A Look Back
Not long ago, I held a contracting job within the Federal government. Despite its boasting of telework initiatives, the ability to work from home was an elusive privilege pursued in a Sisyphus-style struggle, filled with training courses, paperwork, management whims, prolific policies, and yes, even politics. In spite of numerous managers fighting valiantly, by the end of my tenure, teleworking was expressly forbidden on our contract (unless the government needed our help during off-hours, in which case it was demanded).
And so, mine was one of commuting to the office every day in what’s considered to be some of the worst traffic in the country. Based on some quick calculations, it’s possible I spent an estimated 3,100 hours commuting to and from work, or 129 days of driving. The length of my daily commute put me in the top 8% of American workers!
Looking back, it provided plenty of memories, some wonderful, some amusing, and some downright awful. Before time and age have their way with my memory, I thought I should capture some of those memories lest I never forget.
When enduring dreadful commutes, having something good to listen to is often the only escape.
- Early on, I did not own an iPod or any sort of podcast player. My solution? I burned podcasts to a Read-Write CD-ROM the night before, and listed using a portable CD player. (Did I forget to mention the car didn’t have a built-in CD player?)
- Playlists and podcasts were a must. By the end, I had it down to a science, knowing precisely how many of my favorite podcasts I could listen to during a typical commute, some of which required listening at 1.5x speed in order to fit in a full episode.
- While carpooling successes ebbed and flowed, the successful commuting collaborations were an opportunity to expand my musical horizons. One fellow commuter, in particular, could spin up everything from Flo Rida to Johnny Cash. I am indebted to him for my love of the Man in Black.
When commuting every day, there are bound to be some surprises along the way.
Deep in thought one afternoon on the way home, methodically stopping and starting in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, I suddenly realized I was staring at the back of the Extreme Home Makeover bus. They had just finished taping an episode in D.C. I have to assume the regulars on the show were smart enough to fly to their next destination rather than parking on I-95 with the rest of us.
- Occasionally some of us would forget that carpooling wasn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, and would go through the hassle of coordinating schedules to achieve the magical 3+ people needed to take the HOV lanes. One morning, we fell short by one person (no doubt due to a last-minute back out), dooming us to the regular lanes for the commute. And yet, as the HOV entrance approached, my fearless co-worker merged on, and there we were enjoying the wide-open freedom of HOV … illegally (and let’s assume unintentionally). It didn’t take long before he realized the mistake. However, these lanes are separated by jersey walls and once you commit, there is no off-ramp for more than 10 miles, a stretch littered with State Police enforcement points. More than a few prayers were said (did I mention he’s a pastor now?), and in the end we made it through unscathed.
One commute home I drove alongside a trailer full of Google Street View cars. It reminded me of a Multi-Troop Transport, ready to unleash its battle droids on some unsuspecting town.
- On a rare morning drive when traffic was actually flowing smoothly (it must have been a delayed departure), I noticed a white bird flying alongside my car. I was easily traveling at 60 mph, and the bird not only kept pace, but also course, flying in the lane next to me for at least a couple miles. It was quite surreal, and I half expected to see Roma Downey appear in the passenger’s seat.
- When cold weather AND precipitation were in the forecast, VDOT’s massive salt truck plows would appear in pairs, parked along I-95. Yes, I said parked. They strategically chose locations along the highway … and would wait for the first few flurries to fly. At first I found it silly, but I suppose it made sense. If they waited for the weather to arrive, they’d be faced with the same traffic woes as the rest of us, with no hope of actually reaching the highway now in need of clearing.
- While at first unexpected, I eventually grew accustomed to seeing rather large motorcades usurping one direction of I-95, either for a military funeral procession or official transport of some sort.
Oh, the people. Have you ever gone to the mall and people watched? Commuting in bad traffic can be similarly entertaining, but on a whole new level. People somehow think they’re alone when they are sitting in their car, exposed by clear windows on all sides. The things people do when they think they’re alone. Of course, others are only too aware they are stuck in a mass of vehicles and people, and seek help, assuming surely this congestion isn’t normal.
- I was stuck in the usual Thursday-afternoons-during-the-summer traffic nastiness. A honk from the car in the lane next to me grabbed my attention. I looked over, and the driver clearly wanted to talk with me. I paused my podcast, and rolled down my window, and this happened. Welcome to Virginia.
