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Road to Nowhere

John Yeigh

I’M DEBATING whether my life is better described by Tom Cochrane’s Life Is a Highway or Eddie Rabbitt’s Driving My Life Away. In a recent article, I noted that our family has driven our cars about 1.9 million miles. Since I’m the family’s King of the Road, I’ve been along for at least two-thirds of that ride.

I’m also, alas, the king of lost time.

The average commuting speed in the Washington, D.C., area—where I live—has been estimated at 24 and 46 mph. Whatever the right number is, the roads here have been described as the nation’s most congested. Let’s split the difference and call it 35 mph. If I take my 1.25 million miles at 35 mph, I’ve been in a car for more than 35,000 hours. That works out to almost 1,500 days, or roughly four years.

Four years out of a likely 65-year adult life translates to about 10% of my total waking hours. That’s scary. These estimates don’t count our six years living overseas or time spent in others’ cars. However you run the calculation, this much is clear: A lot of my life has been spent in a car seat.

Despite this, I mostly didn’t mind my car time—as long as the car was moving. My long commute allowed us to live in a resort town, plus it gave my wife a shorter ride to work. I enjoyed audiobooks, practiced hundreds of work presentations to the windshield, pondered life’s daily challenges, worked by cell phone, listened to NPR and tuned into my favorite radio stations. My non-commuting car time—to get to family, friends or a vacation—were even less lamented.

I’m not alone in my comfort with Washington commuting, despite the congestion. According to a 2019 study by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, “Half of commuters were satisfied with their current commute,” even though they averaged 43 minutes. Yes, there’s a federally funded group to study transportation and gridlock around the D.C. beltway. Unfortunately, no post-pandemic update has been published.

Although my work commuting has ended, I still worry about lost car time—because my daughter has ended up with a similarly long commute. I don’t want her to spend as much time in cars as I have. Her commute is 51 miles each way and averages about 50 minutes since it’s all on uncongested highways.

My commute was 60 miles and also started under an hour. Over 25 years, it extended to 90 minutes and sometimes more. It lengthened due to population growth and constant accidents, which are averaging an astonishing 22,750 per year in the D.C. region. Distracted driving has been growing thanks to cell phones, which are said to be involved somehow in 64% of accidents worldwide.

I’m hopeful and reasonably confident that future generations won’t lose as much commuting time as we baby boomers have. Telecommuting is growing, with its adoption accelerated by the pandemic. In addition, today’s commuters enjoy a host of driving assistance and entertainment technologies to enhance car time, including the accident-causing mobile phone. And, of course, autonomous driving is coming.

Technology may rescue my daughter, but it won’t bring back the four years I’ve lost. As a retiree, my car time has declined precipitously because I have no commute and drive at off-peak hours. Still, my older cars don’t have the latest tech enhancements. My one concession: I now have access to drive-time music from SiriusXM or Spotify whenever I’m On the Road Again.

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Matt McGuinness
Matt McGuinness
9 months ago

Really enjoyed your article! It brought a few things to mind:

1. Many people view cars as mere “appliances”, needed only to perform a specified function (transportation from point A to B within at least minimal comfort parameters defined by the commuter & their budget). For these folks, cost minimization (including depreciation, maintenance & fuel economy considerations) are paramount. As a finance professional, I admire and on some level truly envy these people…but I am not one of them.

2. Others of us have a more complicated, “emotional” relationship with cars. Some – like myself, a “car guy” who grew up in the ’60’s in Detroit in the muscle car era and restored my first ride (a 1966 Barracuda) with my dad when I was only 14 – treat cars as a hobby. Guys like me spend lots of our free time immersed in car culture even when we are not behind a windshield.

For this latter group, especially those that have a longer daily commute (mine is 42 miles each way), a commuting vehicle becomes another expression of who we are based on what we choose to drive!

3. It will be very interesting to see how EV’s, and soon enough self driving/ semi-autonomous EV’s have on the relative unattractiveness of longer commutes like mine. Much greater multi-tasking will be possible…or is even considered “multi-tasking” anymore if we get to the point when we don’t have to devote ANY attention to the task of driving from point A to point B anymore?!

