Driven to Distraction in America

A couple of weeks ago I left the transit-rich confines of New York City and headed down South to visit family. I made it all the way to Meridian, Mississippi, without getting in a car (I rode the subway to Penn Station and took Amtrak from there), but once I got off the train in Meridian, I did what everyone else in America does: I put my rear end in the driver’s seat and started driving. Driving to visit the relatives. Driving to the store to buy allergy medicine for my kid. Driving to buy food for dinner. Driving driving driving. It drove me crazy. And for my seven-year-old, who is not used to doing time in the back seat, it was torture.

DSC_0341.jpgWhat Mom looks like from the back seat. Photo by Nathaniel Goodyear.

It was also an important reminder of American reality for someone who lives in a place (Brooklyn) where a car-free existence is not only possible, it’s actually more convenient than living with a car. Because for so many people in this country — even those who really "get it" in terms of sustainable transportation — that’s just not the case. They may want to be taking transit, or walking, or biking, but the way their communities are set up makes it impractical or downright impossible. And they feel lousy about it.

That’s the subject of today’s featured post on the Streetsblog Network, from East Busway Blog in Pittsburgh:

I live a double life. In my ideal (weekend) life, I either walk, or hop on the busway or another bus to get to things that I need to… Life is good.

Then there is my dirty little secret. 5 days a week, I get in a car, and I drive 40 minutes in the car, by myself to work and back. Don’t worry, I hate it. It’s stressful, tiring, and long. In fact, I daydream about being able to hop on the busway, or any other form of public transit and sit back, and relax, read, listen to music etc, while I am taken to work.

Why do I live this double life you ask? Because I have to. I really tried to find a way to make it work using mass transit, but I can honestly
say it would not work. I would have to take a Port Authority bus to Pittsburgh Mills, wait (and I mean wait), get a Westmoreland transit bus to New Kensington, (wait again), and then take another Westmoreland County bus the remaining distance to work. If it were to work for me, I would have to leave three hours before work started. That would put the start of my journey at 5 A.M. Even if I were committed (or crazy) enough to undertake that daily sojourn, it would not be possible, because of how early my trip would have to start.

Leaving New York always makes me newly thankful for all of our transportation options when I return. And it always makes me newly amazed at how many people here use and depend on cars when they don’t have to.

Fortunately, there is a growing movement of people around the country, in all kinds of communities, who want things to change. That’s what the Streetsblog Network is all about. And here’s some other news from the network: We’ve got an update on the Connecticut red light camera bill from WalkBikeCT; a hopeful report on transit in Sacramento from RT Rider; and from Decatur Metro, proof that the Georgia state government is ready to compete with New York’s for dysfunction when it comes to funding transit.

14 thoughts on Driven to Distraction in America

  1. Most Americans have internalized the hassles and expenses of owning and operating an automobile so well that don’t even *recognize* them; yet they’re awfully quick to level dirty words like “elitist” at those of us who choose differently.

  2. I grew up in MA and never had to drive, although I did get my license at 21. I’m an Atlanta resident of 10+ years and live in a city well known for its car-centric lifestyle, yet I don’t drive. Most of my trips outside Atlanta are to places -with- transit, either cities in the U.S. or any town bigger than 10 houses in Europe, so I have the opposite reaction: “This is how it SHOULD be!” The only place I feel trapped is in the Atlanta suburbs (“Can you give me a ride?”) and in Sturbridge, MA, where my parents now live.

  3. What’s really unfortunate is the driving is simply not something that even 75-80% of the population can do alone. Kids need to be driven everywhere. Elderly can become very unsafe drivers. And many people with physical or mental disabilities are unable to drive. But we continue to build housing in areas that that 100% rely on this subset of the healthy adult population over 18 and under 75-90 (for the most part) to be chauffeurs for everyone. It’s a burden on those who can drive and builds a frustated sense of dependency on those who cannot. It’s not only unsustainable, it’s not healthy for most individuals or families.

  4. I’d LOVE to be able to drive to work instead of cramming onto a commuter bus, getting stuck next to some smelly, nasty, elbowing rider, and speeding down the highway at a dangerous 75mph by a nutso driver trying to get home early.


    I moved from NYC to the suburbs in part to get away from dependence on public trains and buses. No such luck, not yet anyway.

    To everyone who can, I say DRIVE!

  5. I am stuck in the suburbs! I have to drive my 35 miles each way to get to work. There are no, and I mean NO mass transit options that would take me from Rockland County to Pleasantville, NY. Give me the smelly, nasty, elbowing rider! I’ll take ’em. Or at the very least I would like the option.

