Training Session

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.

Advantage, Columbus

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.

03amtrak-master768It’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.

When Walking Is Faster Than Driving

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.

IMG_4800About 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.

I’m very much enjoying my walks into work.

15 Minutes Early

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 New Columbus Bus Line

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.

IMG_3045When 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.

Suddenly, September Traffic

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.

Just Desserts

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.

Chris Christie’s Rep

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie finds himself trapped in a weird and growing scandal. It’s a huge potential problem for a man who apparently entertains visions of a run for the presidency, because the scandal goes to the very core of Christie’s reputation.

The scandal involves communications by a member of Christie’s staff in which she apparently instructed that two lanes on the George Washington Bridge that links New Jersey and New York City to be closed for no reason other than to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had not supported Christie’s recent reelection campaign. The unnecessary closures caused four days of gridlock in Fort Lee and around the bridge and lots of anguish for travelers trapped in a commuting hell traffic snarl. There are apparently no emails or texts showing the Christie himself was directly aware of the decision to close the lanes to exact some political retribution, and in fact he denies knowledge of the actions and criticized the staffers once the communications were disclosed.

In New Jersey — a state that many associate with a highway, the New Jersey Turnpike — commuting, lane closures, and passages to New York City are serious stuff. But this grotesque misuse of power involves much higher stakes for Christie because it undercuts his image. Outside of New Jersey, he has a reputation as a kind of pragmatic populist — a bluff, plain-talking everyman who will get the job done for the people of his state, even if it means standing up to entrenched interests like teachers unions or enduring the criticism of the conservative wing of his own party. There is nothing pragmatic or populist about causing unnecessary angst and delays for New Jersey commuters to achieve some kind of cheap political payback, however. Indeed, it’s exactly the kind of stupid political stunt that you can imagine Christie blasting with his customary bluntness.

It remains to be seen whether there is evidence that Christie had any involvement in this incident, and his personal response to the incident and related investigation will tell a lot about its likely impact on his career. For now, the incident looks like it could be as permanently damaging for Christie’s rep as the disastrous rollout of the healthcare.gov website has been to President Obama’s carefully cultivated image for cool competence. The difference is that President Obama isn’t going to be running for President in 2016.

The Commute From Hell

I’ve worked in Columbus since 1986.  This morning was the worst commute I’ve ever had here.  I’m not exaggerating.  It took me two hours to complete a drive that normally takes about 25 minutes, and I’m not quite sure where and how the breakdown occurred.

Sure, it started snowing about 4 a.m. — but the snow was forecast long ago, and you’d think the authorities would have been prepared with salt and snowplow.  Instead, when I hit 161 at 6:45 a.m., which is about 15 minutes earlier than normal, the roads were completely snow covered, there were several icy patches, and the traffic was inching along at the breakneck clip of about two miles an hour — with frequent stops mixed in. 

IMG_1653The worst thing about such a commute is that there is no way to make a right decision.  My theory is that lane movement is pretty consistent from lane to lane and therefore frequent lane changes don’t provide an advantage until you reach a point where normal traffic flow would warrant a shift. In snow, however, many people drive like idiots, and when rush hour is a disaster they become even more reckless.  This morning school buses and tractor trailers were trying to use merge lanes to pass long lines of cars on the right and then jam back into the flow.  Obviously, that didn’t help.   

This isn’t New York City or another metropolis where two hour commutes are standard.  People come to Columbus to get away from this kind of frustrating, infuriating, nerve-jangling disaster.  Today reminded me precisely why we made that decision.  When I finally got to my parking space, the new-fallen snow looked very pretty on the trees lining Gay Street, and I calmed down and enjoyed the pretty sight.  I just hope I never have a commute like that again. 

Time Versus Stress

Lately my commute to and from work has become more and more difficult.  It’s forcing me to make one of those tough choices that often confront modern Americans — between time and stress.

In days gone by I would leave the house a little before 7 a.m., encounter light traffic on 161, see a moderate increase in traffic as I moved onto I-270 and finally I-670, and then cruise down Third Street.  Absent an accident, I made it downtown in about 25 minutes and almost never had to stop on the freeway.

Those days, sadly, are over.  Even though I leave at the same time, traffic has gotten much worse.  I often hit bumper-to-bumper congestion as soon as I merge onto 161 and routinely have to come to a dead stop on I-270 and I-670 as I inch my way downtown.  It may be the increasing number of people who are living in the northeast part of town, or perhaps it’s a change in traffic patterns brought about by the highway construction that has occurred over the past few years.  Whatever the reason, there are many more cars clogging up my formerly free-wheeling route.

The bad traffic means more stress.  People who are frustrated by the gridlock change lanes abruptly.  Some drivers — always the ones in front of you, of course — make no effort to close up gaps between them and the traffic ahead, so cars cut in constantly.  You’re stuck behind a bus or a semi and can’t see what’s going on down the road.  When traffic comes to a sudden stop, you worry about whether the driver of the car charging up to your rear is paying attention or will plow into you because he’s been checking his Facebook page on his cell phone.

Avoiding this kind of nerve-jangling commute is why I started leaving the house just before 7 a.m. in the first place.  So now I’ve got a new choice — leave 15 minutes earlier and beat the increased traffic, or just endure the increased stress.  Today I’ve decided to sacrifice the time to avoid the stress, but I’m not particularly happy about it.

Hollywood Love-Hate On The Cuyahoga

I’m up in Cleveland for meetings today, as I look out my window I see what looks like the scene of a terrible traffic accident, with a car flipped on its roof and onlookers gathered around.

