Volume, Confusion, and Rage: On Commuting

May 15, 2013, 6:52 pm

Knocker-up in action
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Commuting has been part of the human experience since the Industrial Revolution. Ever since the workplace and the home got firmly disentangled, people have been waking up and resignedly making their way to their place of employment. The amount of culture that has developed about the idea of commuting is enormous, including the “knocker-up” of 19th and early 20th century Britain who served, before the advent of universal alarm clocks, as a wake-up call for workers by tapping on their windows in the morning with a long pole.

It is probably safe to say that few have ever really enjoyed their commute [1], a feeling best exemplified by the opening scene of the movie Office Space, from which this excerpt comes (warning, very bad language):

Dtc 32 tif
Commuting has had a fair amount of academic analysis applied to it. The distance/time people are willing to commute is affected by (among other things) the wages on offer. In a study of commuting in North Carolina in the 1960s, most workers at two factories lived within 30 miles of the factory, but 22% of those at the higher waged fiber plant were willing to live more than 30 miles out, while only 1.3% of the shirt factory workers were.[2]

I work in Washington, DC and the commuting options are legion. The standard option, driving, is my least favorite. Parking in central DC is tightly restricted and expensive. Traffic is slow, with Washington the 9th most congested city in the United States. Despite its broad avenues, DC isn’t really well suited for traffic, and there are out-of-towners still endlessly circling the Dupont Circle roundabout, hoping against hope that someone will let them over so they can get out. “Traffic is terrible on the circle, in volume, confusion, and rage,” as one observer puts it.

The next option is much better. DC’s Metro is justly famous for the beauty of its stations. It’s also (despite a fair amount of grumbling by residents) a relatively efficient and comprehensive service. It does have a fare system that would confuse Albert Einstein, especially if Albert was on vacation and more interested in seeing sights than figuring out how much it would be to get from Bethesda to Arlington (don’t forget to add $1 to the fare for a paper fare card!). Note the fare chart:

Fare Fail 1

I make my positive evaluation, I should also say, despite the tendency of Metro trains occasionally to catch on fire explosively:

So most days I take the metro, walking to the station in Takoma and from the station in Dupont Circle. It’s about 40 minutes door-to-door.

The final option is biking, which I am starting up again now that the weather is reasonably cooperative. It’s about six miles door-to-door, mostly downhill on the way in, and (sob) the opposite on the way back. DC’s a pretty bike-friendly place, with a fair number of bike lanes (at least in the center of the city) and even a bike-specific stop-light at 16th street. There’s still the normal hassles of traffic and weather: 1) don’t mess with cars with diplomatic license plates; 2) when it is 105 degrees outside, think twice before biking or, at least, drink a lot of fluids.[3]

Bikes have changed a lot since my youth (also? Get off my lawn, you kids.) When I was growing up, we had three speed bikes and ten speed bikes. You started off on three speeds and then graduated up. The introduction of the mountain bike was a radical shifting of this bicycle universe. Now? There are enough types of bikes to have a wikipedia entry dedicated solely to them. When I was buying my bike, I decided to avoid most of the fancy bits (suspension, disc brakes, espresso machine) and got a basic road bike. It’s fast, light, and handles the DC roads with aplomb. DC doesn’t have massive hills, though this one (15th street just north of Florida Ave) is pretty reasonable (note twin bike paths in background; just out of sight at the top is the cemetery for riders who died on the way up) [4]:


So it’s usually a good, fun, relatively short ride in to work (35-40 minutes). Being a information-nerd, I, of course, have an app that tracks my progress and plays music (using the speaker; headphones seem too dangerous). It usually gets to the embarrassing songs on my playlist just when I’m stopped at a light next to another bicyclist.

I’m not a really committed rider. I don’t go if the weather’s not good, or in winter, or if I Just Don’t Feel Like It. But of all the commuting methods, biking feels like it gives me the most control and least frustration. That’s a valuable thing, given the alternative:

Alan Maley, Commuter (excerpt):

He lives in a house in the suburbs.
He rises each morning at six.
He runs for the bus to the station,
Buys his paper and looks at the pics.

Commuting: regimentation, control, and freedom, all wrapped up in a neat, usually boring, little package.

[1] Alois Stutzer, and Bruno S Frey. “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox*.” The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 110, no. 2 (2008): 339-366.
[2] Richard E. Lonsdale, “Two North Carolina Commuting Patterns.” Economic Geography 42, no. 2 (1966): 114-138. Map from p. 123.
[3] No, we are not having the Climate Olympics (“Where I live, it gets up to 150 degrees, with molten lava falling from the sky! You have it easy!”) in the comments.
[4] There isn’t really a cemetery there. Also, we’re not having the Terrain Olympics either. People in Seattle and San Francisco, I’m looking at you

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