    There is an option of traveling to NYC via mass transit from Rockland County and I believe there are buses that take you to Tarrytown (to get the train) and White Plains, which then has other buses to take you around the city. To go to the city, first you drive your car a few miles to the ferry or to the bus. The bus brings you to Port Authority. The ferry takes you to the train. And the train into Grand Central. If you are lucky as I was when I worked in Manhattan you can then walk to your place of employment from either Grand Central or Port Authority. The not so lucky have to then take the subway.

    But if you don’t work in the city…it’s a car for you. ‘SIGH’ I would take the car to the ferry to the train to the subway anyday over my car and the honking and the cutting off and the having to be awake enough to do it all.


  6. Hey Melanie, complain if you will but understand that with your current commute, you are being a better citizen to your fellow human beings than drivers are.

    Now, what if your commuter buses were safe, clean, and numerous enough not to be so crowded?

    And what if you could also choose a train that was just as good?

    How about you ask your government to create such things?

    And it’s good that you have a problem with your bus driver’s excessive speed. WHY DON’T YOU ASK HIM NOT TO SPEED?

    And finally, if you drove every day, would you care that your presence on the road would be slowing down everyone around you, and contributing to childhood asthma in neighborhoods all over NYC? Would you care about that?

  7. I moved from NYC to the suburbs in part to get away from dependence on public trains and buses.

    Heh… I moved to NYC to get away from dependence on cars. So far no smelly stranger or thrown elbow has come close to aggravating me the way driving a car did: idiots on the road making my anger boil up, time wasted when I could have been doing something more productive, and if I had ever owned one I’m quite sure insurance and repair bills would have sent me through the roof.

  8. Seems to me most people just want to get away from what they have. The suburbanites are tired of driving, and the urban dwellers want the cars. A good balance of both my preference, also though I currently live in a place with very minimal mass transit.

  9. Sarah,

    I thought you and perhaps others would like to have a look at this piece from a fellow Mississippian on how we get around down there — which I wrote back in January about five dollar gas in our home state as a contribution to the discussions being organized by the National Journal to advise the in-coming Obama transportation team. The full original is at Come back now, you hear.

    Letter from Mississippi

    Today down in the lightly settled rural areas around my hometown of Amory Mississippi there are at least three unyielding realities which most of our friends and neighbors have to figure out how to live with every day.

    • First, that the time in which our town was a lively place which served to provide both the people who lived in town and surrounding communities with a wide range of goods and services all within walking or biking distances somehow disappeared in the closing decades of the last century. No one here is quite sure of how or why it happened — but it did and it was a great loss. One that we really start to feel as the price of gas climbs.

    • The second harsh reality is that as the town emptied out the only possible way of getting around today is . . . if you have a car. A very American phenomenon. But there is more to it than that.

    • The third is that most of us down here are not particularly rich, meaning that when gas prices double, triple worse, it hits us a lot harder than the average American. We are not only one of the poorest states in the Union, but today more than 20% of our neighbors live below the official poverty level. And a lot more than that if you are a rural white and sadly worse yet if you are a rural black.

    So as an average citizen from northeastern Mississippi I have some questions about how the new team in Washington is going to deal with the harsh realities we face both now and will surely have to face in the years ahead. This is one problem we can be sure is not going to go away by itself.

    To be perfectly frank certainly the most comfortable solution for us would be a return to dollar gas. One of the great conveniences of that is that it would allow us to keep going as we have over all these last years without changing. Nobody really likes to change, at least when they feel it’s being forced on them. But we look around and we know that the world is changing, and I guess that includes us to.
    So the question becomes: how do we live down here with three or four or five dollar gas? I guess we had to start thinking about that now. And at five dollars a gallon we are definitely going to have to be thinking more about transportation and access, and less about cars per se — at least as we always have in the past.

    A lot of ideas come to mind as to how to deal with this, but since most of them are kind of unfamiliar, we’re probably going to need some help in developing basic organizational and even legal support in order to make them work.

    Here are a couple to think about which would be important for us and for many people who lived in small towns and rural areas across America:

    1. We don’t have very many taxis around here, and the ones we do things To cost a lot. But if we can figure out how to get more people into the taxis so as to drive down the costs and at the same time put more of them on the road, well that might be the start of something interesting.
    2. Much in the same spirit, we have a lot of people who have both cars and plenty of time on their hands to serve as informal but still effective taxi. If we could only organize to find a system to make this work.
    3. We used to hear something about car and van pooling which was used by some of our local industry employers, back when we had still local industry. That has to be an idea we could revisit, both for getting to work and for other important trips as well.
    4. Likewise we have a fair number of church and school buses in the county, most of which sit around empty 95% of the time. Surely we can do something more with them.
    5. And then what about working out some things where people want to share a car when they need it, and not have to pay the full expenses involved in owning and operating your own car.
    6. There is almost no provision for cycling in this area, and there surely have to be some interesting things we could do to encourage and support this form of low-cost healthy transportation. That plus better and safer sidewalks and other protection for people who want to walk.
    7. We used to walk a lot before we started to depend on cars, and I know there are a lot of people out here who would like to be able to do it again, if only there were a place to go to within walking distance.

