A while back I lamented about how much extra driving my family does, now that our older daughter has started kindergarten. (To recap: the school that my wife and I chose isn’t in our neighborhood, and we’re driving an extra 75 miles every week as a result. Ugh.)
Just before school started, my main beef was that all that extra driving would increase our family’s contribution to climate change. I still think that’s right.
But there’s perhaps a more immediate impact that’s worth mentioning. I’m spending a lot more time in my car on the typical weekday—a little over double the time, as a matter of fact.
And at risk of sounding like a whiner: it’s really getting to be a drag.
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My kids don’t notice much of a difference: if anything, they spend less time in the car than they used to. But once we drop them off, we’ve got a much longer commute into work, at a time when the highway traffic is typically moving along at a crawl. Plus, we now get on the highway at a place where even the carpool lanes can get backed up.
So—and for the first time in our lives, really—Amy and I are experiencing rush hour the way so many other people do: not as a brisk walk, or a laid-back bus ride, or a quick family trip in a car, but as a slow, grinding slog.
And here’s the thing: I can already see signs that the extra driving is wearing on my patience. I find myself getting frustrated with aggressive drivers—but also driving more aggressively myself, trying to shave off a few seconds from each trip. Ask me how I’m doing, and I’ll now talk about my commute, not my kids. I feel lonelier, and less in touch with my family, since I do part of my afternoon commute as a solo driver. And every day I feel a twinge or two of fear on the roads, especially while navigating weaving, stop-and-go traffic.
I don’t have any right to complain, really, We brought the commute on ourselves, after all.
Still, every once in a while I catch myself longing for one of those wildly expensive traffic “solutions” that I’m always reading about—a wider highway, or extra lanes stacked on top of each other in a cut-and-cover tunnel (see, e.g., p. 73 of this pdf), or even an “intelligent highway” that could let cars tailgate safely. Anything that could make that part of the day a little quicker—the way my commute used to be.
And what really surprises me is that our commute is still a lot better than most of the people with whom we share the highway. We’re carpooling—we’ve even started taking other parents with us on our commute—so we have a faster trip than most of the solo drivers stuck, sometimes at a standstill, in the regular lanes. I can’t tell if the other drivers are even more frustrated than we are, or simply resigned to their fates.
I don’t know if there’s a lesson here, really. But two thoughts stand out.
First, I now understand first-hand—not just intellectually, but emotionally—why people hate their commutes so much (see here for more about that). In the same vein, I see why so many people are convinced that bigger, faster highways would improve their lives. They might, of course, at least for a while; but the cost is huge, while the relief, if any, would be temporary.
And second, I’m even more at a loss than ever before as to why more folks aren’t willing to try out some alternatives to solo driving. I mean, the highway system really doesn’t work that well anymore for drive-alone commuters in urban areas, especially at peak times. And it’s just not going to get any better—highway projects in urban areas are massively expensive, which means there’s nothing reasonable on the horizon that could make solo commuting any more pleasant.
So to me, ramping up alternatives—expanding vanpools and transit service, charging highway tolls at peak times, focusing new housing closer to jobs or transit hubs, experimenting with commute-reduction strategies, and so forth—seems like a no brainer.
Some of that’s being done, of course; but some of it still raises all sorts of opposition, typically on cost grounds.
But I think that’s blinkered thinking: the thinking of someone parked on a superhighway, wishing he could get moving again, or at least see something—anything—besides the rear of the truck parked ahead of him.