The first curious thing about commuting by car is that in some ways it is the exact opposite of travel in general. When we travel we do so with our eyes and ears open, asking questions, going out of our way to meet people, reading up on history and geology and architecture, drinking in our surroundings, constantly alive to new perspectives and possibilities.
When we commute we just want to get there. Anything that happens is probably a nuisance. The best we can hope for is a double negative : that nothing goes wrong, that nothing holds us up. It’s an experience without experience.
The second curious thing about commuting by car is how much we take it for granted. We don’t even notice the first curious thing,
It’s 5:45 a.m. I had a few beers last night, stayed up talking to friends until after midnight, and it’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed. My back hurts. The shower is cold. I wish I'd never chosen this stupid assignment. I’ve reached the emotional core of the commuting experience; resentment.
Resentment, I suspect, has some very interesting and important effects on the way we behave while we commute, on that kind of screw-you competitiveness that can easily escalate into freeway violence. If we resent our jobs or the fact that we have to be getting up so early and driving under such frustrating conditions to get there, we can easily justify our own unpleasant behavior by thinking, “Hell, I didn’t want to be here anyway.” We can play a kind of moral shell game, hiding the responsibility for our actions under someone else’s thimble.
Amy McKibben lives in Encinitas and works in ad sales in downtown San Diego. She could probably take the Coaster in from Del Mar, but she needs her car all day. Ad salespeople and realtors will probably be the last to give up their cars, as the car as image is almost as important as the car as transport. In Amy’s case the vehicle is a newish white Jeep Cherokee, very smart. She picks me up in Leucadia, and we head toward I-5.
She’s been commuting around San Diego for “a gazillion years,” but her current commute, from North County into the city, has been going on for some 18 months. “I used to live in la Jolla, which is a whole ’nother traffic nightmare.”
We hit the freeway at around 7:00 a.m. Timing is a crucial element in her commute; 7:10 is fine, but by 7:15 all the commuters are arriving from Orange County, and things get ugly.
Let’s talk about commuting, cars, and Americans, especially Californians.
America is now linked by about 4 million miles of highways and streets, about 40 yards per car. The amount of travel by car is increasing 10 to 15 percent a year, significantly faster than the growth in population. Americans drive twice as many miles per person per year as the next most road-hungry nation. New Zealand. When making short trips around town, Americans in general are twice as likely to take a car as any other nation: 82 percent of all such trips are done by car. Germany comes second with 48 percent. But at least 11 percent of urban trips in Germany use public transport; in America public transport is used only 3 percent of the time.
The results are complex and ubiquitous—a landscape designed for the automobile rather than the human, especially the walking human, some staggeringly poor air quality (cars contribute about two-thirds of all air pollution), and a steady increase in the difficulty involved in getting around. The U.S. General Accounting Office has predicted that by 2005, traffic delay in cities across the country will have increased by more than 400 percent.
California, the most car-dependent state, has nearly 20 percent of the nation’s drivers; on its roads drivers clock 240 billion miles a year. (I’m indebted for this and other data in this article to K.T. Berger's excellent book Where the Road and the Sky Collide.) In California, the number of registered vehicles — more than 20 million — has more than doubled in the last two decades; the state now has more registered vehicles than licensed drivers. By various estimates, the length of the average commute in Southern California has increased by 20 to 40 percent over the last decade, both because of increased congestion and because we are commuting from farther away. David W. Jones, author of California's Freeway Era in Historical Perspective, writes that “we are now facing a crisis in commuting, as we did 50 years ago."
Not to mention the human results of these stressful conditions. Raymond Novaco of the University of Califomia-Irvine, an expert in freeway aggression and violence, has said, “Chronic exposure to traffic congestion impairs health, psychological adjustment, and work performance.” It also causes chest pain, elevated blood pressure, negative mood, frustration intolerance (these lower one’s violence threshold), job change, variations in job attitude and performance, residential attitude, and overall life satisfaction.
“But the curious thing is,” Novaco has said, “I don’t think the traffic is bad enough. I think what people are doing is continually internalizing the costs associated with commuting. People continually adapt; we’re very adaptive organisms.”
The traffic, which has been moving fairly smoothly, stops at Santa Fe Drive. “That’s almost a constant,” Anly says casually. Beside us, people line up at the freeway ramp lights; she’s known it to take five minutes just to get onto the freeway. Sometimes the police will set up a device that will shoot a photo of anyone who runs the light, recording the front of their car and the license plate. Amy once triggered it, she said. “I could see it flash. But I don’t have a front license plate,” and she got off scot-free. These are little guerrilla tales, not so much anti-police, I suspect, as acts of a more general rebellion against the suffocating restrictions of stop-start commuting.