Traveling At Good Speed

Transportation policy shouldn't be reduced to average commuting times.
August 2009
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

Years ago, I drove 35 minutes each day from Virginia Beach to Norfolk to a job as a schoolteacher. Because I lived blocks from a freeway and the school was blocks from an off ramp, I was able to drive at 60 mph almost the entire way. Not a bad commute--but a tiring one. When you drive at high speed on a freeway, you need to pay attention or you may kill someone, yourself included.

Now I live in Brooklyn, and I commute 45 minutes to my office in Manhattan. This involves a 15-minute walk to the subway, a five-minute wait for the train, and a 20-minute subway ride, plus a five-minute walk to work. This is longer than my old 35-minute 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--or talk to strangers, which is something I enjoy.

I make this comparison to point out 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 at city council tables and in legislative chambers. It isn't easy 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, as well as its long-term potential. It's up to mayors, legislators and planning directors to find ways to talk about these softer sides without blushing.

To jump-start that discussion, here are some more examples of how my experience of transportation can vary: Sometimes I ride my bike to work. This is actually shorter in time than the subway, but it's qualitatively much different. I arrive invigorated from the challenge of urban cycling (unfortunately, it is dangerous) while also physically tired. And, I have to take weather into consideration.

Then there's walking. I've never walked to work, but I sometimes walk part of the way, say a mile. Walking 20 blocks in a crowded city is fun. But let's say I lived in a typical suburban city. I wouldn't choose to 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 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 temperament, one's 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. If they had young children, it was often the 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. 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 way. I love train travel, but in the early 1980s, I hated boarding the slow, uncomfortable and crowded trains in Spain, where I was living at the time. The country was still recovering from decades of dictatorship, and its infrastructure was poor. From this, I learned that we need comfort and confidence not just in the vehicle we are seated in but in the wider context for that vehicle.

A bumpy, pothole-filled road can make a journey much worse, even if one is driving a Cadillac. Which is unfortunate, because our cities and towns generally have poor roads, in terms of general upkeep and surface conditions. This is in part because of 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 such as the quality of a car's ride when considering whether to build another lane on a highway or repair a crumbling road--or fund a new light-rail line?

There is no objective way to pronounce that one way of travel is better than another. Transportation, or at least one's experience of it, is subjective. Ultimately, it depends on what you like. But if policy makers want to push one form of transportation over another, they'd do well to consider making that form of travel a primo experience.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist |