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San Diego commute – by bicycle, trolley, car pool, van pool, Coaster, and alone in car

The freeway is nobody's home

 A 15-seater may run $1300 a month, but SANDAG subsidizes the costs, and Dorina tells me that her own share comes to $38 a month for everything. - Image by Dave Allen
A 15-seater may run $1300 a month, but SANDAG subsidizes the costs, and Dorina tells me that her own share comes to $38 a month for everything.

The first curious thing about commuting by car is that in some ways it is the exact opposite of travel in general. When we travel we do so with our eyes and ears open, asking questions, going out of our way to meet people, reading up on history and geology and architecture, drinking in our surroundings, constantly alive to new perspectives and possibilities.

As we pull away from San Diego, 23 people are in the upper-deck car I’ve picked at random, 21 of them Caucasian. No children, no old people, no shabbily dressed, no unfashionable amounts or styles of hair, no tattoos, no men in undershirts or women in lime-green polyester, no lunch pails, prison T-shirts.

When we commute we just want to get there. Anything that happens is probably a nuisance. The best we can hope for is a double negative : that nothing goes wrong, that nothing holds us up. It’s an experience without experience.

The second curious thing about commuting by car is how much we take it for granted. We don’t even notice the first curious thing,

We pass the merge, the infamous junction of I-5 and 805, and paradoxically the traffic slows down even heading south, where four lanes become eight.

Day One

It’s 5:45 a.m. I had a few beers last night, stayed up talking to friends until after midnight, and it’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed. My back hurts. The shower is cold. I wish I'd never chosen this stupid assignment. I’ve reached the emotional core of the commuting experience; resentment.

Resentment, I suspect, has some very interesting and important effects on the way we behave while we commute, on that kind of screw-you competitiveness that can easily escalate into freeway violence. If we resent our jobs or the fact that we have to be getting up so early and driving under such frustrating conditions to get there, we can easily justify our own unpleasant behavior by thinking, “Hell, I didn’t want to be here anyway.” We can play a kind of moral shell game, hiding the responsibility for our actions under someone else’s thimble.

Amy McKibben lives in Encinitas and works in ad sales in downtown San Diego. She could probably take the Coaster in from Del Mar, but she needs her car all day. Ad salespeople and realtors will probably be the last to give up their cars, as the car as image is almost as important as the car as transport. In Amy’s case the vehicle is a newish white Jeep Cherokee, very smart. She picks me up in Leucadia, and we head toward I-5.

She’s been commuting around San Diego for “a gazillion years,” but her current commute, from North County into the city, has been going on for some 18 months. “I used to live in la Jolla, which is a whole ’nother traffic nightmare.”

We hit the freeway at around 7:00 a.m. Timing is a crucial element in her commute; 7:10 is fine, but by 7:15 all the commuters are arriving from Orange County, and things get ugly.

Let’s talk about commuting, cars, and Americans, especially Californians.

America is now linked by about 4 million miles of highways and streets, about 40 yards per car. The amount of travel by car is increasing 10 to 15 percent a year, significantly faster than the growth in population. Americans drive twice as many miles per person per year as the next most road-hungry nation. New Zealand. When making short trips around town, Americans in general are twice as likely to take a car as any other nation: 82 percent of all such trips are done by car. Germany comes second with 48 percent. But at least 11 percent of urban trips in Germany use public transport; in America public transport is used only 3 percent of the time.

The results are complex and ubiquitous—a landscape designed for the automobile rather than the human, especially the walking human, some staggeringly poor air quality (cars contribute about two-thirds of all air pollution), and a steady increase in the difficulty involved in getting around. The U.S. General Accounting Office has predicted that by 2005, traffic delay in cities across the country will have increased by more than 400 percent.

California, the most car-dependent state, has nearly 20 percent of the nation’s drivers; on its roads drivers clock 240 billion miles a year. (I’m indebted for this and other data in this article to K.T. Berger's excellent book Where the Road and the Sky Collide.) In California, the number of registered vehicles — more than 20 million — has more than doubled in the last two decades; the state now has more registered vehicles than licensed drivers. By various estimates, the length of the average commute in Southern California has increased by 20 to 40 percent over the last decade, both because of increased congestion and because we are commuting from farther away. David W. Jones, author of California's Freeway Era in Historical Perspective, writes that “we are now facing a crisis in commuting, as we did 50 years ago."

Not to mention the human results of these stressful conditions. Raymond Novaco of the University of Califomia-Irvine, an expert in freeway aggression and violence, has said, “Chronic exposure to traffic congestion impairs health, psychological adjustment, and work performance.” It also causes chest pain, elevated blood pressure, negative mood, frustration intolerance (these lower one’s violence threshold), job change, variations in job attitude and performance, residential attitude, and overall life satisfaction.

“But the curious thing is,” Novaco has said, “I don’t think the traffic is bad enough. I think what people are doing is continually internalizing the costs associated with commuting. People continually adapt; we’re very adaptive organisms.”


The traffic, which has been moving fairly smoothly, stops at Santa Fe Drive. “That’s almost a constant,” Anly says casually. Beside us, people line up at the freeway ramp lights; she’s known it to take five minutes just to get onto the freeway. Sometimes the police will set up a device that will shoot a photo of anyone who runs the light, recording the front of their car and the license plate. Amy once triggered it, she said. “I could see it flash. But I don’t have a front license plate,” and she got off scot-free. These are little guerrilla tales, not so much anti-police, I suspect, as acts of a more general rebellion against the suffocating restrictions of stop-start commuting.

Virtually every car has only one occupant: 1,1,1,1,1,2,1,1, 1,1,2,1,1,1,1,2,1,1, 1. This inefficient use of road, machine, and fuel is at its most noticeable during the rush hour. “You very rarely see anyone in the car-pool lane,” she says. “It’s usually a father and son on an odd day going to the dentist."

At Via de la Valle we crest the hill and see five lanes of traffic ahead, crawling. The fast lane turns out to be the slowest, for some reason. “This lane will end up going faster,” she said, as if enunciating a faith. “If you’re in it, you might as well stay in it." This is the research that someone really ought to do. How do bank teller lines really work? What are the variables that determine who gets to the supermarket checkout quickest? Stay or jump? And is more energy consumed in worrying about this kind of thing than would be saved by successful dodging? Inquiring minds want to know. “I don’t like this lane," she says a moment later. “It starts and then it stops."

In this bleak world, on the flat existential tarmac, the only social cohesion is the radio. “You’ll often see people laughing at the same time or singing to the same song.” What an underused resource this is. Who else is out there talking to us, giving us helpful information, recognizing the frustration we’re going through? Yet radio does almost nothing to build a sense of community within the mobile crowd on the road. Nor does a cellular phone, which connects us to the world beyond the asphalt, emphasizing our desire not to be where we are. If car manufacturers wanted to woo commuters, every car would come fitted with a CB radio as standard equipment. CB created a sense of community among truckers, a notoriously maverick and independent group; imagine what it could do for commuters, desperate for a chance to gripe and commiserate during the stop-go shuffle of the rush hour.

“This little hill’s the most dangerous part. You see accidents here all the time, because everyone’s starting to move and then slamming on their brakes. It pays to keep your distance—but then someone will notoriously cut you off.”

We pass the merge, the infamous junction of I-5 and 805, and paradoxically the traffic slows down even heading south, where four lanes become eight, as we all change lanes and get our bearings. Suddenly only six other vehicles are in sight. Downhill from here, in every sense.

Amy still needs to be vigilant, though. “There’s a zone in here where you don’t ever want to go more than five miles an hour over the speed limit, from here down to Pacific Beach. If you see someone going really fast through here, you’ll often see them pulled over just past Sea World.”

She thinks there’s less overt freeway aggression now. “People are afraid to express their anger. You don’t know if someone’s going to pull out a gun and blast you." It’s certainly worth thinking about. Between July 1987 and September 1989, the California Highway Patrol reported 3600 episodes of freeway violence, divided into six categories: roadside confrontation, shootings/throwings, assault using the vehicle itself, sniper/robber attacks, drive-by shootings, and suicide/murder crashes. And these are not just young hoods. A survey of traffic school participants from all walks of life found that 31 percent have chased another driver, 12 percent have thrown an object at another car, and 5 percent have rammed someone. Three percent of drivers have guns in their cars, nearly 2 percent have waved their guns at other drivers, and just under 1 percent have actually pulled the trigger. According to one survey, the rate in Texas may be considerably higher.

Amy points out, as does virtually everyone else who has lived in a cooler or damper climate, that San Diego drivers go to pieces when it rains. “It’s a gray-out often when it rains real hard, and people have no idea how to drive. They think they can go just as fast. There’s always a lot of accidents when it rains here.”

We pull off at the Civic Center exit. “Relatively painless,” she concludes. She estimated 40 to 60 minutes, depending on the traffic; it has taken us 32. “Not bad at all.”

A little later that morning I try I-8 heading east. At one point there are, by my hasty count, 12 lanes of traffic, all moving steadily. This is not bad, I think, unconsciously echoing Amy, then catch myself. Excuse me? Not bad? The air stinks of burned rubber. A pile driver echoes deafeningly off the underside of not one but three ramps curving overhead. I find myself accidentally in an exit lane, and a white Budget van deliberately blocks me from getting back into the slow lane of the freeway. A billboard dares me to buy a BMW and “open it up on the way to Borrego.”

Commuting has shifted our standards. Commuting itself, inevitably seen as a necessary evil, cannot, by definition, be good, so we don’t ever stop to imagine what “good” might look like. We stick with “not bad,” which means “not as bad as I’ve known it” or, especially in San Diego and other Southern California cities, “not as bad as Los Angeles.”

“No other nation,” writes David Jones, “has sought to accommodate urban motorization so completely and so willingly.” In Europe, express highways tended to skirt cities, leaving the centers and their identities unharmed. In the United States, thanks to Robert Moses, former city construction coordinator of New York, and Lloyd Aldrich, onetime Los Angeles city engineer, the bypass-or-penetrate debate (the rape imagery is unavoidable) was resolved in favor of penetration. The freeway would go downtown — or, perhaps, the downtown would go freeway.

In the years before the Second World War, many U.S. cities faced traffic crises as cars struggled to use roads designed and laid for horses and pedestrians. “The automobile,” editorialized the Los Angeles Times in 1938, “designed to be the emancipator of man...is defeating its own purpose. Man is being enslaved again by the servant he created.”

In both LA. and San Diego, road programs had taken over what trolleys had done. They were used by developers to make cheap and relatively inaccessible parcels of outlying land more valuable. Even the Automobile Club of Southern California was critical of the rampant growth of roads and the consequent destruction of the countryside, recognizing that commuter driving was a threat to touring driving, the leisurely exploration of an unspoiled land.

The solution, proposed first by Moses in New York and then by Aldrich, was to build new, bigger roads, called parkways, on a scale that no one had imagined. “Today we are well underway to a solution of the traffic problem,” Moses wrote in 1948, in the middle of a process that involved uprooting 250,000 people, tearing the hearts out of countless neighborhoods, and flooding the city with cars. On the opposite coast, Aldrich proposed a similar 600-mile network and demonstrated the grantsmanship necessary to attract New Deal and other funds to pay for his vision.

Even in the 1930s, LA. was a polycentric metropolis without a core, atypical of American urban design. All the same, the Los Angeles model seemed seductive and visionary and, just as importantly, fundable, thanks to the prevailing political winds. Many major cities hurried to develop their own urban freeway plans. But though the traffic of opinion seemed to be heading overwhelmingly in one direction, freeways were not inevitable. In the '50s, San Francisco, in what came to be known as the Freeway Revolt, showed it was possible to abdicate its urban freeway plan and build rapid transit instead. “You cannot dissolve a bottleneck by doubling the size of the bottle,” said Jack Kent, the city’s planning director. Moreover, as Jones points out, why should city residents be displaced by freeways so that the suburbs and downtown businesses could grow?

But San Francisco was an exception, partly because of its strong sense of identity, partly because of its awkward topography. In California as a whole, spending on new road construction and road use rose steadily to a peak in 1970, when several things happened at more or less the same time. By then the “easy” roads had all been built, and new construction increasingly needed expensive land or expensive structures such as bridges. The oil crisis of 1973 was the first slap in the face to awake us to the extent of our reliance on oil, cars, and roads. Since 1970, spending on road construction and the total miles of new freeway have steadily dediped; now they are virtually back to 1950 levels.

The legacy of the Freeway Era can be seen everywhere, though, even in a city like San Diego, which had convenient canyons down which planners could lay freeways with relatively little disturbance to the existing communities. Robert Moses laid the West Side Highway on prime real estate next to the Hudson River so drivers could take over the unspoiled view that residents were then denied. In the same way, I-5 effectively steals the view of the harbor and Mission Bay, leaving residents with an ugly obstruction that also sabotages the system ofl ocal streets, scatters ugly concrete ramps here and there, adds literally a million times the wear and tear to neighborhood roads, and dumps fumes into the residential air.

