Today I took the train from Newark’s Penn Station to Trenton for meetings, then back again this afternoon. We boarded an Amtrak regional train, which meant that we stopped at pretty much every station along the way. (One of the stops, aptly named “MetroPark,” appears to be a giant web of parking garages and surface lots and is one of the busiest stops of all.)
The train is a bit more expensive than traveling by car, but for the Uptight Traveler — that’s me — it’s a lot less stressful. You don’t need to hassle with New Jersey traffic and risk missing your meeting because of gridlock, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and you can work while you ride. Add in a short walk from the Trenton Station to my ultimate destination, to provide a little fresh air and exercise, and you’ve got a decent business travel experience.
We don’t have any rail service in Columbus, so any train trip is a bit of an adventure. I liked my small taste of commuting, East Coast style.
Look, I’m a big fan of the Big Apple. New York City offers so much, and is one of the handful of special American cities that has a unique feel and spirit all its own. Normally, I wouldn’t even compare Columbus to Gotham, because it’s just not fair.
But now I’ve finally found something where Columbus has the advantage: Columbus is not steeling itself for the “Summer of Agony” in 2017. New York City, in contrast, is.
It’s supposed to be the “Summer of Agony” in Manhattan because there’s going to be a partial shutdown of Penn Station, one of the principal transportation hubs for NYC commuters, to allow for repairs because the station’s tracks are falling apart. (In fact, two recent Amtrak derailments are blamed on the crappy quality of the Penn Station tracks.) The partial closure of Penn Station means that thousands of people who get to their jobs via rail to Penn Station are going to have to ditch their long-standing commuting patterns and find an alternative way to get to work. And in New York City, there just aren’t that many other options that aren’t already operating at peak, or close to peak, capacity.
So what are people who commute from Connecticut or New Jersey or Westchester County into the City supposed to do in the meantime? Some people are trying to get temporary housing in Manhattan, and some employers are offering work-at-home options. But here’s an idea — why not forget the New York City scene altogether and move to Columbus? It’s cheap, it’s friendly . . . and you’re not going to find much agony here. In fact, if you shop around, you might just find a place that allows you to take a brisk, refreshing, stress-free 20-minute walk to work.
Sure, Gothamites might scoff at the idea of leaving their land of towering skyscrapers and 24-hour delis for a place out here in “flyover country.” That’s fine and perfectly understandable . . . for now. Let’s see how they feel about it after living through the “Summer of Agony.” A few months of soul-rending, teeth-grinding stress during a two-hour commute might just change a few minds.
This morning we had one of those dreaded early morning snow storms. I pulled on my clodhopper shoes with the deep treads, cinched tight my scarf, donned my wool hat, and set out into the cold morning for my walk to work as the snowflakes pelted down.
About 20 minutes later — pretty much the standard time — I arrived at the office, face ruddy from the walk. As time passed I dimly became aware that other people were struggling to make it to work. When I heard a co-worker bemoan her two-hour commute, I realized that by walking I had dodged a bullet in the form of a rush-hour snow storm.
I hate to admit it, but I felt kind of good when I heard other people at the office tell their commuting horror stories. It legitimized our decision to move to German Village in the first place, because part of the motivation for the move was to avoid the ball-busting weather-delayed drives. I wouldn’t quite describe my reaction as schadenfreude — because I wasn’t exactly reveling in the misfortune of others — but it was similar, because I was feeling good about the action we had taken to avoid experiencing such misfortune myself.
Lately my standard commute to work has been torturous. Whether it is random accidents, or increased congestion due to the new homes and apartments being built in New Albany and points east, I am consistently enduring traffic jams on my way to the office.
I’m not a happy camper about it. There are few things more irritating than crawling along in stop-and-go traffic, trying to figure out which lane might have the accident or be most likely to start moving. It’s intolerable, and I inevitably reach the office in a foul mood as a result. It’s not good for my car, either. The interior has been severely scorched and some of the plastic fixtures partially melted by my more heated traffic jam epithets.
So, it’s time for a change. Living in the ‘burbs, that means I have two options: take the other route (because there really are only two options) or leave early. There are a bunch of homes being built on the other route, so I’m going to shoot for leaving 15 minutes early.
