Beyond Road Rage

By Andrea Perkins

I'm writing this while driving down Highway 101 on a sunny weekday afternoon. Not too far off, I'm sure the gulls must be cawing, the waves must be crashing, and the breeze, unhindered, must be rustling through the long grass ...

Did I say driving? Try parking. It's 4:48 p.m., and a minute ago, I was imperceptibly rolling. Now I'm most definitely stuck. In. Traffic. While thus situated, I may as well make use of the time and do something constructive.

Obviously, this is what the guy behind me has decided to do. He is bleaching his roots in the rearview mirror. People in other cars chat nonchalantly on cell phones or indulge in nervous habits such as hair-twisting, mustache-tweaking and nail-nibbling. The woman on my right is feverishly punching keys on what looks like a calculator. Perhaps, like me, she's reckoning the hours per annum she loses driving at less than 5 mph on the freeway.

The average commuter traveling 30 minutes one way will spend around 10 entire days on the road every year. That's some people's entire paid vacation. Ten days, that is, if traffic is moving at an average of 60 mph -- which during commute hours, it most certainly is not.

It takes Sharon Helmholz an hour to get to the school in Cupertino where she teaches second grade, though she crosses less than a 30-mile distance. "I figure I spend about one month a year driving to and from work," she says. Sharon, like hundreds of thousands of other Californians, accepts this as a normal part of life. One month a year is more than 10 percent of it, 10 percent of a life spent behind the wheel...

"While modern technology has increased life spans, it has also necessitated traffic, which actually zaps entire years away from life, if you think about it," suggests Carl Reynold, owner of a Honda repair shop in San Francisco. He commutes for an hour and a half every day, five days a week. "I mean, are you really alive when you're driving? Maybe the real reason why most of us feel that our days are too short is because we spend a good portion of them rotting in our cars."

One of the more profound statements to be found in the California Driver's Handbook is that "Driving is a privilege, not a right." We Americans have always been passionate about automobiles, and viewed them as potent symbols of our freedom. Reaching an age at which they are eligible for a driver's licence is one of the major crossroads in life for Americans. Depriving us of a car is equivalent to taking away our very liberty. For an American, driving is a right, like the right to bear arms or the right to remain silent.

"People will not give up their cars," says Greg Bayol, chief of public affairs at Caltrans and an avid car-pooler. "Right now in California, there is more than one car per person," he adds.

That means more than 35 million cars. Some might conclude that our passionate love of individual liberty is killing us.

The guy on my left is absently mumbling along with Phil Collins. I know it's Phil Collins because my window is rolled down and his stereo is cranked up to the maximum. I take a few moments to revel privately in my hatred for that balding has-been pop artist before continuing my keen perusal of my fellow victims. Each victim is alone, isolated inside a private, plush capsule with dual airbags, eyes blinking vacantly at the licence plate ahead. Although it may be another 45 minutes or more before any of us are able to shift out of first gear, there is a certain complacency in the air.

For many, this is no emergency. It happens every day. These commuters surrounding me on all sides are well beyond road rage. I get the sense that they have made their peace with the situation. Some of them even look quite meditative in their Civics and Corollas. Indeed, they seem somehow satisfied in their mid-life crisis sports cars, their sensible mini vans, their fashionable SUVs...

An SUV is a Sports Utility Vehicle. The word "utility" suggests something, well, useful, in some way other than getting (very slowly) to the office. An SUV's powerful V6 or V8 engine is, after all, designed to pull a small house, its deluxe suspension to withstand falls of up to three stories. These incredibly well-made and ingeniously crafted machines are not only built to do more than 5 mph, but, in the hands of less passive motorists, could conceivably leave the highway altogether, revving over small shrubs and retaining walls. However, few SUV owners ever really consider taking these $30,000-plus objects "off road." But the real problem with SUVs (as I've decided while sitting here behind a huge Expedition) is that SUVs guzzle more gasoline, an already very limited resource, thus exuding more pollutants into our delicate ecosystem.

Of course, who am I to talk? I'm sitting in a pick-up truck. While it is certainly affordable and relatively environmentally sound (27 miles per gallon), how often do I actually haul big rocks with it - or anything, for that matter? Isn't that what a truck is for? For hauling? Do I really need this truck to get stuck in traffic? Here I am, taking up more space than I deserve, and . . . But I digress.

"SUVs look good, and if you're going to be stuck in traffic, you may as well look good doing it," says Marilyn Reese, an advertising executive and proud owner of a spanking new silver Toyota 4-Runner.

"Surviving daily traffic requires a mixture of surrender and denial," adds her more pensive husband, Henry, who has been commuting on Highway 17 for 27 years. "It didn't used to be like this." Henry is recalling the day when you worked in the city where you lived, and driving was a pleasure, reserved for winding country roads on Sunday afternoons.

"People used to walk to work," reminisces Bayol. "The suburbs changed all that. In the Bay Area it's even worse, because the job areas are no longer centered in San Francisco and Oakland. This causes congestion in not just one but several directions."

According to this year's Traffic Congestion Report, "The nine-county San Francisco Bay Area is the third most congested metropolitan area in the United States." Congestion on Bay Area freeways has increased by 24 percent in the last two years and regularly occurs at 145 different locations each day, affecting 327 directional miles of freeway. The morning commute over the Sunol Grade on Highway 680 in Alameda County currently holds the dubious distinction of being the most congested spot in the region. The busiest stretch of road is around the Army Street exit off Route 101 in San Francisco, which 285,000 vehicles traverse every day.

"Even though we have implemented and completed many major highway improvements, regional congestion continues to grow," says Bayol. "Housing shortages and rising costs contribute to the congestion problem by forcing workers into longer commutes."

According to the report, "Overall daily delays in the Bay Area are almost twice the 58,600 vehicle-hours of delay per day recorded 10 years ago." Also increasing is the duration of commute periods. In some places, peak periods now last up to five hours. It is estimated that this costs Bay Area residents $1.25 million a day in excess fuel and time.

So, what is to be done about the traffic? Governor Gray Davis' Traffic Congestion Relief Plan has set aside $5.33 billion to attend to the question. Of this, $1.5 billion is to be devoted to the Bay Area alone. The plan focuses on rail, mass transit and highway improvements and extensions, in addition to a further expansion of the region's ferry service. However, it is difficult to predict what these overall long-term plans for transportation in the Bay Area will accomplish, since legislation passed since 1988 has given most of that planning authority over to local agencies.

"Alternative forms of transportation need to be made more accessible," says Bayol. "Right now, it's cheaper to have two people in a car than to ride BART."

Well, I'm still here and I'm still a part of the problem. After taking a few deep breaths, I begin to appreciate the rhythmic purr of all these new engines as they idle in the now setting sun. I'm beginning to see that traffic is a changing, organic entity, something akin to an exotic, rippling, deep-sea creature. ... Or it could just be that all these fumes are going to my head.