Traveling At Good Speed

When I was a teacher in Virginia 25 years ago, I used to drive 35 minutes each day from Virginia Beach to my job at a high school in Norfolk. Because I lived just blocks from a freeway, and the school was just blocks from an off ramp, I drove at 60 mph almost the entire way. Not a bad commute, but I noted even then that driving at high speed on a freeway is tiring. You need to pay attention or you may kill someone, yourself included.

Now in present day Brooklyn, I often commute 45 minutes to the offices of Regional Plan Association at Union Square in Manhattan. This involves a 15-minute walk to the subway, a five-minute wait for the train, a 20-minute subway ride, and a five-minute walk to work. This is longer than my old 30 minutes commute by car, but it's less tiring. I enjoy the morning (and evening) walk. I can read or watch TV (my newest bad habit) on my iPhone while on the subway. I enjoy talking to strangers.

This comparison is just one obvious example that when it comes to transportation, time is an elastic, subjective, almost mystical thing. One minute spent traveling one way is not the same as another. Yet we seldom acknowledge this. This squishy side of transportation has little place in serious policy discussions in city council and legislative chambers. It's hard to start talking about how transportation feels.

Instead, policy makers often present transportation as if it can be effectively summarized in miles traveled per hour, average commuting times, cost per passenger, or capacity figures. All of which is unfortunate, because how a transportation system feels determines how and whether it is used and its long-term potential. It's up to mayors, legislators, and transportation planners to find ways to talk about these softer sides of going places without blushing.

I'll give some more examples of how my and other's experience of transportation varies.

Sometimes I ride by bike to work. This is actually shorter in time than the subway, but it's qualitatively much different. I arrive invigorated from the excitement, and let's face it, danger of urban cycling, while also physically tired, even though I ride pretty slowly. And there's the weather to consider.

Then there's walking. I sometimes walk part of the way to or from work, say a mile, just for the hell of it. Walking 20 blocks in crowded city is fun. But let's say I lived in suburban Long Island or New Jersey? I probably wouldn't walk a mile along a suburban arterial with cars whizzing by me, even if I covered the same distance in the same amount of time.

Travel between cities offers qualitative differences in experience as well. Plane travel seems to have become a series of lines that one waits in, broken up by small quantities of actually flying. Train travel, if available and good, can offer unbroken hours for sustained concentration. Driving for hours in a car between cities, with or without company, can be good or bad depending on one's temperament, physical size, and the quality of one's stereo.

Speaking of stereos, years ago I did a story as a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk called "Drive Time." It was a counter-intuitive story about the guilty pleasure many people experienced while commuting to work because it was often the only time they had to themselves. Particularly if they had young children and or a demanding job, driving was often they only time they had to listen to music or simply to sit quietly. Even being stuck in traffic wasn't so bad, particularly if they had a nice car.

Quality matters, that's clear. To give an obvious example, my experience on the New York subway would have been very different in the bad old days a generation ago, when the subways were hulking wrecks, lurching along through bad smelling, dangerous dark stations. My 45 minute commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan would doubtless have been an unpleasant affair I did not care to repeat.

Experience affects use. Ridership on the New York City subway in the last decade has often grown faster than the standard models based on population and economic growth predict, apparently because people simply liked the subways more now that they are clean and choose them more for optional trips.

My 35-minute commute to Norfolk was in my aunt's old 1973 Ford LTD that I had bought from her. Not a bad car, but a Jaguar might have eased my commute. I love train travel, but when I lived in Spain in the early 1980s I hated traveling in the slow, uncomfortable and crowded trains they had then. The country was still recovering from decades of dictatorship, and its infrastructure was poor.

Quality matters. A bumpy, pot-holed filled road can make a journey much worse, even if one is driving a Cadillac or a Corvette. Compared to other advanced nations, our cities and towns generally have poor roads, in terms of general upkeep and surface conditions. It's pothole city in most places. This is in part because our balkanized method of maintenance, where private utility companies often jostle with public road departments over who repairs a pothole. How do we quantify this? Do we need to? Do policy makers consider things like the quality of a car ride when considering whether to fund a new light rail line, build another lane on a highway or repair a crumbling road?

I actually like that there is no objective way to conclusively pronounce one way of traveling better than another. Transportation, or at least one's experience of it, is a subjective thing. Ultimately it all depends on what you like.