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The Joys of Not Driving to Work
For nearly 14 years of my working life, I was a long-distance commuter, making the daily journey from Guelph to either downtown Toronto or to the northeastern border of the city. In either case, the journey was 100 kilometres (60 miles) each way. For two-plus of those years, I traveled alone by automobile. For another four years, I drove five kilometres (3 miles) daily in town to work and for two more I drove about 6 km (3 miles) during half the year and cycled the remaining months.
In my early days of commuting, the long distances were necessary because housing near Toronto was too expensive for my level of earnings. Even when we eventually bought a house, the difference in price between Guelph and Toronto was at least three-fold. Commuting was a cheaper option than living closer to the office. Since I hate to drive, I found that taking public transportation was a good option.
When I began commuting in 1974, the weekly cost by express bus was $18 per week. I was paying about $500 in rent for a three-bedroom townhouse. Such accommodations in the city cost at least $1000, plus you still had to get to work from there either by car or by public transit, which in Toronto was excellent. The downside of this long-distance commuting was that I left home just after 6 a.m. and arrived back home just after 6 p.m. Four of my days allotment of hours were spent in transit. Some on the bus and some walking to/from the bus on both ends. (I determined I walked about 6 km (3.75 miles) per day.)
After 11 years of this, I just wore out. I tried my hand at private consulting, but after a year this proved untenable. My next place of employment was not convenient to sensible commuting by public transit so I was forced to drive 200 km per day. Fortunately this only lasted two years before I was able to obtain a job in the town were I lived and reduce the distance to work to a 10 km round-trip.
During the time I was commuting to Toronto, I developed two insights about the practice from two different perspectives. The prime one was this: When God handed out common sense to folks before they were born, occasionally he ran out. These people eventually become commuters. Yes, folks, it took me ten years to come to the realization that anyone commuting over 10 km to work daily was lacking in common sense. The second states that: If you must commute, public transit is the only way to go.
I was therefore happy when I read an article in The Financial Post back on September 19, 1997 by Jonathan Chevreau headlined Ten Reasons to Ditch the Car for the Commuter Train or Bus. While environmental and voluntary simplicity publications have championed the concept for years, it was good to see a prominent business-oriented publication put forward the premise that driving a car to work is an over-rated and expensive luxury. Chevreau begins by stating that the current traffic congestion levels in big cities and the deterioration of driving manners suggests it may be time to re-evaluate current attitudes toward public transit. He goes further to show that the savings of a daily commute from the suburb of Oakville to downtown Toronto, a distance of about 50 km (30 mi), by taking train or bus transit versus driving would be about $4,300 per year. With recent hikes in gasoline prices, the figure could be much higher than it was in 1997.
Chevreau's ten reasons are sound although I do not agree with his ranking order. Here they are in my order of importance with my commentary.
1. Helping the Environment: According to figures from the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs, using transit rather than driving 50 kilometres would reduce the annual emission of exhausts substantially: 13.5 kg of various hydrocarbon compounds; 100 kg of carbon monoxide; 7 kg of nitrogen oxides and 1,517 kg of carbon dioxide. From studies undertaken during my years with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, there would also be a substantial reduction in the amount of metal-containing particles in the air as well. Figures in the late 1970s showed thousands of tonnes of chromium, aluminum and iron from body corrosion, rubber from tire wear, and asbestos from brake wear were released into the air over Toronto each year.
The hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides combine to form photochemical smog. Carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases implicated in global climate change. CFC and related compounds released from automobile air conditioners destroy the ozone layer and are greenhouse gases. These are just some of the environmental impacts of driving a vehicle and do not address the manufacturing of it and its fuels, or the impacts of road construction.
A full bus replaces 20 to 40 single-occupant cars on the road; a commuter train a similar amount per passenger car and most trains have at least four such cars. The emission of pollutants and usage of fuel per passenger-kilometre are much less for a bus or train than for a single-occupancy car or truck.
2. Saving Money: According to the Canadian Automobile Association, the cost of operating a car averaged about 36 cent per kilometre in 1997 when you consider fuel, insurance and maintenance. Parking and interest charges on the car loan are likely not included in that figure. The cost may be higher for certain vehicle types such as SUVs, small vans and trucks.
As Chevreau has shown, you can save over $4,300 per year by using public transit and much more if by doing so you can avoid the need for a second vehicle. Because I used public transportation, we only briefly owned two vehicles. That lasted about a month before we realized that we were paying insurance on a vehicle which rarely left the driveway.
