Saturday, December 22, 2012

Thoughts on the Chicago Commute

I am a Chicago commuter.  Funny, when I was growing up, I said I would never live more than five minutes from my job.  Looking back, it was only because I hadn't yet discovered that the kind of job that I feel is worth having either wasn't available in a small town or that the places where I'd want to work were generally out of my price range that I made that proclamation.

I sat in Chicago traffic, traveling east in the morning, enduring the daily sun delay (from drivers that were unable to see as their vision was obscured by the giant fireball directly in their line of sight), and traveling west in the evening, with the afternoon sun delay as well.  I did this for years, spending countless hours of my precious life in the car that I can never get back.

Then, as now, I worked in one Chicago suburb and commuted to another Chicago suburb.  In cases, my commute has been a combination of tollways and back roads.  The number of variables made sure that most days, whether due to sun delays, congestion due to merging anxiety or traffic density, accidents, involved some amount of sub-par, non-optimal speed time in the car.

During many of the hours I spent on these long drives, I thought about the amount of time that was being wasted.  The amount of productivity lost.  The amount of family time missed out on by the Chicago-area families.  The amount of money spent on gas, tolls, car repairs.

I would estimate in my head.  Say, a million drivers on the road every day (I don't know how realistic this is. Best numbers I saw was this paper, and that just shows like three million commuters.  How many in cars?  Don't know, but I'm assuming a million).  Then assume they're on the road for an hour a day (lots are on longer, and I assume there are fewer.  Now assume that they are worth $50/hour.  Again, I have no idea how correct this is, but let's assume $50.  That's $50 million per day of time spent in the Chicago area.

Per day.  Assume 260 days a year (5/7 * 365) that this happens.  That comes down to $13 billion of unproductive time waste.  What would our country do if we could just capture that productivity?  What a colossal waste of our collective precious time!

Further, because of the delays, for many people, the daily commute is a stressful time.  They are tense from working all day and then have to drive home vigilant and tense.  Think that helps their interactions with their family?  They bring that tension home and it strains families and lives.

Why not take the train?  Well, I could get a job downtown most likely, and take the train in, but that has what I would consider to be worse problems.  I see the train as a 3 hour/day minimum commitment (15 minutes to the train, some time waiting for the train, 30-60 minutes on the train (depending on whether you can snag the express), then a 15-20 minute walk to wherever you're going.  And then if you're working in a high-rise downtown, there's a non-trivial amount of time just to get into the building and get up the elevator (Aon Center, I'm looking at you!)).  Then there's the freedom that you lose being bound to the train and the express train schedules.  I have talked to many Chicago commuters, and that way lies madness, I feel.

Working downtown makes the most sense if you can live there.  Then it's aces.  I loved that.  A lot.

No, so if you're in the car you make the best of it.  You try to figure out ways to make that time productive.  I like to read, so audio books were a no-brainer.  I subscribed to, and they were good for a while.  Until I'd listened to everything I really wanted to listen to.  Then I discovered podcasts, and listened to those.  But if I wasn't commuting, I wouldn't necessarily be consuming this kind of media.  I realized that it didn't make the commute productive.  It just made it feel less wasted.

But I have always had the feeling that something would have to break through this wastefulness.  That there was a solution just waiting around the corner.  I thought a lot about it.  Would it be self-driving cars?  Would it be telecommuting?  Both seemed to hold the promise of, if not eliminating wasteful traffic, at least easing the congestion that multiplies its effects.

And I've always wanted to be part of the solution to that problem.  But what can I do?

No seriously, is there anything I can do to be part of these efforts?  Lobby the state legislature?  Join Google's self-driving car division?  Just find a telecommuting position or convince my current employer to let me work from home so that I can avoid being part of the problem?  I'm not sure, but one thing is certain, being part of the solution of this particular problem is always on my mind.

As a part of this line of thought, I suggest reading Mr. Money Mustache or watching I'm Fine, Thanks.

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