right well in advance of the turnoff.
You can use downshifting not only to slow yourself but also for bursts of acceleration. Avoid the temptation to use that extra oomph to jump in and out of lanes. There also might be a temptation to downshift a little too soon when you slow down. If you’re near cruising speed in high gear, a lot of times you can slow in the same gear.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car in Town in Bad Weather
You may not be out on the open highway, but rain, snow and ice are still nothing to scoff at. The best pieces of advice are to slow down, allow plenty of room ahead and favor lower gears. You want to avoid sudden braking or turning on slick surfaces.
By now you’ve learned that a low allows you more traction and better control. When slowing on bad roads, use engine braking as much as possible rather than the brake pedal. Make your shifts promptly so as to minimize having the clutch pedal pressed. But don’t shift jerkily. Quick engagement of the clutch by "popping" the pedal is similar to punching the gas pedal. It spikes the power to the wheels and can cause slippage.
When you start from a stop on a snowy or icy road, it’s sometimes easier to roll out smoothly if you start in second gear.
Be cautious when stopping. On a dry road it’s OK to coast to the stop with the gear knob in neutral or in gear with the clutch pedal pressed. On a wet surface it’s better to keep the clutch engaged by shifting down through the gears.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car Through City Turns
Most city turns are 90 degrees, and you need to slow way down. It’s usually best to be in second gear. Slow down before you reach the corner. Shift into 2nd gear before you start the turn. You may find yourself shifting down from a gear higher than third gear, and that’s OK. As you come out of the turn, give the car some throttle, and shift back to 3rd gear by the time you get to around 20 MPH.
If you’re making a broad left turn you may be able to go through in third gear.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car Up City Hills
If you’re fortunate enough to have a “clear shot” all the way up the hill and to be moving as you approach, you can pick up your speed a bit as you approach. This will get you partway up before you use your gear stick. Maybe you can even cruise all the way to the top. When the car begins to struggle, shift to the next lower gear. Be a little quicker to shift down than you might on the flats. You may have to shift more than once before you reach the crest.
If you can’t get this “rolling start,” you may have to downshift before you reach the foot of the hill.
Sometimes you have to stop at a sign on a light before you reach the summit. Starting off again is one of the trickiest situations in stick shift driving. It takes practice. There’s a way to use the parking brake to help you. Have the hand brake engaged, your foot on the clutch, then gear lever in first and your right foot ready for the gas pedal. Let the clutch pedal rise to the bite point and press the accelerator as you release the emergency brake. If the car rolls backward, reset the parking brake and try again. If your car has “brake hold,” use it to make this operation easier.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car Down City Hills
If it’s a steep hill, downshift and reduce your speed before you reach the top of the hill. Use third gear or possibly second. If your speed will be lower than 15 MPH you might even drop into first gear. Maintain a slow steady speed till you reach the bottom. You’ll probably need to use the foot brake in addition to the braking power of the engine. The priority is to get down safely.
Driving in Town and City in Every Situation
Unless you live in a rural area, these situations are common, and you’ll need to work to master them. On the plus side, they’re the ones that do the most to build your stick shifting skills. Keep at it, and soon you be comfortably driving your manual vehicle in towns and cities no matter what the roadway throws at you.