Woodrow Wilson Service Area, N.J. – New Jersey Turnpike, black sheets of rain. I’ve decided to spend a few days steering myself into the worst rush-hour commutes in the Northeast, and the first leg of the race — from the New York City Financial District to Metuchen, N.J. — ought to be spectacularly nasty: a gladiator run through Lower Manhattan traffic into the Hugh L. Carey (a.k.a. Brooklyn–Battery) Tunnel, bumping through a wide slice of Brooklyn, over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge into Staten Island, all the way across that borough, over another bridge into the industrial wasteland surrounding Perth Amboy, and across the New Jersey Turnpike into Metuchen. (Yeah, New York, I know — that’s not the easiest way to get there.) It’s only 37 miles according to Google Maps, but the combination of obstacles, river crossings, rush-hour departure time, and freezing rain promises to make it into a particularly unpleasant endurance test. In reality, it turns out to be a relatively easy run compared with what else I have in store. Driving through Manhattan is the usual taxi-dodging Thunderdome horror show, but the lines are moving briskly at the tunnel — all praises be upon E-ZPass — the bridges are clear, and traffic is fairly light. Once Staten Island is in the rear-view mirror, the automotive volume thins out quickly, and there’s not much on the road besides me, a guy hauling a truckload of Doritos, Afrika Bambaataa on the radio (having completed his duties as a visiting scholar at Cornell University), and the voice of the GPS lady telling me which way to go. In less than an hour, I’m suburban-home-free and steering myself toward steeper challenges on the freeways of northern Virginia, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the terrifying merge-or-die Schuylkill Expressway.
With the exception of the Escape from New York segment, each of these routes has been at one time or another a daily commute for me, but I travel around the country enough to appreciate that they are not even the worst these United States have to offer. Just outside Metuchen, I spot what I suspect is a big part of the reason for that: The New Jersey Transit commuter train is as tightly packed as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Car commuting in the densely urban Northeast Corridor can be a frustrating waste of time, but for many of those living between Fairfield County and Fairfax County, it is a choice — a choice not really available to the vast majority of commuters in such traffic-addled metropolises as Houston or Atlanta, to say nothing of the poor people of Southern California, where whatever spatio-temporal anomaly governs life requires two hours to get from any given Point A to any given Point B. (On a recent drive from San Pedro to LAX, I averaged 6.25 mph over the course of the 20-mile trip.) Houston, Phoenix, and other big American cities that saw most of their growth in the highway-intensive postwar era are simply too spread out to support the kind of mass transit available in the Northeast. Sun Belt workers are more or less stuck in their cars.
Traffic is a visceral quality-of-life issue.The morning rush-hour commute is pure, unadulterated, Grade A hell for millions of Americans — millions of suburb-dwelling Americans with old-fashioned jobs of the sort that require one to be in a particular place at a particular time doing a particular thing, i.e., low-hanging Republican fruit — an everyday problem that is right here, right now, right on the other side of the windshield. It costs billions of dollars in squandered time and productivity, and in effect extends the 40-hour workweek into 50 or more hours for millions of voters. And it makes people furious.
Liberals love to talk about transportation: They will bend the national ear for hours on end with demands for massive new spending on highway infrastructure, enormous and enormously expensive expansions of public-transportation networks, endless variations on that “Monorail!” song-and-dance number from The Simpsons. But conservatives are pulled in opposing directions: Elected officials with an interest in the problem of traffic congestion, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell the most recent to join them, want to take what they see as pragmatic, good-government steps to better manage the problem, aligning resources and incentives through consumer choice where possible and injecting some accountability into the system.