When driving was fun

Route 91 south, in Wheelock, Vt. Route 91 north of the Massachusetts line has usually been a remarkably open road, and it goes through lovely rolling countryside along the Connecticut River.

Route 91 south, in Wheelock, Vt. Route 91 north of the Massachusetts line has usually been a remarkably open road, and it goes through lovely rolling countryside along the Connecticut River.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

News of the imminent completion of Interstate Route 95 – after 61 years! – by finally filling a short New Jersey-Pennsylvania gap, brought back memories of the joy of being on the road in the early days of the Interstate Highway System. As a kid with a driver’s license minted in 1964, I drove all over the Northeast, at first using my father’s red Jeep and then a used VW bug that I bought. It was my favorite car of all time, although with the gas tank over the driver’s lap, it was a deathtrap.

It was all about freedom!

I’d happily take off in the middle of the night, when there was little traffic, to go skiing in New Hampshire or down to the Cape. For that matter, there was far less traffic during the day than there is now. That’s partly because there are many more people now, and partly because building more and wider roads draws more traffic, in a kind of Parkinson’s law (“expenditure rises to meet income’’). I was struck by how bad things had become when, a few years ago, my family and I, just off the plane at Logan Airport, found ourselves in a massive traffic jam in downtown Boston – at 2 a.m.!

Back in the ‘60s, the roadside amenities, especially the Howard Johnson restaurants alongside the more important Interstates, were also delightful.

But because of crowding, texting and crumbling infrastructure, driving on the Interstates, especially in the crowded Northeast, now is often very unpleasant amidst the anger and aggression of so many drivers. How to make it less so: Spend more money on mass transit!

Boston University economist Barry Bluestone discussed this in a piece in The Boston Globe about the worsening nightmare of driving in Greater Boston. Traffic congestion isn’t as bad yet in Greater Providence – far fewer people -- but it is getting worse, in part because we have far thinner public transit than Massachusetts. Indeed, our best mass transit is Massachusetts-based: MBTA commuter trains.

Bluestone notes that traffic congestion in morning and afternoon/evening commutes in Greater Boston means that the average driving speed then is now just 18.4 miles an hour. “That means the typical commuter is now spending around 15 hours a week sitting in traffic — or 720 hours per year.’’ That’s time that could otherwise be spent making money, sleeping, sex and a plethora of other productive activities. Sitting trapped in traffic for hours a week is also bad for your health.

But, Bluestone writes, “if we were somehow to move just 13 percent of the daily commuters off the road onto public transit — about 195,000 — highway flow analysis suggests that the average speed during commuting hours could be doubled to more than 37 mph— still well below the highway speed limit. But even that improvement would save the typical commuter about 7.5 hours per week in commuting time or 360 hours per year.’’

“Yet there is an additional benefit. The typical commuter who drives 6,000 miles per year in commuting now spends around $821 a year in fuel. Doubling the average speed increases fuel efficiency so much that it cuts the fuel bill to just $552 a year — a savings of $269 a year.’’

“The question, of course, is how to pay for … tangible improvements in public transit. The answer lies in getting the true beneficiaries of improved public transit to pay for it. If drivers were to pay only $269 a year more in gasoline taxes, tolls, or a vehicle miles traveled fee to the MBTA, the Commonwealth would have an additional $3 billion over 10 years to make some of these improvements.’’

Most other major industrialized nations, including our neighbor Canada, understand the big economic and social benefits of dense public-transit in their metro areas. Check out Toronto, for example. The United States, as usual the laggard in infrastructure (though it didn’t used to be this way), will pass an ever-steeper price for not addressing this issue, which profoundly affects the way so many of us live.

To read Bluestone’s piece, please hit this link.