This is not to mention the strip-mining concealed under the tarmac that we drive. That evening, a little after 5:00, I drive north to check out the I-5 and 805 merge. In a middle lane, passing Sea World, I’m up to 65. Every vehicle in every lane is passing me. Where are the fabled cops?

At the merge, traffic grips briefly like a sphincter, like a mild panic attack, and all five lanes are stop and go. Then we build up speed to 20 or 30, until everything grips again at Carmel Valley Road, then relaxes again. When I pull off at Del Mar Heights Road, everyone is puttering along at 30 or so, even the two BMWs that jostle impatiently from lane to lane.

Several thousand cars an hour pass through the merge, which sorts us out and redirects us — but at what price? In places north of La Jolla the landscape is like something out of the film Koyaanisqatsi, with vast circular gouges through the red hillside utterly stripped of topsoil, half a dozen yellow tank trucks abandoned for the day up on the slope, and the concrete-and-metal stalks of the unfinished connector sticking up like severed bunches of industrial flowers. The whole three-mile stretch is an open wound, the land raw as rope burn.

Day Two

I board the trolley downtown under an electronic sign, a sort of urban Burma Shave poem: Gas prices / continue to rise / the solution / is no surprise / use public transit. The fact is, rising gas prices are by no means the best reason to use public transit; they’re prone to hover and then drop again. This happened in the aftermath of the oil crisis in 1973. For a while, a minority of the American population bought smaller cars, supported research into alternative fuels, and tried car pooling. But once the crisis was over, the mood swung back, ind thousands of Chevettes anguished in showrooms.

Dozens of reasons exist to support and use public transit, but most of them require a complex and farsighted understanding of the relationship between fuel consumption, air dilution, the preservation of neighborhoods and the character of the city, the role of public spaces and the civic experience, and all the subtle and diverse elements that make up what we call community. The poem is a sign that the authority is convinced that only a desperate appeal to nearsighted self-interest has any chance of success.

My first thought onboard is that the trolley ride down to San Ysidro and back during the morning commute is probably the most multiracial experience of my life. My second is that race is only part of its diversity, and this is in fact my most multi-anything experience. The only Caucasians in the car are a Marine and a young guy with long hair, a mustache, and a Yuma Prison T-shirt. Sitting opposite me is a neatly tumed-out black guy in brand-new work boots and his name, Dexter, embroidered on the zip-up jacket issued by the pest-control service he works for. All around are Asians, Hispanics, Indians, old folks, kids on their way to school, the hand -some, the deformed. One reads the Union-Trib, one reads La Opinion, one reads Dean Koontz. An elderly deaf woman in a floor-hockey cap carries a lunch bag with a rose sticking out of it. A black girl dozes with her head on her honey’s shoulder.

It must be said that most of the riders don’t talk to each other, and while some take up activities they couldn’t while driving—reading, dozing, staring at the beautiful Filipino girl who huddles shyly in the corner — others just stare in that glassy vacancy commuters know so well.

All of which reminds us that trolley design really does little to promote social ease; it creates a moving crowd rather than a small temporary community. The San Diego trolley displays none of the surprises that turn up on some mass transit: poems or artwork on the walls, musicians navigating the swaying aisles, guerrilla theatricals that periodically invade the London Underground. At heart, the trolley is just a People Mover, to use the Disney term. More than that would take greater expense and imagination and, above all, the belief that commuting is an aberration rather than a necessity.

All the same, the trolley, unlike the cars on I-5 running parallel with us, allows the 17 million people who ride it each year the leisure to take a long look at life; and what we see is a landscape with meaning and content, not simply the bare existential asphalt stage of strangers jockeying for position in the fast lane. The shipyards already swarm with workers, with the vitality of things being done. In National City the early-morning softball and volleyball leagues are already in full swing at 7:15 am. A surveillance camera blinks over a car lot. A freeway bridge is signed “notorious vandal,” a joke with several layers of irony. Even the trailer park shantytowns in Chula Vista have the complex inescapability of truth. This is the America that America hates, the ugly reminder that one America lives at the expense of the other, yet I, for one, believe in the moral importance of seeing everything.

How we commute is closely connected to what we choose to see, or not to see. Freeways, you must understand, are fascist. Literally. The first highspeed, limited-access roads were built by Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. When the first American prototype freeway was built — 160 miles of highspeed, limited-access, four-lane divided highway, roughly between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg — it was called the American Dream Highway. Like the commute, it was defined by what it was not. “No cross streets,” chortled American Heritage magazine. “No traffic lights, business entrances, railroad crossings, trolley cars or pedestrian access. No grades of more than 3 percent” — the ideal automotive environment, like the city centers of the future that architects used to dream of, pure concrete cleansed of pedestrians and empty cigarette packets and banana skins and everything except for the occasional skill fully positioned conical bronze sculpture, a world made safe for geometry.

The freeways still offer the American dream of uninterrupted high-speed progress; yet they do so by exclusion. The first word on the interstate is still No. No bicycles. No farm machinery. No snow vehicles. No pedestrians. No hitchhikers. No halt, no lame, no vehicles unable to maintain a 40-mile-per-hour minimum. No animals, except those that have been crushed into furry shadows on the tarmac (“Sweep on, you fat and greasy citizens,” cursed the Melancholy Jacques, shaking his fist at the commuting herd that ignored the dying deer, possibly an early example of roadkill). No green girder bridges or mobile home showrooms; no cyclists in their ladybug helmets and water-beetle tights; no Old Glories, pink flamingos, seashell sculptures, or Virgin Marys in bathtubs. No deaf-mutes rubbing shoulders against us as we board the trolley. No fantastically tattooed middle-aged Mexicans, their entire torsos dedicated to their love for Beatris, sitting across from us like human billboards.

As soon as we can afford it, the first thing we buy is separation.

At San Ysidro, all changes. For the northbound trip most riders are Mexican, some heading to work, others to school.

The Industrial Revolution, which changed the ancient pattern of subsistence agriculture and cottage industry, created commuting. It did so by inviting (or in many cases forcing) people to work outside their homes or their feudal estates. It also created the means to move far more rapidly than ever before, and it forced the worker to adapt to the schedule of his employer’s machines. For the first time, people obeyed not the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset but machine time. It changed the development of communities, which had existed before roughly within earshot of the church bell but now needed to exist within earshot of the factory whistle. It displaced virtually all nonagricultural workers; and once canning and packaging and large-scale agribusiness created the need for vast tracts of arable land rather than small holdings, the agricultural workers went too, either to the canneries and packing plants or to seek work in the strange new cities.

We are ail displaced people, Californians perhaps more than anyone—displaced from the land, from our ancestors, from our history. Commuting thus gave birth to a kind of blindness to everything around us, not only because we are moving in such a hurry, but because we have no good reason to care about it. It has nothing to do with us. We scratch a living on asphalt and tell ourselves it is all for the best. Anyone who says otherwise is a potential Unabomber.

The only problem with such a rich and fertile experience is that by the end of the ride I, for one, am emotionally exhausted. I’ve lived a full day by 8:00 a.m. Later in the morning one woman (white, middle-class) tells me heatedly, “The trolley sucks. It’s so slow.”

Simply by stopping more often, the trolley operates more in the interests of people other than ourselves. When we complain that it is slow, we’re not speaking literally. As trolleys go, it has good acceleration (and is relatively quiet). It’s more that we are slow — that is, we don’t get to our destination as quickly as we can imagine getting there, and we can perceive quite clearly why. It’s all those other passengers. A trolley is a kind of society, and it forces us to respect other people’s needs, and their destinations.

The car, on the other hand, will take us door to door, and the mobility it promises us is another way of saying that for once we don’t have to kowtow to other people’s needs. This is precisely why it is so galling when traffic lights and the mental defective in front of us driving at precisely the speed limit force us to make the kinds of concession to other people’s wishes that we thought we’d escaped by not taking the trolley.

That evening David Belprez heads out from his apartment high up on Quince Street, which once must have had a wonderful view of the harbor but now overlooks the airport and the retrofitted I-5 that has cut off half the east-west streets in the neighborhood like a spade severing worms. Driving north toward UCSD, David mutters in mild exasperation at a slowpoke plodding at 60 in the middle lane, while all five lanes of traffic part and flow around the subcompact like a metal river around a stone.

David and I talk about interstate driving as an experience that weirdly combines sensory deprivation and sensory overload. There is almost nothing to see, but our lives depend on that fact. The result is the strange psychology of interstate driving, almost a form of hypnosis, in which we leave all the motor functions, so to speak, to a simple part of our consciousness and allow the rest to wander. David used to commute 30 miles, all on freeways, his mind on cruise control. He would often arrive at work with no recollection of the previous half-hour.

For some commuters this is the most valuable time of the day, this mental ftee time between the pressures of home and the pressures of work. For others it’s a time to get work done. Chief Warrant Officer Diederik Molenaar, who has a 75-minute drive in from the mountains of Julian each morning to be on base in Coronado by 7:00 a.m., is teaching himself Morse code en route, using a keypad he straps to his thigh and a small amplifier. He also listens to tapes on how to buy and sell real estate.

The one thing it’s almost impossible to do is to obey the Buddhist imperative to be here now, to stay in the moment, to be aware of each instant of existence and experience. Commuting is almost always about somewhere else.

Dav Three

Today, by chance, is national Bike to Work Day, and it seems only reasonable to shadow someone who is going to work on two wheels rather than four. Kidelink, a division of the San

Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), has furnished a list of possible cyclomuters, and a daunting document it is too: a 60-year-old vice principal who cycles a 22-mile roundtrip every day, a file clerk who comes into downtown from El Cajon, a Navy lieutenant who cycles to Coronado from Mira Mesa. They are quoted pointing out the health benefits of cycling to work, the savings in parking fees and wear and tear on their cars, and how much more peaceful their new commute is. The press release also claims, albeit without supporting evidence, that San Diego is “the best place in the nation to travel by bicycle."

I call Diane Smith, a physical therapist at Schiley Sports Center of Scripps Clinic, because her ride to work is listed at only 4 1/2 miles. I’m now a guinea pig for progress; the question is not whether cycling to work is worthwhile but whether it’s feasible. Can all of us leave our cars at home and cycle, irrespective of age or distance, in the name of exercise and the benefit of the planet? I am vulnerable to exquisitely painful back spasms that take weeks to heal; the last bout struck after riding my bike. Will I survive even the 4 1/2 miles? And by extension, can others who are not in perfect health make the transition to the bicycle? Rick and Scott at San Diego Bike Rentals recommend a cross-bike, or hybrid, that allows a more upright posture; they lower the saddle and wish me luck.

That night I sleep terribly, and when the alarm goes off at 5:13 I am as stiff as six feet of freeway. At least Diane is a physical therapist, I think, running the shower jet over my rigid pelvis. If I seize up and topple sideways off my bike, she can perhaps pummel my muscles into obedience and traction my spine into something resembling working condition. Not every novice cyclomuter has such backup.

I put the bike in the trunk and arrive at her home in the Genesee Highlands development at 6:00 a.m. Thanks to the shower and ten minutes of stretching, my back has loosened up and now has the flexibility of, say, a pressure-treated two-by-four. I'm hardly an advertisement for the sport of cycling, and my unease grows when Diane appears. She’s already in full gear helmet, skintight yellow shirt. Lycra shorts, streamlined fanny pack, vibration damping cutoff gloves, and those bike shoes that make you clatter around on your heels when you’re temporarily unsaddled. I feel like the kid in Breaking Away who gets shoved off his bike by the Italian team.

As we zip through the half-deserted network of side streets, largely avoiding the urban arteries, we chat, or rather I ask questions and she chats while I focus on breathing. She has been commuting for about nine months, she says. She used to race but dropped cycling in favor of rock-climbing. Then, disgusted with how out of shape she was getting, started biking again, and it made sense to cycle to work just to put in the extra miles. At first she thought it was such a short ride it was hardly worth getting into all the gear, but now it’s second nature, and besides, she doesn’t have to worry about finding a parking space; last weekend she took part in a two-day bike race from Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney. But actually, she continues modestly, she isn’t much of a bike racer. Mostly she does triathlons.

As she is telling me this, I make a particularly clumsy gear change, my thumb slips, and a sharp projection gashes under the nail. After a while I notice I am dripping blood onto my right knee.

We come across one of the Bike to Work Day pit stops just setting up, unpacking power bars, sun block, patch kits, bananas, orange juice, bagels, cinnamon buns, and general encouraging bonhomie. No sign of a chiropractor. We are entered in raffles, given lunch totes, and awarded “Share the Road” T-shirts for being the first ones there. But not for long. Almost at once another cyclist pulls in, a genuine one, his calf muscles like piglets.

We cut across the UCSD campus, and suddenly the air is full of the smell of jasmine. You don’t get that in a car, just as you don’t have young rabbits hopping unafraid across your path.

We head up by a library (ignoring a No Cycling sign) to North Torrey Pines Road, where there is a bike lane, as there is on many of the roads around the campus. What makes San Diego relatively hospitable to cyclists, though, is not so much the designated space as the weather. A bike lane is worse than useless if the road is not in good repair. In many areas, freezing temperatures create havoc with the asphalt Even the smaller potholes will throw you off your bike and under a passing truck.