Using the vehicle less may also extend its lifetime by reducing the wear and tear of daily driving. My first car lasted 13 years and had but 136,000 km (85,000 mi) on it when I finally sold it. The second, which I used for the two years of commuting, had nearly 200,000 km (125,000 mi) in six years, and it was ready for the junk pile by then.
3. Safety: Driving long distances every day increases the risk of an accident that results in property damage and can leave driver and passengers crippled or dead. Even the most cautious driver cannot protect against poor road conditions due to weather or other unsafe drivers. I always felt better in the winter in a good sturdy bus or train when roads became slippery.
4. Reduction of Highway Congestion: This is your good deed for your fellow citizens. By taking transit, you help decrease the number of vehicles on the roads and highways. The results of this action are less pollution in the area, safer driving conditions for those on the road, faster commuting times and reduced need for larger roads. Reduced traffic decreases the potential of grid-lock and helps lower stress levels for those on the roads. Highways may be less congested when you must use your car (for special meetings, etc.), thus reducing your stress level. Perhaps, by encouraging the use of public transit, the growing level of road rage in our cities would be halted.
5. Increased Health: Injuries in accidents aside, taking public transportation can improve your overall physical and mental health by eliminating the stress of driving in traffic. This may have long-term health benefits which may lessen or avoid future medical costs. If you can walk between home and the transit stop and/or between the office and the transit stop, you will be giving yourself some healthy exercise for both your mind and body. When I was commuting by bus to work, the daily walks on both ends of the commute gave me a good deal of exercise, at times it was all I got.
6. Increased Leisure or Work Time: By taking public transportation, you gain the time you would have wasted behind the wheel to read or catch up on paper work. With the advent of laptop computers, you can extend your productive time in many other areas or just play a game to unwind.
During my commuting years, I read a book or two a week on the bus, ranging from fiction to areas of new interest. During the eleven years on the bus, I likely learned as much from reading during the three-hour daily rides as in ten or more years of schooling. Talking books are now widely available for those who have troubles reading in a moving vehicle. These tapes cover a wide variety of subjects and often are the source for lectures in home study courses.
Other times I had interesting conversations with fellow riders (we were our own little community of regulars) and took much needed naps which left me refreshed for other activities in the evening, such as spending time with the family.
7. Time for Meditation and Contemplation: Chevreau is right on the money when he states that commuter buses and trains are some of the quietest places today. Regular commuters generally value the privacy and solitude that commuting offers them. As a rider rather than a driver, one can formally meditate or just daydream while gazing out the window and watching the world go by. The changing seasons, storms, beautiful sunrises or sunsets are just some of the things unfolding outside the window that we would otherwise miss or not appreciate. And these days it is hard to find a place, which can rival an hour on a bus or train, where we are not bombarded with demands, ringing phones or other distractions.
8. Provide a Buffer Zone: For many who drive home from work, there is not a sufficient buffer between our workplace life and our private life. We jump into the car at the office still carrying the demands of the day, fight with traffic and discourteous drivers and arrive home with adrenalin pumping from the fight-or-flight situations we have encountered. Once home, we walk into the door with stress reactions high and jump on the often reasonable requests of spouse and children with the fierceness of a pitbull. When we use public transit, we have an opportunity to decompress from the demands of the workplace and generally arrive home in a much friendlier frame of mind.
On the other end of the day, the commuting buffer provided by using transit allows us to begin our day in a more leisurely manner. We can get our brains properly switched from sleep states to the work day, perhaps doing some planning for the upcoming day along the way.
9. Time to Enjoy Good Music: The walkman tape and CD players offer the transit commuter the opportunity to enjoy soothing music which can help enhance the advantages of the buffer zone or meditation/contemplation time. You can even learn about various composers or artists. Libraries offer a wide selection of listening materials for loan. When driving, our attention should be focused on the road and maneuvering the vehicle from point to point. This does not allow the opportunity for the mind to truly listen.
10. Watching the World Go By: Chevreau calls this The Window on Pop Culture, a time for checking out what are the public's current tastes in reading (or clothing). I think it gives a good opportunity not only to watch for trends in pop culture, but for people watching. Okay, for a little listening too. It's hard not to overhear a conversation. This can give you an insight to what the man or woman in the street is thinking about current events, sports, or fashion, or just plain human relations. I learned a lot in my time from conversations "blowing in the wind."
I am sure I could come up with a number of additional reasons to take public transit rather than a private vehicle. Consider those given above but be open to other things which may occur. I found a good friend while commuting, perhaps for some of you, romance may blossom. Others may find new career interests or business opportunities during these times. You never know. What I do know is that, if you must travel a long distance from home to work, public transportation is the only sensible way to go.
The Joys of Not Driving to Work by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©2001, All Rights Reserved.
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