• United States

Prisoner of the driveway

Sep 21, 20044 mins

* Texas Mobility Study (and I) find road congestion tough to escape

Last week, we hit the high notes of the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report. Since, I’ve pored through the whole thing, pages and pages of charts and tables all supporting one undeniable fact: We’re stuck in traffic pretty much wherever we live, at all hours of the day. 

If you’ve got some time, take a look: You can search on your city and see exactly how much money and gas you’re wasting, how many hours you could spend doing something meaningful, and other fun facts.     

Then again, you’ve already eaten up any free time you had for this project sitting in traffic, so never mind. Trust me, the study is upsetting. Congestion’s getting worse and worse and we can’t build enough roads, add enough busses and trains, or build enough HOV lanes to keep pace, let alone actually ease it. 

More telework would ease things, sure. But only the full-bore everybody lock themselves up in their home offices three or four days a week kind. Instead, today’s telework is making things worse. It’s got us off the road to work a day or two a week, but on the road to wherever else at all hours. 

Because I could work from anywhere, in 2000, I’d moved my family to Portland Me (pop 70,000) from New York. Affordable houses, bigger supermarkets, smaller grocery bills, better schools, small class sizes. Except, in the four years we spent there, traffic congestion forced our little city to expand a number of intersections, including one just up the street from my house, and spoiled a lot of the fun.    

The house sits on a relatively busy country road. I was unfazed by road noise, but who knew traffic congestion would keep me prisoner of the driveway? Getting out involved backing out into heavy two-way traffic. Early on, this wasn’t so bad, but over time – and these things are subtle, insidious – it became impossible to make a left hand turn without getting creamed by pick up trucks barreling down from both directions. Ever adaptable, we learned to always make a right hand turn, regardless of whether that put us in our destination’s direction or the opposite.

Even so, I continued to gloat over morning coffee watching the traffic line up outside my kitchen window – at least I don’t have to deal with that. The trouble was, congestion wasn’t confined to rush hour. Rush “hour” spanned from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., then picked up again through lunch time, then bled into school dismissal time, team practice pick up time, right up to 5:30 p.m. when all Portlanders thankfully sit down to eat.

Like any teleworker, I’d try to schedule errand runs for off hours – but that window became increasingly, ridiculously narrow. Eventually I started walking everywhere like I used to in Manhattan, joining the ranks of one or two homeless men pushing shopping carts full of cans, car-less teenage boys in Army boots, and Scary Mary, our always walking always muttering resident madwoman.    

The punch line comes when I try to sell my house. Turns out, nobody else wants to deal with my traffic problems either. My realtor said, I could have sold your house – which was full of charm and Victorian details “in a heartbeat had it not been on Washington Avenue.”

Of course, I eventually sold it – but for a lot less than comparable houses tucked neatly into quiet side streets. So much for suburban quality of life. Back to the city – this time Cambridge, Mass – for us.