Commuter brain food

Commuter brain food

Attention all car commuters: have you ever wondered, as you sit idling on a stalled 401 and your two-hour commute turns into a four-hour one, why the hell you choose to endure what is essentially a recurring nightmare? Two magazines have your answer: the most recent issues of The New Yorker and Toronto Life.

In the April 16 issue of The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten has written an engrossing meditation on the meaning of commuting and “the soul of the commuter.” In America, he points out, nine out of ten Americans travel to work by car, and 88% of those travel alone. Conclusion: “[their] loneliness is no longer merely existential. They hardly even have the opportunity to feel estranged at home, their time there is so brief.” Paumgarten also explains how social scientists have managed to derive precise mathematical formulas showing the inverse correlation between commuting times and personal happiness. Through it all, Paumgarten never falls into the trap of passing moral judgment on suburbanite commuters, which would only have undermined his arguments.

Serendipitously, the May issue of Toronto Life features the perfect companion piece to The New Yorker’s: a deconstruction of Highway 401 through Toronto. (Full disclosure: I wrote it.) The article is a visual feast—a four-page foldout annotating the 401 from Pearson Airport to the DVP, detailing the myriad ways in which highway traffic can get bogged down and the Herculean efforts that go into keeping it running smoothly. Because if longer commute times quite literally make people less happy with their lives, then nothing affects the collective psychology of the GTA more than the state of congestion on the 401, the busiest stretch of highway in North America.

(Noteworthy aside: regular Toronto Life contributor John Lorinc has also written about the 401 in a recent issue of Reader’s Digest. I haven’t read it, but knowing John’s work, I’m sure he’s got lots to add to the discussion.)

The headline for my 401 article calls it “a keener’s guide.” I’m not sure I’d call myself a 401 keener—I don’t drive it every day, nor do I enjoy driving it when I must—but I do believe you have to marvel at it. The fact that it’s the continent’s busiest highway defies expectations: Atlanta, Houston and LA all have larger populations and are more automobile-dependent. That makes the 401 a very efficient piece of infrastructure, which, no matter how you feel about cars, is a virtue. The way I see it, the 401 is really the overlooked part of Jane Jacobs’ legacy. She convinced us to preserve the downtown’s quality of life by rejecting a grid-like network of highways through the city core. Ever since, we’ve been forcing every kind of travel in the city—whether leaving town, arriving from elsewhere, commuting within it, or trying to avoid it altogether—into a single corridor. As a result, that corridor has given rise to an admirable surrounding density; it is lined by a variety of developments old and new, residents rich and poor; it features a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial use, all vibrant. Strange but true: Toronto has wrought a second city, one with many of the virtues Jacobs espoused, except that it’s reserved for cars.