Cars Bad

An intractable problem.

Image: Bernard Spragg via Flickr

As a technology, the motor vehicle is bad at preserving human life. According to the World Health Organization, the hurtling metal machines that provide our basic transportational freedom kill about a million people every year. Another downside to these things is that, even if the market for automobiles that don’t light a tremendous volume of petroleum-based liquids on fire is rapidly expanding (especially in China), the version that still features the internal combustion engine treats our earth very badly. Nevertheless, because of our structural dependence on these contrivances, any blanket “cars are bad” position comes off as shortsighted. In much of America, you “need a car.” People who live in rural or suburban areas can’t hop on their Schwinns to go pick up their CSA basket on the way back from their conveniently located WeWork space.

But there is one part of driving that even a coal-rolling asshole would have trouble defending: commuting in traffic. The process of getting to work in general is bad enough, as evidenced by well-known study of Texas women who ranked the morning commute as the least satisfying activity in their day—even below actual work. As Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic—an exhaustive romp through the bizarre, mostly dehumanized world of driving—points out, we’ve also been shown to prefer short commutes to none at all, so our general feelings about the very act of commuting are bit complicated; still, in terms of public health, the physical and psychological effects of long, congested trips to work are quite bad. This, from another oft-cited study of commuting, by researchers at the University of Zurich, sums up the effects of slumping over in a wheeled stress pod, for over an hour, five days per week:

The strain of commuting is associated with raised blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, lowered frustration tolerance and increased anxiety and hostility, being in a bad mood when arriving at work in the morning and coming home in the evening, increased lateness, absenteeism and turnover at work, as well as adverse effects on cognitive performance.

We do lots of things every day that are bad for our bodies and our minds, but the mental and physical stress of commuting is particularly pernicious. The psychologist Daniel Gilbert, an authority on the phenomenon known as “human well-being,” attributes the adverse effects of commuting to the fundamental unpredictability of busy roads. “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day,” Gilbert told the Wall Street Journal. According to Gilbert, humans are remarkably good at refashioning our concept of satisfaction in the face of awful circumstances. Broken neck? We can bounce back and lead happy lives. But commute in the unrelenting and variable chaos of traffic? We’re constantly beset by new stresses, and we may end up, along with the above ailments, with a higher likelihood of divorce.

But let’s not limit the deleterious effects of this nearly universal daily activity on our entire being, families and planet. What about the people who aren’t themselves commuting, but live near commuters in their private climate-controlled boxes. On top of already-established links between cardiovascular problems and air pollution, if you live near a congested highway, you’re breathing in fine particles that lower “good cholesterol,” needed for the minor function of pumping blood through your bodies. Whoops?

Okay, so unending, congested commutes, which are getting worse, seem very stupid. Why do we do this again? For one, we want to live in places that are good and affordable and we want to work for companies that are good and pay us enough to afford our rent. Often these two places are far from each other (or they take a long time to travel between during rush hour). According to the University of Zurich scientists quoted above, we tend to discount the negative effects of a long commute in light of the supposed benefits of a capacious, dope garage. And it’s not like we immediately change our lives as a response to the horrible pain we’re inflicting on ourselves. We get stuck in jobs and apartments/homes, and we grin and bear it because humans are tough but stupid and very good at having decisions bite us directly in the ass.

Another reason so many of us commute in terrible traffic is that, in “cool” cities with lot of jobs, congestion is more or less inescapable. But everything would be better if we could just solve the traffic problem, right? First of all, as Vanderbilt mentions, congestion itself is more of a “problem to be solved” from the vantage of someone sitting in it than it is from other perspectives. From the point of view of a city’s economic health, traffic is good: again, it tells us that there are lots of people who can afford cars and are going to jobs. If there are a bunch of miserable sedentary people sitting on the noisy, polluted highways, clenched with anxiety and nascent scoliosis, it’s a small price to pay. Even from the point of view of a traffic engineer, an empty highway is a worse sign than a congested one because it shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Still, life would be better for the sad, commuting hordes if traffic moved better. Politicians and engineers have tried their best since Imperial Rome to at least mitigate congestion, without too much success. Because of the bizarre, unpredictable, and often counterintuitive dynamics that govern traffic, it’s extremely hard to alleviate. For instance, the first solution that a layman might suggest is building more roads. Well, there’s a problem with that: more roads often create more traffic. This phenomenon can be partially explained mathematically, through something called the Braess Paradox (have fun wrapping your head around that one).

Simply put, if there are enough cars on the road, traffic engineers can only perform triage. Driving to work in LA will always be hellish because people will always want to live there, and the capacities of the roads and highways will always be far exceeded; even if more roads did help with traffic, there isn’t money to build them. So traffic gurus and urban planners can only make your commute slightly less hellish, if that. Just be glad you’re not trying to get to work in São Paulo, where lane-splitting motorcycles (much more dangerous than cars) are needed to transport sick people to hospitals.

Even in an ideal world where everyone has access to good public transportation, traffic might still end up being terrible. If you have a big enough city with enough people, any increased capacity—like if LA’s subway system instantly improved, and half the people commuting by car switched over—the eased congestion would, in turn, incentivize people to take to the roads again. Basically, in huge, affluent cities, if there is any opening in useful transportation capacity, it is immediately maxed out.

In order to achieve a true transportation utopia, LA would not only have to expand and speed up its subway system, but they’d also have to tear down the highways. This sort of truly transformative transportation policy, or even a vaguely anti-car stance, is still mostly a political non-starter in the U.S. Ten years ago, when Mayor Bloomberg proposed a congestion pricing scheme for Manhattan—similar to those that have worked in London and Stockholm—he was laughed at by the state legislature. Criticism of the plan was rooted in the idea that working-class commuters, who mostly don’t get to Manhattan via car, would bear the cost. Since then, more sophisticated, data-driven proposals for dynamic congestion pricing have been developed, most notably by Charles Komanoff (vocal critic of Mayor de Blasio’s gym commutes). But only very recently, with New York City transit in crisis, has the issue reentered the political discussion, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he’s considering a pricing plan to ease traffic. Perhaps he should also not encourage people in New York City drive to work.

If there’s a saving grace to the seemingly unsolvable problem of commuting in your damn car, it comes from a counterintuitive theme that runs through Vanderbilt’s book: Though your trip to work through chaotic city traffic is extremely unhealthy for you, you’re much less likely to get into a serious or fatal accident than if you were driving home down a familiar country lane. When we’re coursing through the unpredictable maelstrom of urban rush hour, we drive more slowly, and the psychological biases and risk-assessment ineptitudes inherent in driving are more subdued because we’re more alert to variability. When we’re comfortable, zooming casually home in the suburbs, down a familiar road, where our neighbor always seems to be repainting his gazebo, we’re much more likely to fall asleep, to look at our phones for a second or two longer, or to take it for granted that Mr. Gazebo will not speed out of his driveway because he ran out of gazebo paint.

Still, those of us mired in the degradation of modern rush hour shouldn’t exactly feel lucky. We should feel kind of fucked. We should feel like we’re stuck with inefficient, wasteful killing machines whose sheer convenience and outdated mythos of transportational liberty have veiled the low-grade physical and mental torture they cause us on our way to work. And although the economic realities of city life are making it harder to live close to our offices, or really anything at all worth living near, we’re still entirely complicit in the societal ill of the shitty automobile commute. Like most large-scale problems that require fundamental personal and infrastructural changes, this one has to become more blatantly dire before we do anything about it. Too bad a collective Michael Douglas-in-Falling Down is waiting behind several other cataclysms. At least we won’t have to drive to work when the streets are underwater.