Diane’s workplace, too, is unusually bike-friendly—so much so that she cycles up to the front doors, which open automatically, into the lobby, where the receptionist smiles and nods, and off down a carpeted corridor. She parks her bike in her office and has the time and the facilities to take a shower before starting work at 7:00.

Despite the pain in my right thumb. I’m forced to admit that we are here and the ride hasn’t been particularly demanding after all The only tricky spot, Diane says, is a narrowish stretch where cars park down one side of the road, and occasionally an unthinking driver will fling open a door.

All the same, there’s a lot of ground to be covered before half of San Diego is cycling to work. For a start, Rideiink seems to be making a pitch for a new breed of bicycle commuter, not the blue-collar worker creaking toward the factory on his old black 20-pound monster with no gears but a much fitter recreational cyclist cyclomuting by choice rather than necessity, and doing so probably over a much greater distance. This must surely be a limited population. Not everyone can afford the bikes necessary for making a substantial commute, and of those, not everyone wants to be up and pedaling at 6:00 a.m.

According to SANDAG, Bike to Work Day drew some 3000 cyclists, some of whom presumably may have been newcomers, but every rider I saw except one had the hard-core gear of the dedicated cyclist. (The exception was a student making her way across campus.) If cyclomuting remains a youthful fad, it’ll never make much of a difference. Above all, the decision to try cycling to work makes the (probably unconscious) assumption that cities evolve spontaneously, beyond our control, and we simply do our best with what we’ve got. This is nonsense. Anyone cycling to work in San Diego, whatever SANDAG’s claims for its suitability for cycling, has to face terrain and distances that were established with the car in mind. Unless we live very close to our place of work, we have to face a slightly modified version of a car commute. No wonder it takes such hard-core gear, such steel muscles.

Secondly, the development of cycling as a major means of transport requires a new respectful relationship between the cyclist and the car owner. (In Dallas, four suburbs have banned cycling on some stretches of road because motorists have complained.) Time and again during my week of commuting I was struck by how little cars and bikes respect each other and how little cyclists respect the rules of the road. Diane, for example, ignored stop signs, used whatever horizontal surface was convenient as if the whole commute were a dignified mountain-bike trek, and gave virtually no hand signals. At one point she rode up on the right-hand side of a line of cars waiting to turn left at a light, pulled across the front of the first car, and, ignoring the signal, made the turn they were all waiting to make. It’s moves like that that make urban cycling such fun; it’s also moves like that that make motorists seethe and harbor the secret desire to see all cyclists topple into ditches.

Diane was more conscientious than most American cyclists in this respect, but that is the point. Cycling is making its claim to be treated as an equal partner on the road, yet on its own terms. In England, where I grew up, many schools encourage or even require young children to take the National Cycling Proficiency Test, which includes not only dexterity with a bike but a demonstration of clear hand signals for turning, slowing, and stopping, and the strict obedience of traffic signs. Which is not to say we were perfect little citizens; but it was well known that if the police caught you running a stop sign or cycling on the sidewalk or even riding without a light, you were likely to get fined.

On the other hand, the law made it equally clear that cars should treat cyclists as equals and give a bike the right to as much room on the road as a car, concept clearly alien here, where I was honked at several times downtown for riding in the middle of a lane.

Ironically, bike ads claim exactly the same qualities that make cars so attractive. They endow the rider with a freedom of mobility, and even, in the case of the mountain bike, a kind of outlaw sexiness. It’s hard to imagine the two sharing the road in mutual respect without change on both parts, the driver granting the cyclist the protection her fragile craft needs, the cyclist agreeing not to flaunt her extra mobility and implicitly rebuke the driver for obeying the rules without which traffic is death on wheels.

Two nights later I meet a physician who has just returned from Denmark, in whose capital more people commute to work by bike than by car and do so largely without $1500 bikes and high-speed gear. Despite its claims of bike-friendliness, San Diego seems a long way away from Copenhagen.


That evening I take the Coaster to Encinitas, seduced by the rumor that on Fridays the entire journey is a kind of rolling TGIF party, and wine and cheese will be served. Will there be a piano car? Terminals offering Netscape and access to the Wall Street Joumal?. Fire swallowers?

At $3, the ticket is remarkably cheap, which is, of course, one of the arguments for mass transit. Another is that mass transit offers the possibility of a social experience. I used to commute to school by train, and it was wonderful. I got in shape by running the mile or so to the station each morning whenever I didn’t get up quickly enough. Four of us played bridge on a briefcase each morning and ultimately won the national schools bridge competition. Above all, we were pressed up against the girls from the private school next door, who were under any other circumstance forbidden to talk to us.

Unlike the trolley, nobody is pressed up against anybody on the Coaster. As we pull away from San Diego, 23 people are in the upper-deck car I’ve picked at random, 21 of them Caucasian. No children, no old people, no shabbily dressed, no unfashionable amounts or styles of hair, no tattoos, no men in undershirts or women in lime-green polyester, no lunch pails, prison T-shirts. “Old Town Station coming right up!” promises the conductor over the PA system in the kind of voice one hears saying, “My name is Frankie. I’ll be your waiter tonight.”

About half are reading: Prime Witness, Debt of Honor, reports, portfolios, magazines. Two men chat cheerfully about work. I’m astonished that even though we are passing Mission Bay, and the landscape offers not shipyards but shaggy palm trees and yachts on dappled silver water, not a single person is looking out of the window. We might as well be on the subway.

Yes, people are tired, yes, this is scenery that is all too familiar, but even so, this is very odd. It seems as if by engaging in the very act of commuting, we resign ourselves to an experience without experience, a null event, a vacuum in time. Outside, the U.S. Hi-Reach yard, with its dozen cherry pickers, looks like a parliament of mechanical giraffes; inside, we could be in a waiting room, in a comfortable state of suspended animation.

Alongside the track runs a bike path, at first alarmingly narrow and bordered by a spiky assortment of industrial debris, then becoming dirt, climbing up and down the side of the canyon’s slope rather charmingly, like a 19th-century mule track. Every couple of minutes a cyclist comes into sight, wearing the go-faster gear of the hardcore devotee.

Roughly even with the merge, the land opens up. We're not moving as fast as the Japanese bullet trains, but then you can’t have both speed and these wonderfully wrinkled and intricate canyons brushing the windows on both sides, the railway's unique topography. The trolley, more urban, doesn’t have this either.

The railway, it strikes me, is a relatively well-behaved tenant of this valley. It occupies perhaps a fifth the space of the freeway, and it takes up that space in a relatively unobtrusive way. While the impact of cars and trucks is virtually continuous, for most of the time a railway gives off no vibration, noise, or petrochemical emissions. It causes no more environmental disturbance to lay down than a freeway and in some respects less. It is easier to take up when it becomes obsolete, as all current means of transport inevitably will; and its level bed, cleared of tracks, ties, and ballast, makes an excellent biking or hiking path. In England some stretches of abandoned railway, especially where the track passed between embankments through a sheltered cutting, were such tranquil havens that they had developed unusually diverse local ecosystems, especially rich in wildflowers and butterflies.

“This is it, happy travelers,” warbles the conductor. “San Diego's diamond in the rough, Sorrento Valley, coming right up!”

Commuting has its effects not only on the environment, but also on our consciousness. The effect of the Coaster in particular is almost the opposite of that of the trolley. If the trolley offers a full-spectrum experience inside the car, the Coaster offers it outside, in a wonderful variety of colors and landscapes — urban, suburban, rural.

It reinforces a very American form of self-selection. While 19th-century trains might have different cars for first class, second class, third class, and cattle class, here the problem doesn’t arise because the cattle class is simply somewhere else, out of sight, and would not take this train because the train doesn’t go where they live. In New York all classes rub shoulders on the subway, which is why it is such an uncomfortable experience. (Though of course the heat, the darkness, the noise, and the breakdowns don’t help.) Middle-class America would rather see segregation in commuting, and segregation is what the Coaster offers.

The automobile, by the way, offers the greatest segregation of all. We can be a society of one, and more than three-quarters of us choose to do exactly that. The social and cultural experience of commuting, then, is all-important. Simply because so many of us are going roughly the same way at roughly the same time forces us to deal in some way with our fellow travelers, and our fondest hope is that we can arrive at work with our wallets and our comforting assumptions still in place.

And now we are in Solana Beach and Encinitas, in places literally between the cliffs and the sea. We have the ocean, the beach, the beach houses and hotels, the sun—the West Coast dream.

This is the bargain of commuting par excellence. We want to live in paradise, or as close to it as we can afford. Yet paradise is, in our minds, as far away from work as possible. So we accept the drive or the train ride. Yet the equation is nonlinear; everything affects everything else. The road that leads to paradise also provides the means of its destruction, as the wear and tear inflicted by every car is an argument that the road should be first paved, then strengthened, then widened. Commuting has a habit of destroying its own object, Hot to mention its effect on the commuter.

Commuting is a kind of drain. By separating paradise from work, we drain much of our money, our energy, and our attention from the area where we work The vacant lots and rundown blocks of downtown San Diego would never happen under European zoning laws, which tend to strictly preserve agricultural land and clearly delineate country from city. If there is nowhere else to sprawl, we must invest in our cities, where we both live and work. If we accept commuting as a necessary evil, then we also unthinkingly sign off on a dozen other evils that we complain about, not realizing that the road that leads to one leads to all.

A woman is talking over a cell phone. “You want to barbecue? Okay. You want me to stop by the grocery store?” O brave new commute, that hath such creations in it. “Okay. I’ll see you later. love you. Bye.”

Day Four

A slight but significant foul-up. I have arranged to ride to work with a car pool from Mira Mesa, but there is some confusion over directions and they leave without me. That’s the thing about multiple-occupancy-vehicle (MOV) travel; it necessarily introduces constraints of time and movement, like a hybrid between the car and the train. Californians, brought up to think of cars as instruments of freedom, are already at odds here. Using a communal vehicle is like giving up a mild but ubiquitous recreational drug.

All the same, I check out signs of MOV activity in the area. The 1990 Census Transportation Planning Package suggests that 14 percent of San Diegans car pool to work, but this is frankly hard to believe. At 7:15 a.m. the Mira Mesa Park-and-Ride is less than a quarter full, with perhaps two dozen vehicles. The car-pool-only lane on the I-15 access ramp is barely used, and those who use it while I’m waiting in line at the two-per-green light aren’t model car poolers: one occupant, a motorbike, two occupants, one, one, and a van that I can’t see into, so I doubt that it’s pooling. Out on the highway, it’s the old story: one, one, one, one, one, one, two, one, one, one, one.

When the first diamond lanes were introduced on the Santa Monica Freeway in the 1970s, they were a public relations disaster. Environmental savings were overshadowed by the fact that accidents went up in the already crowded single-occupancy lanes. A kind of urban guerrilla warfare broke out. Some drivers fitted their cars with devices that would let them drop paint-filled balloons onto the diamonds, trying to obliterate them and the policy they represented. Since that experience, says Kyle Nelson, spokesperson for Caltrans, “We add a lane (and] designate it as a car-pool lane, so there's no net loss of lanes.”

The average occupancy on the freeway, according to Caltrans, is 1.19 people per car— less during rush hour, especially less during morning rush hour. The free-toll car-pool incentive on the Coronado Bridge has made little or no measurable difference in vehicle occupancy. The only time the rate really goes up is during the evening, when families go out; and historically, the only significant increase in ride-sharing was during the fuel crises of the early to mid-70s, after which it dropped again to previous levels. And ride-sharing doesn’t necessarily reduce the actual number of vehicle miles driven. A car is left at home, but that may simply mean that the principal driver’s spouse or kids may use it, when before they couldn’t. The total number of vehicle miles driven has dropped fractionally in the last year or two, but that may be because several major employers have left town or closed down.

The morning’s maneuverings show how the rules of traffic echo the rules of fluid dynamics: any change in flow creates turbulence. As I slow to make a (legal) U-turn on Mira Mesa Boulevard, the guy behind me is forced to slow down too. I wave apologetically over my shoulder, glancing in my mirror. “Asshole," he mouths.

This raises further questions about the rush hour as a form of society, albeit a primitive one. Don Norman, author of Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles and founding chair of the department of cognitive science at UCSD, points out that even though as a species we have evolved a miraculously intricate and subtle series of ways to communicate with each other and an equally diverse and useful range of social skills using those means of communication, when we get in a car we are reduced to the equivalent of brutish grunts. Here we are, trying to carryout a series of give-and-take negotiations with complete strangers (often more than one at the same time) while trying to control our own vehicle at 65 miles an hour, and all we have are simple on-off signals with headlights, turn signals, brake lights, plus a limited range of often ambiguous hand gestures. Our most expressive features — our faces, and especially our eyes — may be useless due to glare or shadow. We have no way to exercise our social skills, no graceful way to say, “Excuse me, do you mind if I edge in here? I need to get to the airport in ten minutes” or “Look, it’s not my fault my fan belt snapped, and now I’m stuck here holding up traffic in the middle lane.” As a result our conversation is stultified and our relations with other drivers have a built-in friction.