- Other interactions while parked on I-95 included people asking me, “Is it always like this?”, and “Where’d you get that bumper sticker? I’ve been looking for one of those.”
- As for the people who thought they were alone, there were plenty nose pickers, and women applying makeup or aerosol hairspray, but one efficient mother wisely spent a portion of her commute using a breast pump. Yes, you can get a ticket for texting while driving, but I guess lawmakers hadn’t considered that possibility yet.
- Slugging was sometimes a decent option when heading into D.C. Think of it as “Instant Carpooling” or “Casual Carpooling,” where you meet up with total strangers and combine forces to achieve enough passengers to use the HOV lanes. The majority of time the people were helpful, cordial, and friendly. There were, however, some people that violated etiquette and shared their wacko thoughts on anything and everything. My brother’s been slugging daily for over a decade. I wish he’d write a book.
Many techniques were used to try and get around the horrendous traffic. For months I tracked each day’s commute: departure time, weather conditions, day of the week, length of commute. Surely I just need to leave early enough, and exercise or eat breakfast once I get to work. There was never an early enough. Then there were the traffic cameras, available real-time on mobile devices, as long as you didn’t consult while driving. Maybe I can time things just right. Or maybe if I take public transportation, driving the wrong direction to get to the train station, which takes me to the bus, which takes me to work.
In the end, this was the only strategy I found to beat the traffic:
- [footage not found]
The License Plates
I-95 is the only thoroughfare along the East coast, so there are many out-of-staters just trying to pass through every day.
- Some of my friends played license plate games. Not the usual “see who can find all the states first” kind, but the “let’s make up a mathematical formula using all the numbers on a license plate” kind, and would see who could do the calculation quickest for each plate. “Oh, there’s another 19,” they would say.
- One summer day on my commute home, I saw plates from ID, FL, MS, IL, OK, NC, MD, MA, NJ, NY, MO, TN, MI, PA, CO, and UT. That’s 16 states, in a 30 mile stretch, in 1 commute.
- With the tens-of-thousands of commuters taking the same route each day, it was amazing to me that I started recognizing individual license plates. Apparently we kept similar schedules.
Virginia is a beautiful part of the country, with gorgeous changing seasons, rolling hills and mountains, and towering trees. On occasion I was able to look beyond the congestion surrounding me, and take in some awe-inspiring sights.
- Leaving early in the morning provided some incredible sunrise views. Often, if you timed it right, you could be parked on I-95 at one of the higher-elevation points with a clear view East. A brief interlude to the madness.
Each day I was fortunate enough to drive by the magnificent National Museum of the Marine Corps. It’s not only a wonderful architectural site to see, but a fabulous museum to visit, if you ever have the opportunity.
- While I-95 is the only main thoroughfare, it was possible to take residential back roads through Occoquan and around Quantico, and avoid the highway all together (though not always its overflow traffic). I took this route infrequently enough that maps were in order. This alternate approach home was an automatic doubling of my “normal” commute time home. When traffic reports indicated above average problems (there were always accidents, so they needed to be severe or numerous enough), then I’d do the math as traffic reports emerged and diverge if back roads showed the potential for saving time. Once I accepted the additional time I’d be driving, those back road commutes (when I didn’t get lost) bordered on the enjoyable. The rolling roads, the landscape, the rural farms and white picket fences, were refreshing to see, especially compared to the asphalt and bumpers of a normal commute.
When you’re settling in for what could easily be a multi-hour drive, you want provisions. Be careful, however, lest you end up triggering the need for a pit stop whilst stuck in traffic. You’ve been warned.
- Coffee, black gold. It was a must. Once a week I’d treat myself with a stop at a local filling station, either Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. If I was looking for straight-up coffee the choice was Dunkin, but the Americano fix was SBUX. All the other days it was a travel mug. Eventually, I began using a Stanley Classic Field Green Thermos. You know the kind. It was less convenient for use in the car, but worked great with the coffee mug in my cube.
- Beverages while driving are tricky. Have a large stash of napkins in the car, and a Tide stain stick waiting for you at work.