    Maybe I should add in closing that we have figured out that there is more to it than just cars, transportation and the price of gas at the pump. Maybe some of you up there should be telling us how we can get back to towns and small rural centers that offer something more than an empty street and closed storefronts. That has to be part of our solution strategy, wouldn’t you say?

    Back in the days of the War Between the States, our part of Mississippi for a long time resisted pressure to secede from the United States of America. We were and are to this day proud and independent people. But what we now need from Washington are some clear signals and a good understanding of the realities we face every day.

    So we’re waiting to hear from you folks up in Washington as to how we get out of this one. And you will find that we are ready to do our part.

  10. Unfortunately NYC pales in comparison when it comes to public transportation to other cities, especially in Western Europe and Japan. And yet even in NYC, depending on where you live, not having a car is NOT an option. Try Eastern (much of) Queens – once past the end of the IND (E/F) trains, there are only buses. Slow buses. Same in the better cities cited above.

    Especially in NYC the infrastructure has not kept up with the growth of the city or the population. Where else is the subway (metro) restricted to the political boundaries of the city? Think just across the water in equally dense NJ – Union City, etc. Try to get ACROSS to Manhattan without long detours.

    The car is here to stay because funding the alternate is just not going to happen politically. Just look at the MTA, fare hikes and Albany’s dysfunction.

    Sad, but DEAL WITH IT!

  11. Is this off topic? Speaking of your title, driven to distraction, it’s reported by safety experts that 75% of all collisions are at speeds less than 18mph, with driver inattention accounting for 50% of those accidents. I stumbled onto this today because on my way home last night, I noticed this new Volvo being pitched outside the Auto Show with the tag line that it can stop itself, with a new feature called City Safety. It has an infra-red sensor that can automatically brake the car to avoid a collision.

    I contacted Volvo North America about the car sensor’s ability to see something the size of a cyclist (thinking also that it should be on mandatorily when entering NYC), and they said: “City Safety uses a laser sensor that monitors an area approximately 18 ft. directly in front of the vehicle and internal electronics to calculate data to determine appropriate action. This feature can be turned off if the driver wants to deactivate it. The feature can’t tell if a cyclist is in front of the car. It is specifically designed to measure vehicles in front of your car.”

    That led me to this site:
    …which states that at least year’s auto show, this system was announced at a traffic safety forum I’ve never heard of….and I quote:

    “”At this year’s World Traffic Safety Symposium held at the New York International Auto show, a panel of experts consisting of traffic safety specialists from institutions such as the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reward various developments that reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on American roads. Volvo’s safety feature, City Safety, made a huge impression on the jury members owing to its ability to prevent or lessen the severity of collisions at low speeds, thus reducing the risk of personal injuries and damage to vehicles.” Is this forum a joke?

    Question: why aren’t we there makin’ noise (at the forum)? Rev. Billy did a great job last year everywhere else….with the marriage of Lady Liberty to Mr. Transit…hey’s it’s their anniversary.


  12. I have been thinking about how to respond to your post for the past ten years (just kidding). Anyway, I just found your post, and I believe that you have misunderstood Volvo’s motivations and how this kind of technology progresses. The reason Volvo was only claiming their system could only detect cars in 2009 was because it could only detect BIG things in 2009. Making claims that may not always be true (such as cyclist detection) could cause drivers to be careless and would certainly open Volvo up to financial risk. The spokesperson who said the system was specifically designed to detect cars was not telling the whole truth or didn’t understand the whole truth.

    Subsequently, Volvo and other manufacturers’ tech has gotten better at detecting smaller things, like adult pedestrians, bicyclists, and large animals, but it is still not perfectly reliable at any of those things.

    Given the tremendous number of pedestrians who are killed by vehicles, something Volvo knew and knows, it is impossible to imagine pedestrian detection would not have been an objective of such a system from the start. The progress Volvo and others have made over the years with these systems made it particularly tragic that Uber turned off Volvo’s auto-braking system in the autonomous vehicle that killed a woman walking a bicycle in Tempe, AZ in March, 2018.

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