For 22 years, my friend Pat commuted from his home in Silver Spring, Md., to his job in Tysons, Va. By the end, he was a husk, a shell. All that had been joyful and happy in him had been sucked out and he wore the haunted look of a castaway found floating alone on an overturned lifeboat after months at sea.
“At first it was about 35 minutes each way, and if you left early, say 4:30 p.m., it wasn’t too bad getting home,” Pat said. “By 2012 it was 45 to 60 minutes in, and an hour-fifteen or an hour-and-a-half home, unless you took off by 12:20 p.m. And that was on a day with no rain or snow. With a light dusting and an early release for the federal government I was looking at three hours to travel the 15 miles to get home.”
Pat finally had to take a job in Southern California to restore his soul. Traffic can be horrendous there, too, of course, but where he lives it takes him 20 minutes to get to and from work, 30 if things are really bad. Plus he plucks lemons from a tree in his front yard and avocados from a neighbor’s. Paradise, truly.
My Lovely Wife’s office just moved to Tysons. I’ve started monitoring her for signs of soul depletion.
It’s still too early to tell. That’s because summer commuting is nonrepresentative. Still, it’s given us a taste of that particular journey.
Ruth hates to drive, and she definitely hates to sit in traffic. She’s a die-hard Metro user, which became a challenge this summer after the Red Line was severed. At first, she took a bus down 16th Street to catch the Silver Line to Tysons. Then the frequency of Silver Line trains was reduced. If the Russian army had wanted to stop Napoleon from invading, it should have put Metro in charge of Moscow’s defense.
For a few days, we experimented with me driving Ruth to work. It was a breeze, actually. Leave Silver Spring by 7 a.m. on an August morning and you’re in Tysons by 7:25. True, you then have to put in a 12-hour day, since the Inner Loop is jam-packed until about 7 p.m.
After dropping Ruth off, I would head downtown to my office. By then, of course, traffic had firmed up, like a chemical compound that instantly goes from a gas to a solid. It would take me an hour to creep to work, longer when school started back up again.
I especially dreaded passing one of those lighted “Your Speed” signs in Falls Church. When the speed limit is 25 mph and the sign says you’re doing 7, you can’t help but feel like someone is mocking you.
So what is the answer? Public transportation that is widespread, frequent and reliable, for starters. Services like Uber and Lyft have their place, too, though that’s expensive. I was Ruth’s personal chauffeur, doing free what they would have charged her about $25 for.
I don’t think we should be widening the Beltway or building another bridge over the Potomac. That makes traffic better for a little while, but then just invites more vehicles, which in the long run clog things up as bad as they were before.
No, I’m convinced that the way to eliminate rush-hour traffic jams is to get rid of commuters. If more people could do their jobs from home, they wouldn’t need to climb into their cars.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wants to spend $9 billion to widen the Beltway, I-270 and the B-W Parkway. What if that money was instead invested in a Manhattan Project-style public works effort that made telecommuting a hundred times better than it is now?
What if the Washington area was constantly blanketed in a mesh of free high-speed WiFi with all the Mbps you could ever need? Imagine working on a home computer that didn’t keep freezing when you were trying to Skype, that didn’t kick you off your company’s VPN every time a squirrel sneezed. Imagine collaborative software that didn’t leave you wondering if you’re working on the same version of a document as your colleague. Imagine virtual-reality goggles that put you in the same virtual room.
Imagine if broadband was thought of the same way we think of water. Clean, plentiful water is important not just for its immediate benefit — it slakes thirst — but for its long-term importance: It improves citizens’ health. And healthy citizens make for a healthier society.
The Internet should be the same.
This wouldn’t work for all jobs. If you’re a waiter in a restaurant or a worker in a factory, it’s hard to telecommute. But for many people, especially around Washington, seamless, dependable, free Internet could make sitting for three hours a day in traffic a thing of the past.
Think of all the souls we could save.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.