Travel Tales, or Civilization’s Discontents

Monday I participated in the final round of judging for this year’s We the People—an all-day exercise that left me and most of the other judges exhausted, but so impressed by the depth of knowledge and poised delivery of these high-school students from all over the country. Tuesday—yesterday—it was time to come home.

My husband makes fun of my obsessive-compulsive need to be at the airport well before flight time. Yesterday proved how wrong he is.

The Mason Inn, where we were staying, is on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, just outside Washington, D.C.  When I arrived, the trip there by cab from Washington National airport took about 45 minutes. Ever the cautious sort, I scheduled a taxi for 8:45 for my 11:00 flight, and was gratified when it arrived about five minutes early. Plenty of time to get to the airport—or so I thought.

The cab driver told me it was still rush hour, so it would probably take an hour to get there. What happened next was absolutely surreal: the traffic on the (badly misnamed) expressway was stop and start nearly the entire way. I’ve seen gridlock, but nothing comparable to this; I kept looking for a reason—a wreck, a stalled car, merging lanes—anything that would explain the bumper-to-bumper traffic. I saw nothing.

It took us an hour and forty minutes to get to the U.S. Air terminal. I had thirty stressful minutes to get through Reagan’s always-long security lines (staffed, I might note, with people who took an incredibly laid-back and leisurely approach to their duties), and my flight was almost through boarding when I made it to the gate.

Other than confirming my belief that when you are flying, you should always allow more time than you think you will need, the slowed-to-a-stop traffic was a sobering cautionary tale. The moral?  Automobile travel is ultimately unsustainable. We cannot build enough highways, pave enough municipal landscape, to ease the congestion. If humans are to get from point A to point B, a substantial number of us will need access to public transportation.

A train from the Mason Inn to the airport would take perhaps thirty minutes. Furthermore, it would take a reliable thirty minutes that one could schedule and depend on.  (I might note that a train—or even express buses—would also emit far fewer pollutants into our atmosphere.)

If I had to drive in traffic like that I saw yesterday, I’d have an ulcer–or persistent road rage.

When you consider how much it costs to buy, operate, insure and maintain a car, and the hours of productive time wasted in lengthy and unpredictable commutes, you start to understand the insanity of America’s car culture and its negative impact on our quality of life.

I didn’t think I could get any angrier at the Indiana legislature for once again derailing mass transit for Indianapolis, but yesterday proved I was wrong–I can get angrier, especially when I wonder how long it will take for Indianapolis’ highways to look like those I traveled yesterday.


  1. Welcome home! I thought it a logical thing to add an express run from the new billion dollar airport to our city center along the I-70 route. Amazing we do not have a zip line of some sort from downtown to the airport. Maybe the airport could quit fighting over parking lots then.

  2. I don’t disagree that automobile is ultimately unsustainable in an urban environment. The good news is that Indianapolis has an extremely long way to go to match some of the traffic woes seen elsewhere, not counting several spot areas that can be extremely congested at times. The only thing I see that might spur any concerted efforts towards making local mass transit workable would be some large increases in the price of vehicular fuels. I just don’t see it happening in the short term.

  3. Sheila, you don’t go to George Masson University on a regular basis, but if you did, you would probably take the shuttle to the Metro and the Metro to the airport, all of which would be much less than for what you paid the taxi service and much faster. As you know, it’s a fairly integrated system.

    Whenever metropolitan areas understand (when the light bulb finally goes on), they begin to appreciate just how important and useful public transportation is, because public transportation enhances the common good. But in states such as Indiana where the legislature agrees that “it’s all about me”, and adheres to the the doctrine of private cars, they seem to equate no taxes with quality of life. Big mistake on all fronts. Any classy business looking at Indiana will not just look at low taxes. They are interested in a high quality of life, which is why businesses tend to stay (one or two examples notwithstanding) in the Chicago area instead of running across the street to the wilds of Indiana and lower taxes. Funny thing about some issues is that once you fully understand your need for certain services, it’s too late. Poor vision is not just measured by optometrists. Once Indianapolis is crammed with people and the roads are constantly jammed, the costs will be too high to build. But the blame isn’t just on the legislators. The majority of the people, who elect the legislators, don’t get it either. If they think that public transportation is expensive, just wait until they understand why they should have built it long ago. This is just one foray into what it means to be Indissippi.

  4. If our state legislators are like our congress, it won’t happen until they are personally effected by the traffic. Then it is amazing how quickly things can happen. Maybe we could force them to stay out northeast during the session.

  5. Reminds me of the Tom Paxton song lyrics that begin “The Last Thing on My Mind”: It’s a lesson too late for the learning, made of sand. When people pass laws based on their immediate self-interest, it’s not usually with a great vision for the future.

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