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.
Not being a parent I don’t understand why the solution would not be to let your kids go to the school in your neighborhood. If it isn’t good enough for them perhaps you could spend your commute time working with other community members and the school board to improve your local conditions. Another option might be to move into the neighborhood where the chosen school is.
Have you though of upgrading the sound system in your car? Or maybe listening to ‘talking books?’Ok…seriously, I think that part of the issue is that there are any awful lot of people who simply cannot use anything but a private car. I am writing of people in sales and, even more so, construction, who travel around from site to site. I don’t know the numbers but would be curious to see how much of the daily traffic comes from people who do not have a fixed place-of-work.
I always have trouble with people who think that a possible solution to traffic is bigger faster highways. Has anyone thought about smaller cars. If it was mandated (I know this is totally impossible at the present time) but just if it were, then all the present highways would be OK cause more lanes could be created for the same width of pavement. Also the smaller cars would be more efficient and less polluting, a win win situation at no extra cost making is a win win win deal!!!
Stu –Actually, the schools in our neighborhood are great, and the parent community seems to be really strong, too. We’ve just got some unusual issues that made us feel like they weren’t a good fit for our family. (I’ll just leave it at that.)David –I think that’s a part of it—there are definitely people who need a personal vehicle during the day. But from what I recall of a PSRC study on peak-hour traffic, those numbers are pretty small. (I’d have to find the study to back that up, though…)
In response to Wes’s comment about smaller cars. In Japan there is a system of incentives and taxes that makes owning a “mini” car very attractive. Fuel prices are higher, there are tax breaks, and insurance rates are lower. The total cost of ownership ends up being less than half of a normal car. My father-in-law and sister-in-law have taken advantage of this by buying Daihatsu’s that qualify. http://www.daihatsu.com/catalogue/ I’m not convinced this helps traffic though…
On the small cars point: I’ve wondered before whether it would make environmental sense to restripe wide, congested, highways (say I-5 through Seattle) for more, narrower lanes. On the one hand, increasing lanes should logically encourage more driving. On the other hand, the driving would be slower (owing to narrower lanes), and ideally closer to the 40-45 mph modern cars tend to be optimized for. And smaller lanes would also encourage smaller cars, to some degree at least.That said, trucks and buses aren’t going to get smaller, so I’m not sure what size lanes they could tolerate. It’s presumably all daydreaming anyway, since I suspect federal standards mandate lane widths.But I’d be interested to know if anyone’s looked at the correlation between lane width and carbon emissions, say, and I wonder whether more narrower lanes would increase or decrease traffic over the long run.
Clark,Thanks for your reply! You wrote: “Actually, the schools in our neighborhood are great, and the parent community seems to be really strong, too. We’ve just got some unusual issues that made us feel like they weren’t a good fit for our family. (I’ll just leave it at that.)”I understand what you’re saying. Friends of mine have a seven year old who, because of such issues, attends a school in another part of town. Her parents walk her to the local bus stop every morning rather than driving her to the school. I know this wasn’t the point of your original post BUT there are many things you can do personally that will “compensate” for the polluting drive. You could buy locally produced food for, for example. But then you probably already are aware of such things.By the way, I totally agree with you about awful commutes. For several years I worked a job that took me across town every day. I arranged to arrive at work at 7 AM and leave at 4 PM to avoid the crush. I also worked an average of one day a week from home. Unfortunately, I got a new boss who did not believe in flexible time and I was told to work 8 to 5 everyday in the office. This doubled my average commute time from 40-45 minutes to about an hour and a half one-way! I am currently unemployed and seeking a job that I can take a bus to and from. No more commute for me! Stu
In the future I could see Wes Gallaughers’ long term goal of smaller cars really taking off and having a positive impact on our community, but at the present time I think we need to come up with solutions which provide more immediate results. It seems to me that the way to get people to take action is to present them with some sort of incentive. Tax cuts could be offered to businesses which had a certain percentage of their employees utilizing car pooling. This would be helpful on many levels. It would decrease the total number of cars heading into Seattle and would eliminate the problem of having too few parking spaces, which many businesses have to face. The money the corporations would save could partially be rewarded to the car pool drivers through rewards and other compensation. This would allow the businesses to save money and would keep the employees happy. Offering tax cuts, and in tern incentives to the employees, is the best solution and would have an impact on our traffic and pollution problems.
Clark, I too would like to see more people car pooling and less ‘solo drivers’ on the road. There was a study done in 2004 by a transportation engineer at the University of Texas which found that most people prefer private cars because it enables them to make non-work related stops. The city of Portland has created an effective response to this study. They have designed Carpoolcrew.com which is a site that allows community members in the same vicinity to find each other in order to car pool. Each participant is able to make a profile about where they work and their lifestyle, which helps reduce the feeling of traveling with a stranger. The profile helps connect people that share similar lifestyles and, for instance, if they are members of the same gym they could stop on their way home and work out. This would solve the problem of individual drivers needing to have a car in order to run errands after work. If this was utilized in Seattle it would cut down the number of cars and help bring our sprawling community together by introducing residents to one another. Instituting a site like Carpoolcrew.com is the most effective way to get neighbors to begin car pooling. *For more information on the study go to http://www.utexas.edu/features/archive/2004/traffic.html and carpoolcrew.com*