I stroll into the Chula Vista Telecenter, a storefront on East H Street, at 10:15, after the rush hour has subsided. Telecommuting (“commuting" by phone, fax, modem, or other electronic means) allows us to go to work whenever we choose. It allows us to escape machine time, or at least makes it much more flexible.

According to a New York-based research firm, nearly 10 million Americans regularly telecommute. The employer who tends to perch on his employees’ shoulders to make sure they’re actually working (a habit Angie Jarchow, the center’s director, tactfully calls “micromanaging") probably finds telecommuting hard to trust. But in 1993, the City of Los Angeles estimated that employees who telecommuted were 12.5 percent more effective than non-telecommuters; and the County of Los Angeles calculated last year that telecommuting was responsible for a 10 percent increase in productivity and a decrease in absenteeism that amounted to an annual savings of $17 million.

A survey conducted for the Southern California Telecommuting Partnership in 1995 found that employers of telecommuters reported better productivity and morale, better employee retention, and improved customer service. The employees themselves reckoned they saved an average of an hour a day by eliminating their daily commute to and from the office, which they said gave them more time to themselves, less stress, lowered their car-related expenses, and allowed them to get more work done and spend more time with their families.

Telecommuting, as conceived in San Diego, at least, is justified less in terms of reducing the individual driver’s stress and more in terms of considering the overall impact of commuting on the region and its environment. Much of the center’s funding comes from Caltrans, the California Energy Commission, and the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District. To calculate its value in terms of net environmental impact, each user, when signing in, has to estimate how many miles’ travel he has saved by working in the telecenter. In some cases, according to the log, it may be 10 or 20 miles; in others it may be hundreds.

With this in mind, the design and construction of the telecenter is consciously “green.” The carpeting is made from recycled bottle caps; the partitions from recycled milk bottles; the paint is water-based; the adhesives used are nontoxic; the monitors, copier, and printer go to sleep when they aren’t being used, cutting down on energy use. The decor is a calming sea-foam green, and every cubicle is decorated with plants and underwater photography.

The place is loaded with the stuff we all like to stare longingly at in office supply catalogs. The ten workstations have a wide variety of software and hard ware packages, some of them customized to the needs of telecenter regulars; multiple phone lines with digital message systems; Internet access, e-mail, and Netscape; fax, copier, networked laser printer, conference room, bathrooms, and kitchen facilities — even ergonomic office chairs.

The East H Street center is currently running at roughly a third of its capacity. Four people have signed up for office time today, but as it turns out two are sick and two are out of town. The conference room, though, is in use, and every so often enthusiastic raised voices filter through the wall. (The telecenter in downtown Chula Vista has video conferencing. ) “We’re not a Kinko’s,” Angie asserts. “We don’t want a high amount of traffic. We want a more consistent use. One of the services we offer is a good working environment.”

If I’m a genuine telecommuter, that is, if I would have driven to an office if I weren’t in the telecenter, then I reimburse the telecenter only for the direct costs of the materials I use there. For this reason, Angie directs most of her marketing at employers. Some even come to her. She does a zip code run to see which employees live within a five- to seven-mile radius of the center, shows them the facilities, and trains anyone who is interested. If I just want to use it as a home office away from home, I could rent a fully equipped workstation for $40 a day or $400 a week.

There isn’t much exciting to see here, but again, that’s the point. What happens here is work minus the commute. Commuting is a kind of turbulence, an activity caused by an interruption to or obstruction within the system. When someone books in here, or when I stroll downstairs to my office at home, the turbulence is at a minimum. No fuss. Just getting down to work.

That evening, I meet Dorina Bautista at the county courthouse, where she works for Jury Services. As we walk up to Second and A, she tells me about her van pool.

She is one of the alternate drivers for the pool, in charge today because the principal driver is out sick. Only 11 are in the van today, in fact. She picked them up at four meeting places this morning. Once she has the van, a new Dodge Ram 350 leased from Van-pool Services Inc., out of its lot, she’ll pick up her riders for the trip home at a collecting spot just around the corner from the courthouse.

The vans are not cheap to lease. A 15-seater may run $1300 a month, but SANDAG subsidizes the costs, and Dorina tells me that her own share comes to $38 a month for everything— gas, lease, parking. (Adora, the principal driver, who also acts as group organizer, travels free.)

So, if a month is roughly 20 working days, with a round-trip of 20 miles a day at a wear-and-tear cost of, say, 30 cents a mile — that would be a cost of $120 a month, and, as Dorina points out, her family would have to buy another car.

Van pooling and car pooling are two of the initiatives SANDAG offers to those who call the 237-POOL number and actively promotes them to employers in the region because the reduced traffic and improved air quality are in everyone’s interest Employers seem to be in favor of pooling (though only if it is offered as a choice; the Chamber of Commerce lobbied heavily against a mandated pooling ordinance that was ultimately defeated in 1995); poolers arrive at work less stressed, and they are more productive. It’s also a cheap benefit to attract employees. Their travel costs are lowered, and they get to park closer to the front door.

Dorina pulls over for her riders, and the atmosphere on board becomes...um...domestic. People settle into their seats as if they have worn grooves into them or as if they intend to. A quiet conversation springs up at the back, probably in “Taglish,” the mixture of Tagalog and English they habitually speak in the van.

This particular van pool was founded in 1981; Dorina was one of the originals, as were Carol and Linda, who are listening closely to correct Dorina’s history. The first van was a private nine-seater owned by Cecilia Martinez, who worked in the D.A’s office, a venerable vehicle that broke down from time to time. Even then the pool was subsidized, and the county subsidized the parking space. Some of the administrative details have changed, as has the van, but the pool has never dried up, at times even running a waiting list. At the moment there are 15 riders, 13 women and 2 men, and everyone is Filipino—by coincidence, the riders say, looking at themselves as if it had never occurred to them —though in the past they’ve had Hispanics, blacks, and whites. Fourteen of them work in the courthouse; the other works for the county.

On Adora’s birthday they all get together for a lunch of gratitude; sometimes they’ll all agree to stop for dinner on the way home. Eight of them have hooked up for a lottery pool, chipping in $4 each per paycheck.

“How do you decide which number to choose?” I ask. “Quick Pick!” they chorus, laughing.

From time to time, someone will bring doughnuts or rolls for everyone in the morning. And it’s understood that if someone goes on vacation, they’ll bring back mementos for the group. If someone tries out a new recipe, she’ll bring extra along for the pool to sample. They trade videos, books, recipes, advice, a friendly ear. It’s not uncommon for riders to lament their family difficulties on the morning run or vent about work in the evening, and Donna makes it clear that the group applies its collective wisdom.

When Helen’s mother was dying of cancer, several riders decided to say rosaries for her on the commute for a few days, then stopped out of consideration for the non-Catholics in the pool, even though no one had complained.

“I’ve never heard of anyone [in the group] going to a psychologist or a psychiatrist,” says Donna. “Maybe it’s because there’s always someone there who’s willing to listen.”

In half an hour we’re in an area of small, neat houses in Paradise Hills, with their trimmed shrubs and dwarf trees. Everyone is dropped off in four or five stops, depending on the day, as it works out, several of them are right on Adora’s route and get door-to-door service.

What is it I find so appealing about this van? Part of it, surely, is that the atmosphere is profoundly maternal and reassuring. Far from being solitary and stressful, like the usual one-occupant commuting experience, the van is its own mobile society. No matter how much the vehicle is exposed to the existential tarmac, the people are not, and the driver has her support system in her task of getting the big van from A to B and back again.

Also, they don’t drive on the interstate. Their route is among the actual dwellings of real people, some of whom they know. This not only gives the experience greater psychic meaning, it affects the way people drive. One librarian I talked to confessed to driving “very aggressively” on the freeway, but when she is in her own community, she said, she slows down to exactly the speed limit and takes umbrage at the out-of-town drivers who pile up behind her, fuming.

This is the point: the freeway is nobody's hometown. There is anonymity in motion. If we are just passing through and will probably never see someone again, why do I need to be considerate? (Especially since I have the car as my metal shell and my means of escape.) An ethical relationship demands a sense of community.

Somehow, all the “green” arguments — the natural gas, the saving of the environment — seem almost less important than this sense of community, security, and shared endeavor. Perhaps it will never be possible to foist environmental consciousness on a public that already feels overextended and under pressure. But once the right social circumstances are developed, environmental consciousness probably arises of its own accord. The van is a society; it must already be harder for these riders to think in antisocial terms.

Day Five

At 4:15 a.m. Christine Bayly is already up and in the shower. Cup of tea, English muffin, check the briefcases, fill the tan Buick Century with gas in the darkness (“I spend $150 a month on gas for this trip”), and by 4:58 we’re on our way from Ocean Beach to Los Angeles.

She lives in what was once her grandmother’s house, with its tiny pool, its tiny orchard, and its tiny lawn where she and her friends get together at Christmas, hold a Tackiest Santa contest, and burn the most egregious ones while singing wicked versions of Christmas carols. She’s lived there on and off since she was five. She’d far prefer to live in San Diego than L.A. To be honest, she could do most of her sales work for Monterey Home Video from out of her home, where she runs her own film and video acquisition and sales company, but MHV pays her handsomely to be in Agoura Hills three days a week (“They want the body in the office,” she says, echoing unwittingly what Angie said about micromanagers), so she sets out before dawn on Tuesdays and comes back after work on Thursdays and has been doing so since last Halloween.

“Once a week for seven months, and I’m real bored now. It’s taken me up to four hours, and then you’re just useless for the rest of the day. I work a lot of hours to pay for the gas to make this trip,” she says, as if it has never struck her before. “But once you’re in a career and everyone knows you.... In San Diego the options are limited in international film distribution.”

Road repairs are underway, and the fast lane runs next to a line of massive temporary concrete dividers. “I don’t like this lane,” she says, checking her mirror and pulling across. “I hate the concrete. It’s claustrophobic” We pass Del Mar at 5:18.

“On a good day we hit Oceanside on the half-hour."

She thinks mostly about business. “Things I have to accomplish. I’m bringing in cartoons from Poland and translating them into English. We’re editing out the chicken’s anus they included in great detail, because that probably won’t fly in Peoria. A lot of the time I turn the talk radio on. It keeps me sane, hearing people natter about stupid stuff.

‘This must be karmic retribution for something, because I hate to drive. I like the mobility, but driving is something I never look forward to.” All the same, she and her girlfriend recently saw Thelma and Louise and took off in a Chrysler LeBaron convertible all the way across the South, 7000 miles and 14 states in three weeks. Her friend did the city driving, she did the highways. “I just go fast and straight. I’m a little laid back and not as aggressive and always watching out for the other guy to be an idiot. Also, I like to do two or three things at once, and when you’re driving you can only do one. It’s boring. I also don’t sit still very well for a stretch.”

A car pulls past us on the right. “Yeah,” she says caustically. “I’m going 85, and he has to pass me on the inside.”

How does she manage to maintain this speed and not get pulled over? “I find fast friends and stick with them. We travel in packs and don’t alert the gendarmes.”

We pass Oceanside and enter what she calls “the 17- mile Camp Pendleton run. Pendleton is the only reason why San Diego and LA don’t touch.” She checks the time. “We’re right on track, barring accidents or idiots, to be right at LA about 7:00, which is a target goal.”

The 405, though it looks quicker, may be up to half an hour longer, she says, and runs through her route in a flurry of polynumerals.

“I don’t mind going 25 or 35, but I hate stopping. Stopping is not my friend. When you’re just sitting in your stupid car just waiting for some stupid idiot up ahead of you to do something.... One of the DJs said it’s like there’s a designated idiot in your lane about 5 miles ahead just to make your life miserable.” I’m struck by this routine denigration of everyone else, or perhaps a division of this entire unsociable society into fast friends or idiots. I’ve done it myself, in fact, the more pressure I’m under, the more likely I am to feel the rise of that choking sweep-’em-aside frustration. Ken Fitzgerald, an attorney who used to commute to law school at UCLA put his finger on the relationship among speed, frustration, and freedom. On the return journey, fleeing LA, “I drove very, very fast,” he said quietly. “The air, the traffic — I just had to get out of there as soon as I could. Yet it almost wasn’t so much a question of speed; it was more a matter of trying to get some open road in front of you.” The more we believe in the car as instrument of freedom, the angrier we get when it can’t deliver and the more we blame those around us, who have exactly the same conflict between illusion and reality.

Christine points dramatically at a rest area on the southbound lane. "That is the rest area. The only one between here and LA In the afternoon, a pit stop’s almost always in order.” Going north she rarely has a problem, she says, which surprises me, as she has left the house with a large thermal cup of coffee and another of water.

Now she’s switched to KNX1070 to listen to their every-six-minutes traffic reports. The fiercer the commute, the more the radio is the drivers’ only friend, their only advisor, company, and reassurance out there in the war.

