I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off.— Jack Kerouac, On The Road
The opposite of the dream we savor but never fulfill, a frailty of both the great and the small (how long did Richard Feynman plan his trip to Tuva?), is the fate we dread but never find the courage to face. Instead we tell ourselves that it is not really so bad. We curse our own weakness and blame ourselves for not taking it better. We try to find the bright side, and in the end justify our circumstances in terms of what we gain through our sacrifice.
This is how I think of my daily commute, about which the current New Yorker has an article. Normally I read The New Yorker when I arrive home from work. It is my quiet time, during which I shrug off the cares of the day, and escape into a fantasy world of cosmopolitan effetism and intellectual escapism — John Colapinto’s article The Interpreter, also in this issue, about a tribe in the Amazon and how their idiosyncratic language, which lacks a feature of most tongues known as recursion, has turned the world of linguistics upside-down and pitted neo-Whorfians against Chomskyites, is a case in point.
When I got home today and openned up my newly arrived magazine, however, I found an article about my own life.
Atlanta is perhaps the purest specimen of a vexed commuter town, a big-fridge paradise. Los Angeles, the country’s most sprawling megalopolis, may boast a more dizzying array of horrible commutes, but many of them are the result of a difficult landscape — ocean restricting growth on one side, mountains on another. Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area are worthy candidates, but they, too, owe a degree of complication to bodies of water. But Atlanta, like Houston, sprawls without impediment in all directions, and an inordinate number of the commutes range from one edge of the sprawl to the opposite side. People live and work on the outskirts. For them, the city itself is little more than an obstacle and an idea.
Atlanta is a beltway town — it is defined by the interstate, known as the Perimeter, that encircles it. It has a notoriously paltry system of public transportation.
Road-building doesn’t much help. Atlanta is a showcase for a phenomenon called “induced traffic”: the more highway lanes you build, the more traffic you get. People find it agreeable to move further away, and, as others join them, they find it less agreeable (or affordable), and so they move farther still. The lanes fill up.
— Nick Paumgarten, There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter
The lure of Atlanta is the plenitude of jobs and cheap housing. Our house, as my West Coast relatives frequently remind me, would cost a million dollars in the Los Angeles suburbs. I paid a fraction of that for our four bedroom house on an acre and a half lot, sheltered from our neighbors by a thick copse of pine trees. What they never tell you is that the jobs and the houses are frequent but far between. The good areas are quickly overdeveloped and become congested. To get away from them, you have to move further out. To afford them, you have to get a higher paying job which more often than not is further away. I drive from the east side of town to the west side of town, while others drive from the west to the east. Why this should be I do not know, but it is a central feature of living in Atlanta. Still others drive from the north to the south, or from south to north. Atlanta is a city shaped like a doughnut, and driving from one edge to another is still better than driving from the edge to the center. Very few people live near where they work.
The article makes more frightening observations about the phenomenon of commuting. For instance, Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, points out that “[e]very ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.” According to economists Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey at the University of Zurich, “if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as satisfied with life as a noncommuter is.” They call this The Commuting Paradox.
“People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economic concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation. Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute — money, house, prestige — and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.
To this list of things given up should be added simpler things such as spending time with one’s children, time with one’s spouse, time in church and other communal activities. The average American male is overweight, has few to no close friends, and leans right-wing. Sociologists and pundits often attempt to tie these features to such things as the American gun-culture, video games, a laxity in contemporary cultural values, an increased commoditization and objectification of sex — but couldn’t these be merely the superstructure imposed by the infrastructure of the daily commute? Take for instance the rise of Conservatism in America. Nominally it was inspired by Reaganism, but isn’t Reaganism just the ideology fomented in the frustration of the Carter era, dominated by and remembered for cars lined up waiting for gas?
The gas line has grown into the commuter jam. As we sit in our cars, we listen to shock jocks on the car radio who reflect back to us the frustration and resentment we feel as we make our way through unpredictable and ultimately irrational choices on the road — Don Imus in D.C. (until recently), Neal Boortz in Atlanta, and Howard Stern just about anywhere since he is on satellite radio. The lonely driver feels a false sense of control and liberty as only being locked in a small space can inspire. The lone commuter hates his fellow man and is determined to cut him off before he can be cut off. Who needs a political franchise when he has a horn, strategically positioned before him like a lab rat’s food bar, with which he can instantly articulate his feelings about the state of the nation? Has a study ever been done correlating a person’s daily commute with his political leanings?
Yet this isn’t exactly my life, since my life isn’t nearly so bad as all this. About six months ago, I switched from a job for which I drove an hour, each way, to the job I currently have for which I drive only about 40 minutes each way. My company also has a progressive policy about occassionally working from home, which is nothing less than a reprieve and release from the obligation of meeting my fellow man on the road. An extra 40 minutes each day probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is enough time for me to get home after work and open my New Yorker and read for a while. It is enough so that, after reading, I am relaxed and can play with my children rather than turn on the news. I can put my children to bed and talk with my wife rather than watch Grey’s Anatomy plus whatever comes after that until I fall asleep. I am no longer the sort of man who beats his horn in anger against the world, and perhaps even my politics have mellowed a bit.
Of course were I still at my old job, my commute would be longer and I would not have had time to read this article, and would never have had the leisure to reflect on homo comutus. A different sort of commuting paradox.