Last week I was picking up my wife at the airport. Because in the end she came back from Japan on a different flight, I had to fight traffic during the usual commute hours twice, once in the morning, and once in the afternoon.
It was a horrific experience. A trip that usually takes about 25 minutes took almost an hour. They are building a new overpass bridge across Elisabeth River, which will now be a toll bridge. It is not clear how much the toll will be yet. Probably low at first, and then they will jack it up. I remember when the toll on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was 1 dollar, and only in one direction, from Marin County to San Francisco. Then it was three dollars. I understand it is now six dollars, in both directions.
New tolls are being imposed everywhere, I just got a toll ticket for my son whose official address is still here from Colorado. It was also six dollars. They way they do it here is very interesting. They call it “public-private partnership”. It works like this: first, they impose a special tax on people living in the county. Then, they give a major new “infrastructure improvement project” to a private company, usually as a “no bid contract”. I am not sure how much of the tax money goes to the private company right off the bat to build a new road and bridge, but that is only the beginning of the sweetheart deal called “public-private partnership”. Once the bridge is built, the private company collects the bridge toll and shares some of the bounty with the City Hall, in perpetuity if they can get away with it.
And they can get away with just about anything these days.
This is just one typical example of American democracy at work. I wonder whether this is how they do it in other countries too.
Driving through the sections of the road that will be improved with this “public-private partnership” is a surreal, nightmarish experience. Where I used to see majestic green trees and lush meadows, I now see huge, ugly tree stumps on the left and on the right. People who bought a decade ago new houses surrounded by trees will now see and hear trucks rumbling on the new expended highway from their bedrooms. I saw a lot of “For Sale” signs on those houses. But who would want to buy them?
And where do the animals go, I wonder? With all those new roads, Walmarts, and toll bridges being built all the time, there will soon be a new endangered species called animals.
Out of curiosity, I often ask people who moved to Eastern Virginia about the traffic situation in other states. The answer is always the same: the traffic was horrible where they lived before, worse than here, whether it was in Texas or California. I don’t know how it can possibly be worse than here, but that is what they tell me.
I think that freelance workers such as translators should be given a major tax break because they don’t commute to work. We are doing everybody a big favor by staying off the roads during rush hours. I stopped commuting to work 26 years ago. In San Francisco it was no big deal back in the eighties, about 20 minutes by bus or streetcar. I even got to walk to work for about 3 years when I lived on Nob Hill and worked in downtown San Francisco, although sometime I would hop on the cable car. I understand the cable cars are only for tourists now because they are so expensive and the monthly ticket they used to call “fast pass” does not work anymore on cable cars.
Public transport does not really exist in most of the United States with the exception of big cities like San Francisco or New York. In Tokyo they have excellent public transport, but it took me one and half hours to get to work, in subway trains packed with people like sardines during the rush hour. You have to start positioning yourself 2 or 3 stations closer to the exit before your stop, or you’ll never make it to the exit on time.
Now I commute to my office in my pajamas and my slippers, with a cup of hot coffee in my hand. The commute takes about one minute. The worst thing that can happen to me during this commute is that I could spill some of the coffee. But unlike traffic accidents, accidents involving coffee spilled by commuters from kitchen to home office are generally always survivable. I consider this one of the major accomplishments of my life – I no longer have to deal with the traffic during the rush hour, except maybe once every three years or so when I need to pick somebody up at the airport.
How much time would I have spent during those last 26 years on the road, alone with my thoughts in my car, had I been commuting to work like most of my neighbors? Probably quite a few months. How much money would I have wasted on gas? How many accidents would I have had during those 26 years?
According to this Swedish study, couples in which one partner commutes a long way to work (more than 45 minutes) are 40% more likely to divorce than couples who don’t have to travel so far for their jobs.
Life is too short to commute to work.