This is not as easy as it sounds, and there are risks. As Kish would tell you, I’m a creature of habit, and I like to follow my morning routine of walk, coffee, blog posting, get dressed, drive. I’m going to have to speed up the schedule. And all those accidents I’m encountering obviously have to happen before I leave at my standard time. Who knows? Perhaps the early departure time will put me squarely into the bad driver/accident zone.
It’s a risk I’m willing to take, because the traffic jams just suck.
The Bus Riding Conservative never misses a chance to lecture the rest of us, often in mind-numbing detail, about the joys of using the Central Ohio Transit Authority. So I wasn’t surprised when the BRC sent me a clipping of a story about COTA establishing an express bus link between Columbus and New Albany.
When I read the article, I happily realized that it wasn’t the normal boring BRC fodder about the thrill of bus riding. There actually was an interesting aspect to the story, namely this: the newly established express bus route is for people who are commuting from downtown Columbus to New Albany, and not the other way around. The express bus will leave downtown at five scheduled times between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., make a stop at Easton Town Center, the colossal shopping megaplex on the I-270 rim, and then will rumble on to the New Albany Business Park. New Albany then will pay for a shuttle service to take people from the COTA stop to other locations within the business park.
That’s interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that the efforts to bring businesses out to the suburbs are bearing fruit — so much so that COTA sees a market for an express bus that helps the workers at those business get out to their jobs. It makes me wonder how much contracommuting is going on in the Columbus area. Second, the fact that people are living downtown and needing a ride out to the ‘burbs to work suggests that we might be able to avoid the prospect of runaway suburban sprawl that was forecast by a recent study by a city planning firm.
The area around Columbus is mostly flat farmland, so it’s not exactly full of scenic wonders. Still, I’d rather keep the fields of amber waves of grain (or, more accurately, corn and soybeans) than see more concrete, Home Depots, and Kohl’s outlets. The city’s footprint doesn’t need to grow any larger. Encouraging people to live downtown, and helping them get to jobs out in the suburbs, is one way of keeping that from happening.
If Gershwin were a Midwestern commuter, he might have written: “Summertime, when the traffic is easy.”
That’s because, at any given point during June, July, and August, a good chunk of the population is on vacation. That means, in turn, a reduced number of cars crowding onto highways and byways at the peak hours. The result, typically, is a smooth and pleasant ride to work.
When school starts up again, though, everything changes — which is why it’s not only schoolchildren who dread the words “back to school.” Vacations are over. School buses and school speed zones are blinking their yellow lights. Everyone is back in town and — what’s worse — everyone is leaving for work at about the same time, after they’ve dropped their kid off at school or the bus stop. People who might have been leaving for work at 8 in July are now on the road at 7.
It’s like the Super Bowl, where everybody is watching the same TV channel and uses the bathroom at the same time, placing huge burdens on municipal sewer systems at the same moment in time. Roads that formerly ran free and easy are now clogged and filled to rank overflowing with traffic, and it stinks.
It’s why September driving is usually the worst and most congested of the year. This week, it was suddenly September traffic in Columbus.
Have you ever been driving, noticed one of your fellow motorists driving like a jerk, and wished there was a police officer there at that instant to catch them?
I witnessed that very scenario this morning, and I felt a sense of deep satisfaction.
I was humping along on I-670, heading into downtown during rush hour. Ahead of me and one lane over an Ohio highway patrol car was part of the normal traffic flow. Suddenly in the rear-view mirror I saw a guy in an overcharged pick-up truck weaving from lane to lane and speeding. I figured he would see the patrol car and slow down — but he was so intent on reveling in his testosterone fix that he kept on, stupidly passed the patrol car on the right, and even sped up as he did so.
I think it’s safe to say that, at that point, every other car on the road was hoping that the patrolman would do his duty and catch the jerk. Many fists undoubtedly were pumped when the officer turned on his lights, lit out after the reckless driver, and pulled him over. I gave him a wave as I passed by.
Anybody who is so inattentive to their surroundings that they don’t notice a police car as they go speeding by deserves what they get.