- Coffee was a must, but the rare food purchase was extravagance. The Breakfast Burrito from Anita’s New Mexican Restaurant for $1.69 was enough to make the commuting misery (almost) melt away. More common was the free donut that came by doing the survey on my Dunkin Donut’s receipt from the previous visit. Amazingly, the cycle was never ending, and the survey was becoming nearly automatic.
While commuting had its moments, more often than not it was a day-to-day battle.
- Early on, as I was still becoming familiar with the area, before I had a GPS, I would venture off the beaten path. “There must be a better way that these tens-of-thousands of suckers sitting on I-95 don’t know about,” I’d say to myself. The result? A call to my personal OnStar service, otherwise known as my wife. Invariably, the conversation would end with us trying to figure out how the same two roads could interest at 5 different points. Only in Virginia.
- Getting lost or being stuck in traffic is frustrating. Remembering you are paid hourly in those situations, and are therefore losing income with every passing moment, is absolutely infuriating. Occasionally I’d be shaken from the monotony of the commute by a work-related phone call requesting assistance with the escalation of an issue, or have the good fortune of a scheduled conference call during the commute home. While both meant being paid for time on the road, I eventually grew to value the time alone and preferred not having the calls.
- One particular stretch of the drive home that was always enjoyable was the backup where the highway “merged” 2 car pool lanes and 1 on-ramp into an already full 3 lanes of traffic … at the bottom of a hill so the tractor trailers had to start from a complete stop. This spot is referred to simply as The Merge. There’s nothing quite like inching along in a 2 mile backup on hot asphalt in 98 degree weather. Memories of the merge are enough to make my stomach churn and palms sweat, even to this day. Since you’re likely to stay awhile, you can even check-in at the I-95 HOV Merge on Foursquare, if that’s your kind of thing.
- Virginia summers are hot. And humid. Virginians also care about the environment, and what better way to demonstrate that than to declare Ozone Action Days! One particular steamy summer afternoon, the traffic congestion was worse than normal and continuing in spots where there was generally some relief. I wasn’t too surprised, as anything can cause this volume of traffic to slow down (e.g., a parked car on the side of the road, a new sign, rain, too much sun, not enough sun). This day, however, the additional slowdown was caused by one of the electronic overhead traffic signs. On it was a flashing alert that we were under an Ozone warning, encouraging us to reduce traffic by carpooling. Keep in mind we’re already on the highway. As soon as we passed under the sign, traffic resumed to normal speeds. In an effort to help the environment, a law was passed requiring VDOT to display these signs. The end result? Tens-of-thousands of cars idling on the highway for 30 minutes longer than usual because of a pointless sign. How is that helping the environment or keeping traffic moving? It seems to me it’s doing quite the opposite.
- After driving the same route for long enough, you get a feel for traffic patterns. It became second nature to change lanes at certain points along the commute, anticipating the normal congestion points. Certain lanes flowed better than others at some of the backups, whether due to the configuration of merging traffic, or the driving behavior of the majority hoping to avoid an upcoming merge. The key is knowing when to change lanes, ride out the benefit as long as possible, and switch back before you’re stuck with newly merging traffic. Countless hours of my life were no doubt reclaimed with such deft maneuvers. So ingrained were these lane changes I began to find it hard to ride with others who either didn’t share this crucial life skill, or simply didn’t care about commuting efficiency. As a corollary, it is almost never worth changing lanes on the spur of the moment simply because one lane appears to be moving more quickly than another. Such lanes will suck you in with their appeal, and immediately grind to a halt the moment you join. Don’t fall for it.
Commuting was not all heartburn. Looking back, I have plenty of wonderful memories, as well.
It was imperative to receive traffic alerts. There were few things as enjoyable as receiving those traffic alerts on vacation days. I might as well confess, I also checked traffic reports during rush hour on days off. It was a guilty pleasure.
- During one stretch of work, I was able to telecommute for an hour or so each morning before hitting the road and driving into work. This allowed some flexibility in trying to allow some traffic to clear. But it also allowed me to wake up my children before I left, say a prayer together as a family, and drive away with them all standing at the window waving. There’s no greater send-off when leaving for the day.
- In all my time commuting, I was never involved in an accident. It was not uncommon to see at least 2 or 3 accidents in each direction every day. There were so many distractions, and times I was nearly asleep or lost in thought. I’m so grateful for God’s protection during all of those commutes.