One car has burst into flames somewhere, and another has stalled; three lanes are blocked thanks to water and gas leaks elsewhere. “I don’t care about that,” she says. None should affect us. I have a momentary sense of a blockage somewhere in the circulation of the blood.

“If the 5 has a sig closure, you obviously bail to the 405,” she says offhandedly. “I’ve no idea what sig means. It’s just a piece ofI LA-speak they don’t use anywhere else.” I’ve never heard of roads referred to as “the” 405 or “the” 101 either, and it sounds odd. I expect “the Santa Monica” or “the Santa Ana,” but to give a numeral a definite article seems to be giving it some kind of promotion in importance. Later, as we get close to the heart of LA., I realize that this is all too true. In that repetitive wasteland of cement and scrubby grass, the numbers of the roads are the only things that change. They are landmarks; they deserve their definite articles.

As we pass through San Clemente, a high wall down the western shoulder blocks our view of the freeway’s neighbors, and theirs of us. On the other side, a thin screen of shrubs. This is it. This is the logical architecture of commuting. The drivers don’t want distractions, the residents don’t want to see and hear the traffic. As a result, the closer we get to L.A. the more the freeway becomes its own landscape. The logical conclusion toward which the act of automobile commuting drives us, then, is a landscape of storm drains. In fact, the perfect medium for efficient commuting would be a personal culvert for each driver, a concrete tube leading from home to office or factory, free of distractions, stoplights, and gridlock, fast and free. We would have arrived: humans as sewage.

The sun is now well up, but the visual impact of the road is increasingly a kind of gray-out. The Seasonal Affect Disorder specialists who study the impact of light wavelength on our moods and health should study the effects of this narrow-spectrum light experience, bereft of cool greens and calming blues.

At San Juan Capistrano, Christine takes advantage of my presence to use the car-pool lane, and we cruise past several dozen slower vehicles, but the lane doesn’t last long.

“We’re doing pretty well. We’re almost at the 7, and it’s a few minutes till.”

Christine’s theory about hours and half hours is that commuters set themselves a round-number ETD, saying, “I’ve gpt to be out of here at six,” or at six-thirty, or whatever. “If you’re there at six, right as they’re leaving their house, you’re beating them.” And, sure enough, as we hit Laguna Niguel at six, the traffic suddenly thickens. “Tell me I’m an idiot now. Four minutes past six.”

She points out that many of LA.’s high-speed roads were originally built as parkways — not that there’s much park left now—and only three lanes wide but impossible to widen and now are bottlenecks. “Bridges with concrete risers and buildings within ten feet. But here they’re getting rid of the shoulders and putting in two new lanes or car-pool lanes or something.”

All the way up, she’s been talking about the “El Toro Y," where 5 and 405 split, in a mixture of loathing and dread. But in fact the traffic is not too bad, and we cruise through.

She points ahead at an IKEA, another pit stop possibility, as is a mall called Main Street Plaza in Santa Ana. “If there’s too much traffic, I just get off and shop.

“Culver,” she reminisces. “I once sat here for a real long time when some idiot had a wreck up here.

“It wouldn’t be like this if we hadn’t torn up our trolley car tracks,” she says of Ocean Beach in particular, but of California, even America, in general. “Some guy from Detroit came through buying up all the trolley systems and telling people that the bus was where the future was. That guy should be burning in hell for ripping up our mass transit.”

There’s some truth to this. San Diego is unusual in having a working trolley system. In 1937 about seven million people rode streetcars. But then GM, Firestone, Standard Oil, and Mack machinery joined forces to buy up electric trolley and streetcar outfits, according to the World-watch Institute, acquiring more than 100 electric rail systems in 45 cities, dismantled the electric lines, and paved over the tracks. By the late ’50s, about 90 percent of the nation’s trolley systems had been eliminated or had collapsed under the unequal competition against subsidized gasoline and the automobile, the vehicle of the future.

Whether or not a coalition of interests was at work in the trolley takeover, Los Angeles found other ways to sabotage its own rail and trolley systems. The land purchased during World War II for parkway development was specifically measured to allow rapid transit lines to be built along the median between the tracks. When it came time to build, though, a group (though not necessarily a conspiracy) of forces voted against building the rail lines, and the path was suddenly cleared for I os Angeles to become a great big freeway.

We reach Disneyland in 78 minutes, almost a record. Then suddenly we slow down. “Okay. Here we go. The 91 is screwing us up. I’m going to drive you nuts and have a cigarette. Normally I’ve had eight by now.” She has tried to quit but broke out in hives. She says she’ll try again when she hits a low-stress phase in her life. The traffic speeds up again. “We’re lucky. We’re on the numbers. This could be my fastest commute of all time.”

We cross into LA County at La Mirada at 6:26 and immediately find ourselves crawling at 25 miles an hour, then slower. Three lanes here, no car-pool lanes. “And our first stop.” We gaze around at the grim sight. “Frightening, isn’t it? And it just gets worse now. Until 10:00.” She shakes her head. “But now we’re committed. There’s no place to bail. This is probably the 605 screwing us up all the way back here.”

Now everyone is shifting, a lane here, a lane there, jostling for the positions that open and close, glimpses of progress and hope. “Stupid truck,” she mutters. “I had my spot and he took it.” From now on, many of the exits will be on the left, which she hates, just as she hates traffic merging from the left into the fast lane. “They should come into the slow lane. Let them fight it out”

But we pick it up again after a while. She points out how 101 is one of the notorious parkways, and to my surprise we’re virtually in downtown LA, which looks oddly small after all the endless flat, scrubby, monotonous prelude.

And this is it, the thing we all overlook because we are intelligent, adaptable creatures, as Raymond Novaco says, and we will make the best of the situation, even if it means we have to sit in traffic for half an hour or an hour or two hours a day, even if we end up sometimes feeling like shooting some idiot who has cut us off. The point is that commuting, like so many evils, is the by-product of competing seductions — the desire to have a good job, the desire to live in a nice house with some land, the desire to move freely. All three dramatically affect the way we have planned and developed our cities and our countryside; and the answer, as Caltrans knows, wiU never be simply to build more roads. Roads act as magnets or, perhaps more appropriately, as drains; build them (this is the Moses/Aldrich solution), and still more traffic will be attracted to them, will flow into them. The answer is to reduce our reliance on the car, but that reliance is not merely whimsical. “Californians love their cars,” people said to me, shaking their heads. “They’ll never give up their cars.” But that love is at least half necessity, a necessity that has been graven in stone and brick and concrete.

“There’s not many places you can walk,” Amy McKibben had said. “In La )olla you can walk anywhere. In San Francisco you can jump on a bus for three blocks and do your grocery shopping. The shops are only a mile and a half away from where I live, but I still have to get in my car and drive there.”

Commuting is intimately related to urban planning. The new “urban village” or “growth center” planning theories design a community densely, around the movements of people rather than cars. Other models use public transport as a network or hub.

George Franck is a SANDAG senior planner with special responsibility for the transit element of the region’s long-range transportation plan. He provides staff support for the Regional Growth Management Technical Committee, a group of planners from every city in the county that aims to influence development over the next few decades. One of their methods is to give input to cities as they update their general plans, though this is a long-range process since many cities haven’t updated their plans for a decade or even two.

Some of his group’s recommendations are: develop highest residential density near rail stations and along bus corridors; establish residential enclaves within employment centers; look at ways to enable people to make fewer, shorter trips using more mass transit, bikes, or on foot; and reduce the amount of undeveloped or agricultural land that is developed — in other words, reduce sprawl.

The nature of population growth in San Diego County is changing, Franck says, and in a way that suggests the area is ripe for a greater sense of stability and community. Over the last several decades, two-thirds of growth was from people moving into the county. Soon 50 to 55 percent will be from natural increase of those already resident.

Transport is not just a matter of cars and bottlenecks, but of community in general. In the old urban village model, the transit stations would have been a focal part of the village center, along with shops and essential services. The decay of the nation’s rail, trolley, and bus services (and of its downtowns) has meant this focus has vanished. Consider the desolate image that springs to mind when someone says “Greyhound station”; or consider the lack of local identity around many of the San Diego South Bay trolley stops, some of which seem to have been dropped almost at random, as Franck says, next to a gas station or a 7-Eleven. One plan is to intensify growth around these urban village centers and thereby build (or in some instances rebuild) a sense of community.

In addition to the vital but amorphous sense of community, such change will reduce the number of trips San Diegans make every day and change the means by which we make them. Reducing the use of cars avoids the extra burden of the walk just to get to the car, the walk from the car to our destination, and the extra walk required because the landscape has been planned for the car. If nothing else, huge park ing structures require the non-car-user to walk across a hundred yards of asphalt simply to get past the cars and into the shops.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Franck says, he knew the people who lived around him because he walked among them and talked with or at least saw them regularly. We don’t need sociological analyses of the relationship between a sense of community and, say, crime to realize the connection. The popularity of A Prairie Home Companion is surely among people who (possibly) remember and (certainly) wish for the strong sense of local identity that Garrison Keillor creates and for such tranquil values arid settings. Franck mentions Mission Hills as a district that managed to retain something of a sense of localism; his daughter can still ride her bike or walk to the park in safety.

But the desirability of a denser population, long accepted in Europe and Japan and such “European” North American cities as Montreal, raises the question of white America’s fear of pluralism and the fact that many believe density inevitably leads to crime. The response is to buy distance from the poor, a response that ultimately leads to a “walled city” mentality, increasingly popular in some areas such as California, Texas, and Florida. Franck’s argument is that poverty rather than density leads to crime, but as California (and America in general) becomes more multiracial, this issue will not be resolved easily.

Franck also makes the point that simply building more densely may be worse than useless, citing the example of North Park, where greater density paradoxically can lead to greater isolation. You no longer have “eyes on the street” to reinforce the sense of community and deter crime. “It’s a major issue that we’re going to have to find an answer for,” he says. America is also becoming more polarized in terms of wealth. So whether poverty or density or plurality leads to crime, the issue is not going to go away. And if we adopt the walled-city form of development, we are simply sucking money from those areas outside the walled city, where we still have to work, and giving ourselves a longer commute through an increasingly desolate wasteland.


Downtown LA. is in sight off the port bow. I’m curious about this weird Gomorrah, this child of mad architects and cradle ofbrain-dead film directors, but having gotten up so early, I have no desire to explore, and I can’t imagine how Christine will get a day’s work done. I just want to get back to San Diego. But Christine, despite having lived in and around LA. for several years, has the classic Angelino’s ignorance of public transport. She once dropped her lawyer off downtown only to find herself lost and stuck in a bus lane, where she could have been ticketed.

But wait. There’s Alameda, so Union Station is right off the freeway. But in that instant, a ramp has opened up underneath us, and we’re about to branch off onto the freeway without meaning to.

“I don’t want to be on the 10!” Christine yelps. “Help! I’m lost!”

In this instant of panic, what saves us is neither good driving nor good navigating, but one of those rare, illuminating moments of human decency, someone lets us in. We’re back on 101, then off it, then in the Union Station concourse, two hours exactly after leaving San Diego. Christine has another 40 minutes ahead of her, but so far this looks like a good day.

The day isn’t quite over for me either, as I have the chance to see main-line rail commuting firsthand.

Union Station is downright weird. Its L.A. film noir interior is almost deserted. At 7:00 a.m., the height of the rush hour, 12 people are in sight. No one stands in line for tickets. Is this the principal station of one of the world’s major cities? And when the San Diegan boards at 8:35, the platforms, too, are deserted. Grand Central Station is busier than this at 2:00 a.m.

My ticket (subsidized by Caltrans) is $25, which is probably cheaper than the wear-tear-and-gas cost of driving, but Amtrak does little else to make people think twice about taking the automobile. The selection of food is pitiful, the windows tiny, the officials use a strange herding method of boarding people, and the train has apparently been booked to the absolute capacity of its few cars. By saving the cost of hooking up another car, the company has grumpy passengers packed in like lab rats.

The scenery may be incomparably more interesting than it is from the interstate, and San Juan Capistrano may have one of the most beautiful small stations I’ve seen, but in what other First World country do trains run between two top-seven cities so slowly and so infrequently? And the trip back to San Diego takes a full hour more than Christine’s commute, traffic notwithstanding. No wonder people drive.

—Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the author of Catching My Breath and a regular correspondent for National Public Radio.

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2-D transfers of 3-D Rarities

Genres covered include sci-fi, westerns, cartoons, musicals, and an A-Bomb scare film, along with other assorted documentaries.
 A 15-seater may run $1300 a month, but SANDAG subsidizes the costs, and Dorina tells me that her own share comes to $38 a month for everything. - Image by Dave Allen
A 15-seater may run $1300 a month, but SANDAG subsidizes the costs, and Dorina tells me that her own share comes to $38 a month for everything.

The first curious thing about commuting by car is that in some ways it is the exact opposite of travel in general. When we travel we do so with our eyes and ears open, asking questions, going out of our way to meet people, reading up on history and geology and architecture, drinking in our surroundings, constantly alive to new perspectives and possibilities.

