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Quality Transportation: Timing and Shaping a New Direction

Alex Marshall / Dec 12 2009

For Release Saturday, December 12, 2009

Alex Marshall As America gets ready for debate on federal transportation legislation next year, we’ll surely be told again to place our confidence in the familiar yardsticks of miles traveled per hour, average commuting times, cost per passenger.

But couldn’t we have license to think more fully and imaginatively about this sector that is not only essential economically but occupies so much of our lives?

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. I drove at 60 mph almost the entire way. Not a bad commute, though I noted even then that high speed freeway driving is tiring. 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 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.

My conclusion: 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. But the “intangibles” are hard to introduce into official transportation debates.

And how about biking and walking? Sometimes I do 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.

By foot? I sometimes walk part of the way to or from work, say a mile, just for the hell of it. Walking 20 blocks in a 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.

Another difference: the shape of equipment. 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. Now Spain has a network of sleek rapid trains I’d love to board.

Or–my experience on the New York subway. It 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. But now the New York subways are clean, free of graffiti, and orderly–one reason their ridership had often grown faster than the standard models based on population and economic growth would have predicted.

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? Shouldn’t they–even if there’s really no fully objective way to pronounce, conclusively, one way of traveling better than another?

Miles, speeds, costs are a vital transportation issues–numbers can’t and shouldn’t go away. But we shouldn’t pretend that quality doesn’t matter as well, even if it’s hard to quantify.

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  1. Zac Gordon
    Posted December 14, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Excellent article – I found myself alternately smiling and nodding in agreement. Earlier in my career I worked in Manhattan as well. 15 -20 min. ride to the commuter station, 5-10 min wait for the train, then 45 min. to GCT and a 5 minute walk to work. 1 hour and 15 min +/- door to door. A few years later, I had a 1 hour commute in upstate NH in the middle of the winter in less than desirable conditions – not as much fun. But I must say the best commute I have had is my current one: 7 minutes door to door (3.1 miles); that I can make in my car or, if the weather is nice, my 80 cc scooter. On the subject of rail, I’m sure you are aware of the surveys that show people will ride a train, but not a bus (unless of course that “bus” is made to either look like a trolley car, or a train). I think the bottom line to all of this is that the “quality” of our travel experience will often dictate the “quantity” of what we are willing to subject ourselves to.

  2. Posted December 14, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your assessment and think much more attention should be given to improving the transit experience, especially with regard to bus travel. Most of the buses I have ridden in shake, rattle and roll between stops. They are noisy and generally less reliable than trains and subways (since they are usually at the mercy of the traffic situation); and who doesn’t feel like a second class citizen when waiting out in the hot sun, cold air, or rain for a bus that never seems to come (while the cars roll by)! Since bus travel is often the most cost effective transit system in lower density urban areas, we should strive to improve the whole experience, then maybe more people would forgo their cars for mass transit. As for me, I will stick with my one-mile bike commute as it has always been a lifestyle priority (and an environmental priority) to live close to where I work.