The numbered days of the solo commute

Proposed congestion taxes could make driving alone a luxury of the past.

By , Columnist

When James Russell Lowell posed his now-famous question, "What is so rare as a day in June?," he was extolling the joys of nature. He cele­brated cowslips and buttercups, small birds and green leaves, clear skies and whispering breezes.

What the poet couldn't have imagined, in his 19th-century world where people traveled by foot, horse, and train, was the pleasure those of us in the 21st century would find in the rare days of June – and July and August – for reasons that have nothing to do with nature and everything to do with traffic.

This is the season when commuters rejoice. As vacationing workers flee the city, roads grow less crowded. No school buses are halting traffic with flashing red lights, and no parents are ferrying children to school in SUVs. That means fewer horn-honkers, fewer tailgaters, less gridlock.

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Ah, bliss.

Well, maybe not quite bliss. Commuting is still commuting, after all. But it is a time to savor greater freedom.

Yet any solo commuter who keeps abreast of the news must sense that the days of this luxury could be numbered, at least for some drivers in cities where talk of "road pricing" is in the air.

In 2003, when London first imposed a congestion tax of £8 a day ($16) on cars entering the central city, many Americans might have smugly assumed that the idea would never cross the Atlantic. Wrong assumption. Now it has. New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a congestion tax of $8 on cars and $21 on trucks going into Midtown Manhattan. Last month a Chicago alderman floated a similar idea.

Many commuters are not amused. They point out that the rich will be unaffected, while average drivers will be forced to find other ways to get to work.

The prospect is enough to increase the guilt that solo drivers already sometimes feel about being part of urban congestion and polluting the clear skies that Lowell prized. We know we should take public transportation. But because we want convenience or need flexibility, we rev up our engines each day, fasten our seat belts, and join legions of drivers who must get from here to there, home to work and back, on time and as unfrazzled as possible.

A new study from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., finds that commuters who drive alone, as opposed to taking mass transit or carpooling, feel more emotionally satisfied with their commute, even if it takes longer and costs more. They would rather deal with long lines of traffic than sacrifice the comfort and control of their own cars.

And why not? Traveling alone, they reign as king or queen of their chariot. Want to listen to Mozart or NPR? Prefer more air conditioning – or less? Like to leave early or late? Take back roads or thoroughfares? The choices are theirs. They also have no need to converse with car poolers. They can simply savor the silence and prepare mentally for the day.

In the George Mason study, researcher Mitchell Baer found that commuters are more satisfied with their morning commute than their afternoon commute.

Sometimes commuting gets comical. I have watched women apply makeup, including mascara and eyeliner, curl their eyelashes, and style their hair. I have seen men shaving. One man was even brushing his teeth at a red light. Another was apparently paying bills, writing a check by balancing his checkbook on the steering wheel. Eaters and coffee-guzzlers abound. So do cellphone users.

Cars have become extensions of our kitchens, bathrooms, and offices – apartments on wheels. No wonder they're filled with more and more creature comforts. Some include heated and chilled cup holders and in-vehicle coolers. Others are equipped with satellite radios, navigation systems, wireless communication, and seats that heat, cool, recline, and massage. What's next?

Although the proposals for road taxes are fraught with political battles, it's probably only a matter of time until some cities, desperate to reduce urban traffic and pollution, institute the fees. Add these daily congestion charges to the already high cost of gas and parking, and many drivers will need to abandon their solo commutes.

If considerable numbers of us convert to public transportation, another challenge awaits. Already some suburban commuter rail stations face parking shortages. Early birds fill the limited spaces. Those who arrive later must either walk to the station or be dropped off and picked up.

Even bicycles – another alternative for some – need help from cities. Few bike lanes exist, and riders must share busy roads with cars. Even so, the George Mason study finds that commuters who are able to bike or walk to work are the most satisfied.

As environmental concerns grow, and as cities eventually price some drivers off the road, future generations, accustomed to telecommuting and other ways to work, might look back in disbelief at this Golden Age of the Solo Commuter. Maybe then the roads year-round will resemble the ones we now enjoy only in the rare days of summer. And maybe then a commuter's view of nature in all its summertime glory will no longer simply be filtered through a car window.

Lowell would surely approve.

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