As we pull away from San Diego, 23 people are in the upper-deck car I’ve picked at random, 21 of them Caucasian. No children, no old people, no shabbily dressed, no unfashionable amounts or styles of hair, no tattoos, no men in undershirts or women in lime-green polyester, no lunch pails, prison T-shirts.

When we commute we just want to get there. Anything that happens is probably a nuisance. The best we can hope for is a double negative : that nothing goes wrong, that nothing holds us up. It’s an experience without experience.

The second curious thing about commuting by car is how much we take it for granted. We don’t even notice the first curious thing,

We pass the merge, the infamous junction of I-5 and 805, and paradoxically the traffic slows down even heading south, where four lanes become eight.

Day One

It’s 5:45 a.m. I had a few beers last night, stayed up talking to friends until after midnight, and it’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed. My back hurts. The shower is cold. I wish I'd never chosen this stupid assignment. I’ve reached the emotional core of the commuting experience; resentment.

Resentment, I suspect, has some very interesting and important effects on the way we behave while we commute, on that kind of screw-you competitiveness that can easily escalate into freeway violence. If we resent our jobs or the fact that we have to be getting up so early and driving under such frustrating conditions to get there, we can easily justify our own unpleasant behavior by thinking, “Hell, I didn’t want to be here anyway.” We can play a kind of moral shell game, hiding the responsibility for our actions under someone else’s thimble.

Amy McKibben lives in Encinitas and works in ad sales in downtown San Diego. She could probably take the Coaster in from Del Mar, but she needs her car all day. Ad salespeople and realtors will probably be the last to give up their cars, as the car as image is almost as important as the car as transport. In Amy’s case the vehicle is a newish white Jeep Cherokee, very smart. She picks me up in Leucadia, and we head toward I-5.

She’s been commuting around San Diego for “a gazillion years,” but her current commute, from North County into the city, has been going on for some 18 months. “I used to live in la Jolla, which is a whole ’nother traffic nightmare.”

We hit the freeway at around 7:00 a.m. Timing is a crucial element in her commute; 7:10 is fine, but by 7:15 all the commuters are arriving from Orange County, and things get ugly.

Let’s talk about commuting, cars, and Americans, especially Californians.

America is now linked by about 4 million miles of highways and streets, about 40 yards per car. The amount of travel by car is increasing 10 to 15 percent a year, significantly faster than the growth in population. Americans drive twice as many miles per person per year as the next most road-hungry nation. New Zealand. When making short trips around town, Americans in general are twice as likely to take a car as any other nation: 82 percent of all such trips are done by car. Germany comes second with 48 percent. But at least 11 percent of urban trips in Germany use public transport; in America public transport is used only 3 percent of the time.

The results are complex and ubiquitous—a landscape designed for the automobile rather than the human, especially the walking human, some staggeringly poor air quality (cars contribute about two-thirds of all air pollution), and a steady increase in the difficulty involved in getting around. The U.S. General Accounting Office has predicted that by 2005, traffic delay in cities across the country will have increased by more than 400 percent.

California, the most car-dependent state, has nearly 20 percent of the nation’s drivers; on its roads drivers clock 240 billion miles a year. (I’m indebted for this and other data in this article to K.T. Berger's excellent book Where the Road and the Sky Collide.) In California, the number of registered vehicles — more than 20 million — has more than doubled in the last two decades; the state now has more registered vehicles than licensed drivers. By various estimates, the length of the average commute in Southern California has increased by 20 to 40 percent over the last decade, both because of increased congestion and because we are commuting from farther away. David W. Jones, author of California's Freeway Era in Historical Perspective, writes that “we are now facing a crisis in commuting, as we did 50 years ago."

Not to mention the human results of these stressful conditions. Raymond Novaco of the University of Califomia-Irvine, an expert in freeway aggression and violence, has said, “Chronic exposure to traffic congestion impairs health, psychological adjustment, and work performance.” It also causes chest pain, elevated blood pressure, negative mood, frustration intolerance (these lower one’s violence threshold), job change, variations in job attitude and performance, residential attitude, and overall life satisfaction.

“But the curious thing is,” Novaco has said, “I don’t think the traffic is bad enough. I think what people are doing is continually internalizing the costs associated with commuting. People continually adapt; we’re very adaptive organisms.”


The traffic, which has been moving fairly smoothly, stops at Santa Fe Drive. “That’s almost a constant,” Anly says casually. Beside us, people line up at the freeway ramp lights; she’s known it to take five minutes just to get onto the freeway. Sometimes the police will set up a device that will shoot a photo of anyone who runs the light, recording the front of their car and the license plate. Amy once triggered it, she said. “I could see it flash. But I don’t have a front license plate,” and she got off scot-free. These are little guerrilla tales, not so much anti-police, I suspect, as acts of a more general rebellion against the suffocating restrictions of stop-start commuting.

Virtually every car has only one occupant: 1,1,1,1,1,2,1,1, 1,1,2,1,1,1,1,2,1,1, 1. This inefficient use of road, machine, and fuel is at its most noticeable during the rush hour. “You very rarely see anyone in the car-pool lane,” she says. “It’s usually a father and son on an odd day going to the dentist."

At Via de la Valle we crest the hill and see five lanes of traffic ahead, crawling. The fast lane turns out to be the slowest, for some reason. “This lane will end up going faster,” she said, as if enunciating a faith. “If you’re in it, you might as well stay in it." This is the research that someone really ought to do. How do bank teller lines really work? What are the variables that determine who gets to the supermarket checkout quickest? Stay or jump? And is more energy consumed in worrying about this kind of thing than would be saved by successful dodging? Inquiring minds want to know. “I don’t like this lane," she says a moment later. “It starts and then it stops."

In this bleak world, on the flat existential tarmac, the only social cohesion is the radio. “You’ll often see people laughing at the same time or singing to the same song.” What an underused resource this is. Who else is out there talking to us, giving us helpful information, recognizing the frustration we’re going through? Yet radio does almost nothing to build a sense of community within the mobile crowd on the road. Nor does a cellular phone, which connects us to the world beyond the asphalt, emphasizing our desire not to be where we are. If car manufacturers wanted to woo commuters, every car would come fitted with a CB radio as standard equipment. CB created a sense of community among truckers, a notoriously maverick and independent group; imagine what it could do for commuters, desperate for a chance to gripe and commiserate during the stop-go shuffle of the rush hour.

“This little hill’s the most dangerous part. You see accidents here all the time, because everyone’s starting to move and then slamming on their brakes. It pays to keep your distance—but then someone will notoriously cut you off.”

We pass the merge, the infamous junction of I-5 and 805, and paradoxically the traffic slows down even heading south, where four lanes become eight, as we all change lanes and get our bearings. Suddenly only six other vehicles are in sight. Downhill from here, in every sense.

Amy still needs to be vigilant, though. “There’s a zone in here where you don’t ever want to go more than five miles an hour over the speed limit, from here down to Pacific Beach. If you see someone going really fast through here, you’ll often see them pulled over just past Sea World.”

She thinks there’s less overt freeway aggression now. “People are afraid to express their anger. You don’t know if someone’s going to pull out a gun and blast you." It’s certainly worth thinking about. Between July 1987 and September 1989, the California Highway Patrol reported 3600 episodes of freeway violence, divided into six categories: roadside confrontation, shootings/throwings, assault using the vehicle itself, sniper/robber attacks, drive-by shootings, and suicide/murder crashes. And these are not just young hoods. A survey of traffic school participants from all walks of life found that 31 percent have chased another driver, 12 percent have thrown an object at another car, and 5 percent have rammed someone. Three percent of drivers have guns in their cars, nearly 2 percent have waved their guns at other drivers, and just under 1 percent have actually pulled the trigger. According to one survey, the rate in Texas may be considerably higher.

Amy points out, as does virtually everyone else who has lived in a cooler or damper climate, that San Diego drivers go to pieces when it rains. “It’s a gray-out often when it rains real hard, and people have no idea how to drive. They think they can go just as fast. There’s always a lot of accidents when it rains here.”

We pull off at the Civic Center exit. “Relatively painless,” she concludes. She estimated 40 to 60 minutes, depending on the traffic; it has taken us 32. “Not bad at all.”

A little later that morning I try I-8 heading east. At one point there are, by my hasty count, 12 lanes of traffic, all moving steadily. This is not bad, I think, unconsciously echoing Amy, then catch myself. Excuse me? Not bad? The air stinks of burned rubber. A pile driver echoes deafeningly off the underside of not one but three ramps curving overhead. I find myself accidentally in an exit lane, and a white Budget van deliberately blocks me from getting back into the slow lane of the freeway. A billboard dares me to buy a BMW and “open it up on the way to Borrego.”

Commuting has shifted our standards. Commuting itself, inevitably seen as a necessary evil, cannot, by definition, be good, so we don’t ever stop to imagine what “good” might look like. We stick with “not bad,” which means “not as bad as I’ve known it” or, especially in San Diego and other Southern California cities, “not as bad as Los Angeles.”

“No other nation,” writes David Jones, “has sought to accommodate urban motorization so completely and so willingly.” In Europe, express highways tended to skirt cities, leaving the centers and their identities unharmed. In the United States, thanks to Robert Moses, former city construction coordinator of New York, and Lloyd Aldrich, onetime Los Angeles city engineer, the bypass-or-penetrate debate (the rape imagery is unavoidable) was resolved in favor of penetration. The freeway would go downtown — or, perhaps, the downtown would go freeway.

In the years before the Second World War, many U.S. cities faced traffic crises as cars struggled to use roads designed and laid for horses and pedestrians. “The automobile,” editorialized the Los Angeles Times in 1938, “designed to be the emancipator of man...is defeating its own purpose. Man is being enslaved again by the servant he created.”

In both LA. and San Diego, road programs had taken over what trolleys had done. They were used by developers to make cheap and relatively inaccessible parcels of outlying land more valuable. Even the Automobile Club of Southern California was critical of the rampant growth of roads and the consequent destruction of the countryside, recognizing that commuter driving was a threat to touring driving, the leisurely exploration of an unspoiled land.

The solution, proposed first by Moses in New York and then by Aldrich, was to build new, bigger roads, called parkways, on a scale that no one had imagined. “Today we are well underway to a solution of the traffic problem,” Moses wrote in 1948, in the middle of a process that involved uprooting 250,000 people, tearing the hearts out of countless neighborhoods, and flooding the city with cars. On the opposite coast, Aldrich proposed a similar 600-mile network and demonstrated the grantsmanship necessary to attract New Deal and other funds to pay for his vision.

Even in the 1930s, LA. was a polycentric metropolis without a core, atypical of American urban design. All the same, the Los Angeles model seemed seductive and visionary and, just as importantly, fundable, thanks to the prevailing political winds. Many major cities hurried to develop their own urban freeway plans. But though the traffic of opinion seemed to be heading overwhelmingly in one direction, freeways were not inevitable. In the '50s, San Francisco, in what came to be known as the Freeway Revolt, showed it was possible to abdicate its urban freeway plan and build rapid transit instead. “You cannot dissolve a bottleneck by doubling the size of the bottle,” said Jack Kent, the city’s planning director. Moreover, as Jones points out, why should city residents be displaced by freeways so that the suburbs and downtown businesses could grow?

But San Francisco was an exception, partly because of its strong sense of identity, partly because of its awkward topography. In California as a whole, spending on new road construction and road use rose steadily to a peak in 1970, when several things happened at more or less the same time. By then the “easy” roads had all been built, and new construction increasingly needed expensive land or expensive structures such as bridges. The oil crisis of 1973 was the first slap in the face to awake us to the extent of our reliance on oil, cars, and roads. Since 1970, spending on road construction and the total miles of new freeway have steadily dediped; now they are virtually back to 1950 levels.

The legacy of the Freeway Era can be seen everywhere, though, even in a city like San Diego, which had convenient canyons down which planners could lay freeways with relatively little disturbance to the existing communities. Robert Moses laid the West Side Highway on prime real estate next to the Hudson River so drivers could take over the unspoiled view that residents were then denied. In the same way, I-5 effectively steals the view of the harbor and Mission Bay, leaving residents with an ugly obstruction that also sabotages the system ofl ocal streets, scatters ugly concrete ramps here and there, adds literally a million times the wear and tear to neighborhood roads, and dumps fumes into the residential air.

This is not to mention the strip-mining concealed under the tarmac that we drive. That evening, a little after 5:00, I drive north to check out the I-5 and 805 merge. In a middle lane, passing Sea World, I’m up to 65. Every vehicle in every lane is passing me. Where are the fabled cops?

At the merge, traffic grips briefly like a sphincter, like a mild panic attack, and all five lanes are stop and go. Then we build up speed to 20 or 30, until everything grips again at Carmel Valley Road, then relaxes again. When I pull off at Del Mar Heights Road, everyone is puttering along at 30 or so, even the two BMWs that jostle impatiently from lane to lane.

