Commuting sucks. Throughout the evolution of the automobile and the cultures that have adopted it, this has transformed from something that didn't exist to an innate fact. During that evolution, the automobile underwent its own transformation - as a glorified novelty to a legitimate means of transportation to a strange yet perfectly harmonized hybrid of the two (well, a toy if not exactly a novelty)...back to a simple means of transportation. The novelty and toy aspects - the fun aspects - were bred out of the overwhelming choices of most American car consumers. As commuting became the primary use of the car, the consumer started valuing what a car can most mitigate from the stresses of that commute. Unfortunately, that isn't much. It has lead to a lot of ballyhoo as to whether or not car culture is dead or even what the hell it is. There is a very, very basic problem inherent to commuting, and it needs to be solved.
Unfortunately, a solution is far more elusive than you might think. What's traditionally thought of as practical solutions in fact have many of the same exact inherent problems as automotive commuting. I take the freakin' bus/train every damn day, I think I would know.
This is something that's been on my mind for years. Perhaps the biggest problem isn't that it's just a car problem, but a multi-faceted problem - of cars, of mass transit, and if I had to pick only one specific reason, of the massive urban planning failure that characterizes the average American urban center. Yes, I'm going to do a lot of complaining. But I'm hoping that in the process I'll make a few people think about the problem, and maybe start to think of some practical solutions. And because complaining isn't frankly useful without at least some suggestion of solutions, I'll propose a few too - but that's for a later article.
Right now, let's get to the bitching!
It's Not Population Spread, It's Destination Spread
Which city is more efficient to commute in - a large, sprawling city of roughly 25 miles in diameter with huge suburbs - but the vast majority of the suburban population have jobs 5 minutes away - or a small, compact city 10 miles in diameter with no suburban ring - but much of the population lives in one half and has to go over to the other half for work?
Urban sprawl is a part of the problem, but it's just that - strictly one part of the problem. In fact, it might be more useful to define urban sprawl not in terms of population distribution but in destination distribution - in other words, commuting patterns. Let's take a look at the one American city I'm most familiar with: Denver, Colorado.
This is the Westminster "suburb" of Denver, focusing on the Denver-Boulder Turnpike (Highway 36, and not an actual turnpike anymore save for single-occupant HOV access) and Federal Boulevard. As you can see, it's very densely-packed with residential taking up the vast majority of the zoning. I put "suburb" in quotes because it's actually not that far from Downtown - let's zoom out a bit to see:
See, it's pretty close to the I-25/I-70 interchange which will take you straight to downtown jobs or just about anywhere else in the city. Of course, that's a big part of the problem - with so many people coming in from Westminster (or other parts) trying to get to downtown (or other parts), traffic jams are an obvious inevitability.
But what about public transportation you say?
There's Not Enough of It
Here are all the bus stops Google found me:
Yes, it looks like quite a bit, but when you consider how much land area (and housing) is supposed to be served by those bus stops, it's not a lot. Furthermore, not all of those bus routes actually serve where people need to go. The worst part is when you have to actually drive to the bus or train - but we'll get into that in a bit.
It's No More Convenient than Automotive Commuting (At Best)
...Which is about 1% of the time.
Let's take a look at the Seven Hills area, which is a community in Aurora, CO at the fringe where city meets prairie; Seven Hills not only serves as home to those who work at nearby Buckley Air Force Base but for many people who simply want to be away from the city (or military spouses who work elsewhere). It's largely defined by the borders of Hampden Avenue and Tower Road up to where you either run into Buckely AFB to the north or nothing at all to the east:
Let's say you want to go downtown. If you use a car all you have to do is take Hampden Ave down to I-225 and it's smooth sailing (well, traffic jams) from there:
If you elected to take public transportation, your best bet would be to take a bus to the Regional Transportation District (RTD) LightRail Network - they "conveniently" have a major terminal at Parker Road and I-225 that takes you straight to downtown. So you would have to first find a bus stop:
So if you don't happen to live right on that specific corridor of bus stops, you have to walk your ass over to it, then wait for the bus. Yes, RTD does publish their bus schedules, but keep in mind - you're now on their scheduling and convenience. I can tell you from personal experience, this isn't the most fun thing in the world.
But once you're on the bus, it's smooth sailing from there. All you have to do is just ride it out to the LightRail Station - while it takes its meandering route stopping at each station along the way:
But now you've finally reached the LightRail station, so now all you have to do is wait because RTD isn't smart enough to figure out how to make the train schedules and bus schedules actually mesh together (a bit of a practical problem given the number of bus routes served anyway). And then you can finally go downtown while the train stops at its own stations. And when you're done in LoDo you get to do the same in reverse.
Congratulations, you've completely defeated the purpose of trying to save time with public transportation (at best).
Public Transportation involves Automotive Commuting
Or maybe you simply don't feel like waiting for the bus, or maybe a bus route is too far removed from where you live. Don't worry - RTD has a number of (under-serviced, but not under-utilized) Park-N-Rides at your disposal! Sticking with the Seven Hills example above, you can get in your car and park at the Park-N-Ride located at Parker Road and I-225, taking the same LightRail station serviced by said Park-N-Ride. It even includes such amenities as a parking garage.
Unfortunately everybody has the same idea - so if you're commuting during typical rush hours, you're out of luck because that Park-N-Ride is jam full and you're left looking for another one. Fortunately there are Park-N-Rides at I-25 and Hampden (open parking), DTC Boulevard and Arapahoe Road (parking garage) and Lincoln Avenue and I-25 (also a parking garage). They're only about, oh, 10, 12 and something like 20+ miles away. Compounded by the fact that you'll also be fighting traffic along the way.
Congratulations, you've completely defeated the environmental purpose of public transportation (at best).
Public Transportation Isn't Any Less Stressful (At Best)
And all of the above have their own stress factors. Having to modify your sleeping schedule so you can catch whenever the bus happens to come along. Having to waste time simply sitting on the bus, or waiting for the bus or train. Being stuck in traffic so you can drive to the bus or train because you want to avoid traffic (and dealing with the time sacrifices entailed therein too). Being crammed into buses or especially trains at or even beyond full (or sane) occupancy, or missing the train due to over-occupancy.
None of these are faults inherent in public mass transit per se - they're faults in how we've put them together, which is mostly an ad-hoc "lay 'em where we can" process. Unfortunately because it's become so ingrained into the very municipal infrastructure, it's going to be extremely complicated and extremely expensive to rectify this. That's not to say it's not possible - in fact, perhaps with gradual change we'll finally reach parity with our European counterparts. We'll examine how (and further infrastructure problems in detail) in future articles.