4. l can’t remember how many times I looked up while driving to work and suddenly realized I missed my exit 2 or 3 exits back, because I was so engrossed in an Audible book that had captivated me (often a Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher novel!) And then I thought, HOW DID I EVEN GET HERE (and how many times did I reflexively change lanes getting to here??!)

5. As I’m planning to retire at the end of this year and will no longer have that long commute 5 days a week, I guess I will use some of that freed up time to tinker on my cars and buy/ sell/ trade and just drive them to different destinations instead.

Donny Hrubes
Donny Hrubes
9 months ago

I hate a lot of useless driving to and fro, having to return from where I go. 😉
I always think of a job as long term and so, have moved to be close to where I go everyday so to limit the commute. Save gas, and everything else that comes with an automobile.
Another thought I have is once I’m at the job, the car sits the whole time, when home….it sits ..the whole time. Cars and such represent money spent, and just sits most of the time. Sooooo, it’s best not to sink a lot of cash into something that just sits MOST OF THE TIME. And having a payment is double bad!

I buy older cars, and figure… if I had a new car, the payment is like . i suppose $250 or even $300. Well, just put that aside for one year, you’ve got a ‘fix it’ account to simply pay for repairs.
I’ve got a ‘not from this millennium’ car that still take me where ever I need to go.
‘Weather it’s a Dodge Pinto or a GM Cadillac, the destination is the same’

John Goodell
John Goodell
9 months ago

Live in ATX but grew up in DC. To my Texas brothers and sisters, DC is way worse. NoVA traffic is absolute hell (the only road we have that’s remotely close is I35).

AKROGER SHOPPER
AKROGER SHOPPER
9 months ago

Less than 15 miles to work was always a requirement for three decades of work. The expense of a long drive cut into everything, time with family, family emergencies, and health as sitting raises health care costs. Only four (4) cars were purchased each used and over a decade old to keep operating expenses in check. Imagine the savings in gas, repairs, and insurance. So it’s great being retired and reading the posts. And yes there are three cars in the family three decades old all working as designed, saving money every day.

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
9 months ago

My decision to retire early was mainly driven (pardon the pun) by a round trip commute of up to 4 hours a day (round trip miles= 50) no matter what time of day I left home/work . This of course was before the pandemic, when my former company finally allowed employees to work from home . It worked beautifully for all concerned – the company is as profitable as ever.

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
9 months ago

John, thanks for this. I had a reasonable (at first) 24 mile commute into Austin for decades before retiring, and I didn’t mind it in the early days. I used the morning drive to mentally review and prepare for my work day. The drive home was enjoyable as I could unwind and catch up on the news with All Things Considered.

I completely agree with this sentiment of yours: I mostly didn’t mind my car time—as long as the car was moving. Congestion and constant stop-and-go pretty much ruins it, and as Ginger points out, this part of Texas has seen explosive growth in recent years. I began to enjoy the commute less and less and now I can say that one of the true joys of retirement is not having to put up with it.

John Yeigh
John Yeigh
9 months ago

Like Paula, my long commute only got frustrating in the final six years from 2009-2015. I believe this was mainly related to the explosion of mobile-phone induced accidents, with traffic growth also a likely a contributor. I did work an additional two years in your beloved TX, but lived just five minutes from the office. My observation is that Houston gridlock rivals DC’s.

Ginger Williams
Ginger Williams
9 months ago

Except for two years, I’ve always chosen to live within five miles of work so I don’t lose time commuting. While I enjoy audiobooks for long drives, I find them distracting when driving in traffic. I won’t need to downsize much when I retire in a few years, because I opted for a small apartment close to work when I moved here. The I-35 corridor from Dallas to San Antonio is one of the fastest growing areas in the country and congestion has increased noticeably since I moved to this area. My original 3 miles in 8-10 minutes commute is now a 3 miles in 15-20 minutes. The cost of housing may still be low in comparison to many areas, but it’s increasingly rapidly.

IAD
IAD
9 months ago

I’ll be honest, I also live in the DC area and “Half of commuters were satisfied with their current commute” is frankly unbelievable. If this was during COVID then I can see it, but having lived in this area my entire adult life, I have yet to meet a person who fits this category except yourself. Even when not utilizing a car, such as metro, commuter bus, or slug lines the commute is horrific time waster….and thats not even computing the wasted money on gas and car costs! Literally soul crushing…..

Last edited 9 months ago by IAD

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