Tag Archives: car culture

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.