Several thousand cars an hour pass through the merge, which sorts us out and redirects us — but at what price? In places north of La Jolla the landscape is like something out of the film Koyaanisqatsi, with vast circular gouges through the red hillside utterly stripped of topsoil, half a dozen yellow tank trucks abandoned for the day up on the slope, and the concrete-and-metal stalks of the unfinished connector sticking up like severed bunches of industrial flowers. The whole three-mile stretch is an open wound, the land raw as rope burn.

Day Two

I board the trolley downtown under an electronic sign, a sort of urban Burma Shave poem: Gas prices / continue to rise / the solution / is no surprise / use public transit. The fact is, rising gas prices are by no means the best reason to use public transit; they’re prone to hover and then drop again. This happened in the aftermath of the oil crisis in 1973. For a while, a minority of the American population bought smaller cars, supported research into alternative fuels, and tried car pooling. But once the crisis was over, the mood swung back, ind thousands of Chevettes anguished in showrooms.

Dozens of reasons exist to support and use public transit, but most of them require a complex and farsighted understanding of the relationship between fuel consumption, air dilution, the preservation of neighborhoods and the character of the city, the role of public spaces and the civic experience, and all the subtle and diverse elements that make up what we call community. The poem is a sign that the authority is convinced that only a desperate appeal to nearsighted self-interest has any chance of success.

My first thought onboard is that the trolley ride down to San Ysidro and back during the morning commute is probably the most multiracial experience of my life. My second is that race is only part of its diversity, and this is in fact my most multi-anything experience. The only Caucasians in the car are a Marine and a young guy with long hair, a mustache, and a Yuma Prison T-shirt. Sitting opposite me is a neatly tumed-out black guy in brand-new work boots and his name, Dexter, embroidered on the zip-up jacket issued by the pest-control service he works for. All around are Asians, Hispanics, Indians, old folks, kids on their way to school, the hand -some, the deformed. One reads the Union-Trib, one reads La Opinion, one reads Dean Koontz. An elderly deaf woman in a floor-hockey cap carries a lunch bag with a rose sticking out of it. A black girl dozes with her head on her honey’s shoulder.

It must be said that most of the riders don’t talk to each other, and while some take up activities they couldn’t while driving—reading, dozing, staring at the beautiful Filipino girl who huddles shyly in the corner — others just stare in that glassy vacancy commuters know so well.

All of which reminds us that trolley design really does little to promote social ease; it creates a moving crowd rather than a small temporary community. The San Diego trolley displays none of the surprises that turn up on some mass transit: poems or artwork on the walls, musicians navigating the swaying aisles, guerrilla theatricals that periodically invade the London Underground. At heart, the trolley is just a People Mover, to use the Disney term. More than that would take greater expense and imagination and, above all, the belief that commuting is an aberration rather than a necessity.

All the same, the trolley, unlike the cars on I-5 running parallel with us, allows the 17 million people who ride it each year the leisure to take a long look at life; and what we see is a landscape with meaning and content, not simply the bare existential asphalt stage of strangers jockeying for position in the fast lane. The shipyards already swarm with workers, with the vitality of things being done. In National City the early-morning softball and volleyball leagues are already in full swing at 7:15 am. A surveillance camera blinks over a car lot. A freeway bridge is signed “notorious vandal,” a joke with several layers of irony. Even the trailer park shantytowns in Chula Vista have the complex inescapability of truth. This is the America that America hates, the ugly reminder that one America lives at the expense of the other, yet I, for one, believe in the moral importance of seeing everything.

How we commute is closely connected to what we choose to see, or not to see. Freeways, you must understand, are fascist. Literally. The first highspeed, limited-access roads were built by Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. When the first American prototype freeway was built — 160 miles of highspeed, limited-access, four-lane divided highway, roughly between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg — it was called the American Dream Highway. Like the commute, it was defined by what it was not. “No cross streets,” chortled American Heritage magazine. “No traffic lights, business entrances, railroad crossings, trolley cars or pedestrian access. No grades of more than 3 percent” — the ideal automotive environment, like the city centers of the future that architects used to dream of, pure concrete cleansed of pedestrians and empty cigarette packets and banana skins and everything except for the occasional skill fully positioned conical bronze sculpture, a world made safe for geometry.

The freeways still offer the American dream of uninterrupted high-speed progress; yet they do so by exclusion. The first word on the interstate is still No. No bicycles. No farm machinery. No snow vehicles. No pedestrians. No hitchhikers. No halt, no lame, no vehicles unable to maintain a 40-mile-per-hour minimum. No animals, except those that have been crushed into furry shadows on the tarmac (“Sweep on, you fat and greasy citizens,” cursed the Melancholy Jacques, shaking his fist at the commuting herd that ignored the dying deer, possibly an early example of roadkill). No green girder bridges or mobile home showrooms; no cyclists in their ladybug helmets and water-beetle tights; no Old Glories, pink flamingos, seashell sculptures, or Virgin Marys in bathtubs. No deaf-mutes rubbing shoulders against us as we board the trolley. No fantastically tattooed middle-aged Mexicans, their entire torsos dedicated to their love for Beatris, sitting across from us like human billboards.

As soon as we can afford it, the first thing we buy is separation.

At San Ysidro, all changes. For the northbound trip most riders are Mexican, some heading to work, others to school.

The Industrial Revolution, which changed the ancient pattern of subsistence agriculture and cottage industry, created commuting. It did so by inviting (or in many cases forcing) people to work outside their homes or their feudal estates. It also created the means to move far more rapidly than ever before, and it forced the worker to adapt to the schedule of his employer’s machines. For the first time, people obeyed not the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset but machine time. It changed the development of communities, which had existed before roughly within earshot of the church bell but now needed to exist within earshot of the factory whistle. It displaced virtually all nonagricultural workers; and once canning and packaging and large-scale agribusiness created the need for vast tracts of arable land rather than small holdings, the agricultural workers went too, either to the canneries and packing plants or to seek work in the strange new cities.

We are ail displaced people, Californians perhaps more than anyone—displaced from the land, from our ancestors, from our history. Commuting thus gave birth to a kind of blindness to everything around us, not only because we are moving in such a hurry, but because we have no good reason to care about it. It has nothing to do with us. We scratch a living on asphalt and tell ourselves it is all for the best. Anyone who says otherwise is a potential Unabomber.

The only problem with such a rich and fertile experience is that by the end of the ride I, for one, am emotionally exhausted. I’ve lived a full day by 8:00 a.m. Later in the morning one woman (white, middle-class) tells me heatedly, “The trolley sucks. It’s so slow.”

Simply by stopping more often, the trolley operates more in the interests of people other than ourselves. When we complain that it is slow, we’re not speaking literally. As trolleys go, it has good acceleration (and is relatively quiet). It’s more that we are slow — that is, we don’t get to our destination as quickly as we can imagine getting there, and we can perceive quite clearly why. It’s all those other passengers. A trolley is a kind of society, and it forces us to respect other people’s needs, and their destinations.

The car, on the other hand, will take us door to door, and the mobility it promises us is another way of saying that for once we don’t have to kowtow to other people’s needs. This is precisely why it is so galling when traffic lights and the mental defective in front of us driving at precisely the speed limit force us to make the kinds of concession to other people’s wishes that we thought we’d escaped by not taking the trolley.

That evening David Belprez heads out from his apartment high up on Quince Street, which once must have had a wonderful view of the harbor but now overlooks the airport and the retrofitted I-5 that has cut off half the east-west streets in the neighborhood like a spade severing worms. Driving north toward UCSD, David mutters in mild exasperation at a slowpoke plodding at 60 in the middle lane, while all five lanes of traffic part and flow around the subcompact like a metal river around a stone.

David and I talk about interstate driving as an experience that weirdly combines sensory deprivation and sensory overload. There is almost nothing to see, but our lives depend on that fact. The result is the strange psychology of interstate driving, almost a form of hypnosis, in which we leave all the motor functions, so to speak, to a simple part of our consciousness and allow the rest to wander. David used to commute 30 miles, all on freeways, his mind on cruise control. He would often arrive at work with no recollection of the previous half-hour.

For some commuters this is the most valuable time of the day, this mental ftee time between the pressures of home and the pressures of work. For others it’s a time to get work done. Chief Warrant Officer Diederik Molenaar, who has a 75-minute drive in from the mountains of Julian each morning to be on base in Coronado by 7:00 a.m., is teaching himself Morse code en route, using a keypad he straps to his thigh and a small amplifier. He also listens to tapes on how to buy and sell real estate.

The one thing it’s almost impossible to do is to obey the Buddhist imperative to be here now, to stay in the moment, to be aware of each instant of existence and experience. Commuting is almost always about somewhere else.

Dav Three

Today, by chance, is national Bike to Work Day, and it seems only reasonable to shadow someone who is going to work on two wheels rather than four. Kidelink, a division of the San

Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), has furnished a list of possible cyclomuters, and a daunting document it is too: a 60-year-old vice principal who cycles a 22-mile roundtrip every day, a file clerk who comes into downtown from El Cajon, a Navy lieutenant who cycles to Coronado from Mira Mesa. They are quoted pointing out the health benefits of cycling to work, the savings in parking fees and wear and tear on their cars, and how much more peaceful their new commute is. The press release also claims, albeit without supporting evidence, that San Diego is “the best place in the nation to travel by bicycle."

I call Diane Smith, a physical therapist at Schiley Sports Center of Scripps Clinic, because her ride to work is listed at only 4 1/2 miles. I’m now a guinea pig for progress; the question is not whether cycling to work is worthwhile but whether it’s feasible. Can all of us leave our cars at home and cycle, irrespective of age or distance, in the name of exercise and the benefit of the planet? I am vulnerable to exquisitely painful back spasms that take weeks to heal; the last bout struck after riding my bike. Will I survive even the 4 1/2 miles? And by extension, can others who are not in perfect health make the transition to the bicycle? Rick and Scott at San Diego Bike Rentals recommend a cross-bike, or hybrid, that allows a more upright posture; they lower the saddle and wish me luck.

That night I sleep terribly, and when the alarm goes off at 5:13 I am as stiff as six feet of freeway. At least Diane is a physical therapist, I think, running the shower jet over my rigid pelvis. If I seize up and topple sideways off my bike, she can perhaps pummel my muscles into obedience and traction my spine into something resembling working condition. Not every novice cyclomuter has such backup.

I put the bike in the trunk and arrive at her home in the Genesee Highlands development at 6:00 a.m. Thanks to the shower and ten minutes of stretching, my back has loosened up and now has the flexibility of, say, a pressure-treated two-by-four. I'm hardly an advertisement for the sport of cycling, and my unease grows when Diane appears. She’s already in full gear helmet, skintight yellow shirt. Lycra shorts, streamlined fanny pack, vibration damping cutoff gloves, and those bike shoes that make you clatter around on your heels when you’re temporarily unsaddled. I feel like the kid in Breaking Away who gets shoved off his bike by the Italian team.

As we zip through the half-deserted network of side streets, largely avoiding the urban arteries, we chat, or rather I ask questions and she chats while I focus on breathing. She has been commuting for about nine months, she says. She used to race but dropped cycling in favor of rock-climbing. Then, disgusted with how out of shape she was getting, started biking again, and it made sense to cycle to work just to put in the extra miles. At first she thought it was such a short ride it was hardly worth getting into all the gear, but now it’s second nature, and besides, she doesn’t have to worry about finding a parking space; last weekend she took part in a two-day bike race from Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney. But actually, she continues modestly, she isn’t much of a bike racer. Mostly she does triathlons.

As she is telling me this, I make a particularly clumsy gear change, my thumb slips, and a sharp projection gashes under the nail. After a while I notice I am dripping blood onto my right knee.

We come across one of the Bike to Work Day pit stops just setting up, unpacking power bars, sun block, patch kits, bananas, orange juice, bagels, cinnamon buns, and general encouraging bonhomie. No sign of a chiropractor. We are entered in raffles, given lunch totes, and awarded “Share the Road” T-shirts for being the first ones there. But not for long. Almost at once another cyclist pulls in, a genuine one, his calf muscles like piglets.

We cut across the UCSD campus, and suddenly the air is full of the smell of jasmine. You don’t get that in a car, just as you don’t have young rabbits hopping unafraid across your path.

We head up by a library (ignoring a No Cycling sign) to North Torrey Pines Road, where there is a bike lane, as there is on many of the roads around the campus. What makes San Diego relatively hospitable to cyclists, though, is not so much the designated space as the weather. A bike lane is worse than useless if the road is not in good repair. In many areas, freezing temperatures create havoc with the asphalt Even the smaller potholes will throw you off your bike and under a passing truck.

Diane’s workplace, too, is unusually bike-friendly—so much so that she cycles up to the front doors, which open automatically, into the lobby, where the receptionist smiles and nods, and off down a carpeted corridor. She parks her bike in her office and has the time and the facilities to take a shower before starting work at 7:00.

Despite the pain in my right thumb. I’m forced to admit that we are here and the ride hasn’t been particularly demanding after all The only tricky spot, Diane says, is a narrowish stretch where cars park down one side of the road, and occasionally an unthinking driver will fling open a door.

