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Commuting takes its toll in dollars, gasoline, lost time and souls
by Phil Soreide
So, how are you feeling about your commute?
For millions of Americans, it’s a twice-a-day slog, often lasting an hour or more, lost in the stultifying rhythm: stop-creep-slow-creep-stop. I was reminded of the ethos of commuting when I returned to California as a tourist this summer. In the space of moments, the traffic, which had been heavy but moving at speed, slowed, and then stopped, and then became a sluggish metal river five lanes wide, oozing forward a few feet at a time.
It was hot; the air sulfurous. Hemmed in by trucks I felt a surge of claustrophobia. No escape. As I looked at the cars around me, I wasn’t surprised to see the preponderant majority held only the driver, but no one looked happy with their privacy; most gripped the wheel and stared doggedly ahead, enduring.
I remember thinking that tomorrow at this time, I would be elsewhere, perhaps at the beach, but most of these people would be trapped right here tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, in an endless succession of dreary, monotonous commutes.
This can’t, I thought, be good for their souls.
What congestion costs
A recent study from Texas A&M called the 2010 Urban Mobility Report finds, among other things that the yearly cost of traffic congestion continues to rise: measured in constant dollars, it has risen from $24 billion in 1982 to $115 billion in 2009. Commuting by car costs the average commuter, for the privilege of the experience, $808 in 2009 compared to an inflation-adjusted $351 in 1982.
Setting aside for a moment the questionable value to the individual of commuting by car, consider the cost to the country in wasted fuel. In 2009 it topped 3.9 billion gallons – about $11.7 billion at $3 a gallon.
Worse, in many ways, is the "years delay per auto commuter" index, which measures the difference in travel time between congested and free-flowing conditions, and its yearly cumulative effect on each private-vehicle commuter. Commuters in Chicago and Washington lose 70 hours of their lives to rush-hour traffic every year. That's not the time they spend commuting — that's how much longer they spend in a car than they would if roads and freeways around urban areas weren’t so congested. Drivers in L.A. (63 hours) and Houston (58 hours) aren’t far behind, and one can only hope that they’re learning a foreign language or at least listening to books on tape as they stop-creep-slow-creep-stop.
A move to mass transit
The conclusion that many draw from studies like the Urban Mobility Report is that if the pain and cost of commuting only gets high enough people will be lured out of their cars and onto trains, buses and bicycles. In order to work their best, the argument goes, cities must become denser and more compact. Maybe that’s so, but I wonder if that can be good for people’s souls, either.
I moved to small town Nebraska after having lived decades in big cities. We live on a wide street with big trees in easy walking distance from the bank, the theater and the Post Office. My wife, having spent years in an hour-each-way commute, walks a block and a half to her job at the library. Although many days I can work from home, I do admit to a 40-minute commute twice a week. But the difference is I’m driving at my own pace through open country, the sky a huge, blue canopy above me and a hawk, likely as not, seated on the crossbar of the next power pole.
When my wife left her job and we moved to Nebraska, she recouped not only the cost of commuting in real dollars, but an actual ten hours a week – call it 450 hours a year – and a measurable reduction in the level of stress she faced each day.
A personal solution
I have nothing against mass transit. Seems like an idea that makes perfect sense if the premise is you’re going to live cheek-by-jowl with a few million of your fellow citizens. What I notice, however, is that a serious dent could be put in the whole urban congestion problem by merely making use of the congestion-busting resources we already have here in rural America – low unemployment, business opportunities, affordable housing, uncrowded schools, and a total lack of traffic jams.
Wouldn’t it make as much sense to ease urban congestion by restoring smaller towns to the glory days of their past? Telecommuting is an option open to tens of millions of workers, and millions more – like me – can do their jobs just as effectively over the Internet as in a skyscraper. Kids benefit from more attention and exposure to a more positive set of values. Families benefit from more time together and smaller, closer-knit communities. Retirees benefit from a lower cost of living, and the nation benefits by repopulating valuable, underutilized communities.
Increasing urbanization is not the only path forward. For a fraction the cost of another freeway or a light rail system, millions could be offered incentives to ease urban congestion by moving to reinvigorated small towns and cities.
It’s not going to put an end to Los Angeles’ traffic jams, of course. But it’s a start.
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