IMG_3782Fortunately, it’s not an accident scene, it’s just on-location shooting for Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, which is filming in Cleveland this week.  That film is the latest action thriller to be shot along the shores of Lake Erie, where some of the street scenes for The Avengers were filmed.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I’m guessing that someone in Captain America is going to get into a car accident at some point during the movie.

As a visitor to the city, it’s interesting for me to watch the careful prep work for the scene.  You begin to dimly understand the jobs of the key grips, second unit directors, and other curious titles that scroll by in the credits at the end of films.  First the overturned car gets placed, then some kind of light barrier is put into position, then cameras are adjusted and moved, then electrical cables are strung out.  There are dozens of people involved in the exercise.

IMG_3786For Clevelanders, however, this filming is a love-hate thing.  They like the abstract notion of big-budget movies being shot in Cleveland.  It’s cool, and it makes their city seem cool, and they know that it brings jobs and publicity and money to their fair city, all of which are good things.

But Clevelanders are, at bottom, practical Midwesterners.  Once filming begins the novelty wears off and the reality of closing major freeways and thoroughfares sinks in.  This traffic accident scene is being shot in front of the Cleveland Public Library on blocked-off Superior Avenue — which would otherwise be bustling with cars and buses full of people going to work.  Today, they’ve had to make alternative arrangements.

Snowing, Blowing, Drifting

It’s been a mild winter so far, but last night the weather turned.  By this morning we had snow on the ground, more is falling, and a sharp wind is pushing the snow into drifts and turning the falling snow into little cutting blades that prick your face as you walk.  It’s not great weather for us glasses wearers.

This is a day to leave early, take it easy on the roads, and hope that school cancellations reduce the traffic flow.  The first snowy commute is always an unwelcome adventure.

The Elusive Alternative Route

The I-670 ramp to Third Street, which provides access from the east side to downtown Columbus, is closed for extensive repairs.  It will be closed for months.

It’s only one of thousands — make that hundreds of thousands — of highway ramps in the United States.  But for me, it’s perhaps the most important ramp.  Its closure means that my principal route to work, the one that has been ingrained into my brain and every fiber of my being after years of mindless commuting, is not available.  It means that I have to get out of my mental rut, abandon my snug comfort zone, and find another route to the heart of downtown Columbus during the morning rush hour.  It means I have to experiment with alternatives during a time of day when hastily selected alternative routes usually mean delay and disaster.

So far I’ve tried two options.  The planned alternative has the weird, jury-rigged feel you often get with traffic engineer reroutings.  You exit I-670 at I-71, follow a narrow, two-lane channel between temporary barricades, then make a hairpin two-lane exit onto Spring Street.  I’ve taken that route several times, two of which embroiled me in significant traffic jams.  The other option was an experiment that ended in colossal failure.  I exited I-670 one stop early, wound through some city streets, then found myself snarled in complete gridlock around the Columbus State campus.  I won’t be trying that option again.

I’m steeling myself for the challenge of finding that elusive alternative route that will take me smoothly downtown on uncongested streets.  In the meantime, I’m just going to brace myself — and leave 10 minutes earlier than normal.

Starting The Day Off With A Troubling Jam

Today I’m holding my breath about getting to work, because yesterday’s morning drive caused me to realize, once again, that many of my fellow commuters are dangerous lunatics.

Sometime early yesterday a tanker truck overturned near the intersection of Route 161 and I-270, two of the major roads in Columbus.  Both highways were closed in both directions for the entire morning rush hour.  As a result, thousands of cars that normally use those arteries had to find alternative routes, and the entire east side of Columbus quickly became a paralyzed mass of red-faced, frustrated drivers.  Every road heading in the direction of downtown was filled with cars inching along, bumper to bumper, going nowhere.

It’s amazing how quickly the veneer of civilization is ripped away when this kind of thing happens.  After a few minutes of delay and the horrifying sight of long lines of stationary cars, drivers get the sinking feeling that this is going to be bad — and then the inner savage appears.  Selfish drivers blithely block intersections as traffic lights change, infuriating everyone trying to get through the crossing.  Drivers recklessly weave in and out, change lanes to move forward a single car length, and abruptly make illegal U-turns.  Some people will drive on the berm, and other self-nominated traffic code enforcers try to block them from doing so.

You look at the well-dressed people in the stopped cars around you, gesturing angrily or beating their hands against the steering wheel, and you wonder whether they shouldn’t be wearing face paint and bearskins.

Was It Worth It?

As I noted recently, the President has been on a three-day bender of fundraising and campaigning, sufficiently leavened with “non-political” events to justify the taxpayers picking up most of the tab for the trip.  Monday night he was in Los Angeles to attend an upscale fundraiser at a Hollywood producer’s house that netted a cool $1 million.

That nice pot of cash came at a price, however.  Because the President traveled to the producer’s home by motorcade, the Secret Service had to close down roads that just happened to be some of the major arteries in the L.A. area.  Traffic ground to a halt and commuters were trapped in seemingly endless gridlock.  As the Los Angeles Times reports, virtually everyone who was unfortunate enough to be on the road at that time — regardless of their political affiliation — was furious at the President and his insensitivity to the impact he was having on their lives.

So President Obama came away from L.A. with lots of money but lots of bad feeling from voters, too.  His apparent lack of awareness of the fact that he was inconveniencing thousands of people just so he could attend a political event may end up being one of those little incidents, insignificant in its own right, that nevertheless accumulates in peoples’ minds until the balance gets tipped in one direction or the other.  President Obama and the First Lady already are being criticized for their vacations and lavish lifestyles.  A fundraising visit that mires thousands of tired commuters in a frustrating, unmoving hell of hot asphalt and exhaust fumes may well contribute to the President’s growing reputation as an elitist who doesn’t really understand average Americans or their lives.  If that reputation gets fixed in the minds of voters, it will be awfully difficult to change.