All the same, there’s a lot of ground to be covered before half of San Diego is cycling to work. For a start, Rideiink seems to be making a pitch for a new breed of bicycle commuter, not the blue-collar worker creaking toward the factory on his old black 20-pound monster with no gears but a much fitter recreational cyclist cyclomuting by choice rather than necessity, and doing so probably over a much greater distance. This must surely be a limited population. Not everyone can afford the bikes necessary for making a substantial commute, and of those, not everyone wants to be up and pedaling at 6:00 a.m.

According to SANDAG, Bike to Work Day drew some 3000 cyclists, some of whom presumably may have been newcomers, but every rider I saw except one had the hard-core gear of the dedicated cyclist. (The exception was a student making her way across campus.) If cyclomuting remains a youthful fad, it’ll never make much of a difference. Above all, the decision to try cycling to work makes the (probably unconscious) assumption that cities evolve spontaneously, beyond our control, and we simply do our best with what we’ve got. This is nonsense. Anyone cycling to work in San Diego, whatever SANDAG’s claims for its suitability for cycling, has to face terrain and distances that were established with the car in mind. Unless we live very close to our place of work, we have to face a slightly modified version of a car commute. No wonder it takes such hard-core gear, such steel muscles.

Secondly, the development of cycling as a major means of transport requires a new respectful relationship between the cyclist and the car owner. (In Dallas, four suburbs have banned cycling on some stretches of road because motorists have complained.) Time and again during my week of commuting I was struck by how little cars and bikes respect each other and how little cyclists respect the rules of the road. Diane, for example, ignored stop signs, used whatever horizontal surface was convenient as if the whole commute were a dignified mountain-bike trek, and gave virtually no hand signals. At one point she rode up on the right-hand side of a line of cars waiting to turn left at a light, pulled across the front of the first car, and, ignoring the signal, made the turn they were all waiting to make. It’s moves like that that make urban cycling such fun; it’s also moves like that that make motorists seethe and harbor the secret desire to see all cyclists topple into ditches.

Diane was more conscientious than most American cyclists in this respect, but that is the point. Cycling is making its claim to be treated as an equal partner on the road, yet on its own terms. In England, where I grew up, many schools encourage or even require young children to take the National Cycling Proficiency Test, which includes not only dexterity with a bike but a demonstration of clear hand signals for turning, slowing, and stopping, and the strict obedience of traffic signs. Which is not to say we were perfect little citizens; but it was well known that if the police caught you running a stop sign or cycling on the sidewalk or even riding without a light, you were likely to get fined.

On the other hand, the law made it equally clear that cars should treat cyclists as equals and give a bike the right to as much room on the road as a car, concept clearly alien here, where I was honked at several times downtown for riding in the middle of a lane.

Ironically, bike ads claim exactly the same qualities that make cars so attractive. They endow the rider with a freedom of mobility, and even, in the case of the mountain bike, a kind of outlaw sexiness. It’s hard to imagine the two sharing the road in mutual respect without change on both parts, the driver granting the cyclist the protection her fragile craft needs, the cyclist agreeing not to flaunt her extra mobility and implicitly rebuke the driver for obeying the rules without which traffic is death on wheels.

Two nights later I meet a physician who has just returned from Denmark, in whose capital more people commute to work by bike than by car and do so largely without $1500 bikes and high-speed gear. Despite its claims of bike-friendliness, San Diego seems a long way away from Copenhagen.


That evening I take the Coaster to Encinitas, seduced by the rumor that on Fridays the entire journey is a kind of rolling TGIF party, and wine and cheese will be served. Will there be a piano car? Terminals offering Netscape and access to the Wall Street Joumal?. Fire swallowers?

At $3, the ticket is remarkably cheap, which is, of course, one of the arguments for mass transit. Another is that mass transit offers the possibility of a social experience. I used to commute to school by train, and it was wonderful. I got in shape by running the mile or so to the station each morning whenever I didn’t get up quickly enough. Four of us played bridge on a briefcase each morning and ultimately won the national schools bridge competition. Above all, we were pressed up against the girls from the private school next door, who were under any other circumstance forbidden to talk to us.

Unlike the trolley, nobody is pressed up against anybody on the Coaster. As we pull away from San Diego, 23 people are in the upper-deck car I’ve picked at random, 21 of them Caucasian. No children, no old people, no shabbily dressed, no unfashionable amounts or styles of hair, no tattoos, no men in undershirts or women in lime-green polyester, no lunch pails, prison T-shirts. “Old Town Station coming right up!” promises the conductor over the PA system in the kind of voice one hears saying, “My name is Frankie. I’ll be your waiter tonight.”

About half are reading: Prime Witness, Debt of Honor, reports, portfolios, magazines. Two men chat cheerfully about work. I’m astonished that even though we are passing Mission Bay, and the landscape offers not shipyards but shaggy palm trees and yachts on dappled silver water, not a single person is looking out of the window. We might as well be on the subway.

Yes, people are tired, yes, this is scenery that is all too familiar, but even so, this is very odd. It seems as if by engaging in the very act of commuting, we resign ourselves to an experience without experience, a null event, a vacuum in time. Outside, the U.S. Hi-Reach yard, with its dozen cherry pickers, looks like a parliament of mechanical giraffes; inside, we could be in a waiting room, in a comfortable state of suspended animation.

Alongside the track runs a bike path, at first alarmingly narrow and bordered by a spiky assortment of industrial debris, then becoming dirt, climbing up and down the side of the canyon’s slope rather charmingly, like a 19th-century mule track. Every couple of minutes a cyclist comes into sight, wearing the go-faster gear of the hardcore devotee.

Roughly even with the merge, the land opens up. We're not moving as fast as the Japanese bullet trains, but then you can’t have both speed and these wonderfully wrinkled and intricate canyons brushing the windows on both sides, the railway's unique topography. The trolley, more urban, doesn’t have this either.

The railway, it strikes me, is a relatively well-behaved tenant of this valley. It occupies perhaps a fifth the space of the freeway, and it takes up that space in a relatively unobtrusive way. While the impact of cars and trucks is virtually continuous, for most of the time a railway gives off no vibration, noise, or petrochemical emissions. It causes no more environmental disturbance to lay down than a freeway and in some respects less. It is easier to take up when it becomes obsolete, as all current means of transport inevitably will; and its level bed, cleared of tracks, ties, and ballast, makes an excellent biking or hiking path. In England some stretches of abandoned railway, especially where the track passed between embankments through a sheltered cutting, were such tranquil havens that they had developed unusually diverse local ecosystems, especially rich in wildflowers and butterflies.

“This is it, happy travelers,” warbles the conductor. “San Diego's diamond in the rough, Sorrento Valley, coming right up!”

Commuting has its effects not only on the environment, but also on our consciousness. The effect of the Coaster in particular is almost the opposite of that of the trolley. If the trolley offers a full-spectrum experience inside the car, the Coaster offers it outside, in a wonderful variety of colors and landscapes — urban, suburban, rural.

It reinforces a very American form of self-selection. While 19th-century trains might have different cars for first class, second class, third class, and cattle class, here the problem doesn’t arise because the cattle class is simply somewhere else, out of sight, and would not take this train because the train doesn’t go where they live. In New York all classes rub shoulders on the subway, which is why it is such an uncomfortable experience. (Though of course the heat, the darkness, the noise, and the breakdowns don’t help.) Middle-class America would rather see segregation in commuting, and segregation is what the Coaster offers.

The automobile, by the way, offers the greatest segregation of all. We can be a society of one, and more than three-quarters of us choose to do exactly that. The social and cultural experience of commuting, then, is all-important. Simply because so many of us are going roughly the same way at roughly the same time forces us to deal in some way with our fellow travelers, and our fondest hope is that we can arrive at work with our wallets and our comforting assumptions still in place.

And now we are in Solana Beach and Encinitas, in places literally between the cliffs and the sea. We have the ocean, the beach, the beach houses and hotels, the sun—the West Coast dream.

This is the bargain of commuting par excellence. We want to live in paradise, or as close to it as we can afford. Yet paradise is, in our minds, as far away from work as possible. So we accept the drive or the train ride. Yet the equation is nonlinear; everything affects everything else. The road that leads to paradise also provides the means of its destruction, as the wear and tear inflicted by every car is an argument that the road should be first paved, then strengthened, then widened. Commuting has a habit of destroying its own object, Hot to mention its effect on the commuter.

Commuting is a kind of drain. By separating paradise from work, we drain much of our money, our energy, and our attention from the area where we work The vacant lots and rundown blocks of downtown San Diego would never happen under European zoning laws, which tend to strictly preserve agricultural land and clearly delineate country from city. If there is nowhere else to sprawl, we must invest in our cities, where we both live and work. If we accept commuting as a necessary evil, then we also unthinkingly sign off on a dozen other evils that we complain about, not realizing that the road that leads to one leads to all.

A woman is talking over a cell phone. “You want to barbecue? Okay. You want me to stop by the grocery store?” O brave new commute, that hath such creations in it. “Okay. I’ll see you later. love you. Bye.”

Day Four

A slight but significant foul-up. I have arranged to ride to work with a car pool from Mira Mesa, but there is some confusion over directions and they leave without me. That’s the thing about multiple-occupancy-vehicle (MOV) travel; it necessarily introduces constraints of time and movement, like a hybrid between the car and the train. Californians, brought up to think of cars as instruments of freedom, are already at odds here. Using a communal vehicle is like giving up a mild but ubiquitous recreational drug.

All the same, I check out signs of MOV activity in the area. The 1990 Census Transportation Planning Package suggests that 14 percent of San Diegans car pool to work, but this is frankly hard to believe. At 7:15 a.m. the Mira Mesa Park-and-Ride is less than a quarter full, with perhaps two dozen vehicles. The car-pool-only lane on the I-15 access ramp is barely used, and those who use it while I’m waiting in line at the two-per-green light aren’t model car poolers: one occupant, a motorbike, two occupants, one, one, and a van that I can’t see into, so I doubt that it’s pooling. Out on the highway, it’s the old story: one, one, one, one, one, one, two, one, one, one, one.

When the first diamond lanes were introduced on the Santa Monica Freeway in the 1970s, they were a public relations disaster. Environmental savings were overshadowed by the fact that accidents went up in the already crowded single-occupancy lanes. A kind of urban guerrilla warfare broke out. Some drivers fitted their cars with devices that would let them drop paint-filled balloons onto the diamonds, trying to obliterate them and the policy they represented. Since that experience, says Kyle Nelson, spokesperson for Caltrans, “We add a lane (and] designate it as a car-pool lane, so there's no net loss of lanes.”

The average occupancy on the freeway, according to Caltrans, is 1.19 people per car— less during rush hour, especially less during morning rush hour. The free-toll car-pool incentive on the Coronado Bridge has made little or no measurable difference in vehicle occupancy. The only time the rate really goes up is during the evening, when families go out; and historically, the only significant increase in ride-sharing was during the fuel crises of the early to mid-70s, after which it dropped again to previous levels. And ride-sharing doesn’t necessarily reduce the actual number of vehicle miles driven. A car is left at home, but that may simply mean that the principal driver’s spouse or kids may use it, when before they couldn’t. The total number of vehicle miles driven has dropped fractionally in the last year or two, but that may be because several major employers have left town or closed down.

The morning’s maneuverings show how the rules of traffic echo the rules of fluid dynamics: any change in flow creates turbulence. As I slow to make a (legal) U-turn on Mira Mesa Boulevard, the guy behind me is forced to slow down too. I wave apologetically over my shoulder, glancing in my mirror. “Asshole," he mouths.

This raises further questions about the rush hour as a form of society, albeit a primitive one. Don Norman, author of Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles and founding chair of the department of cognitive science at UCSD, points out that even though as a species we have evolved a miraculously intricate and subtle series of ways to communicate with each other and an equally diverse and useful range of social skills using those means of communication, when we get in a car we are reduced to the equivalent of brutish grunts. Here we are, trying to carryout a series of give-and-take negotiations with complete strangers (often more than one at the same time) while trying to control our own vehicle at 65 miles an hour, and all we have are simple on-off signals with headlights, turn signals, brake lights, plus a limited range of often ambiguous hand gestures. Our most expressive features — our faces, and especially our eyes — may be useless due to glare or shadow. We have no way to exercise our social skills, no graceful way to say, “Excuse me, do you mind if I edge in here? I need to get to the airport in ten minutes” or “Look, it’s not my fault my fan belt snapped, and now I’m stuck here holding up traffic in the middle lane.” As a result our conversation is stultified and our relations with other drivers have a built-in friction.


I stroll into the Chula Vista Telecenter, a storefront on East H Street, at 10:15, after the rush hour has subsided. Telecommuting (“commuting" by phone, fax, modem, or other electronic means) allows us to go to work whenever we choose. It allows us to escape machine time, or at least makes it much more flexible.

According to a New York-based research firm, nearly 10 million Americans regularly telecommute. The employer who tends to perch on his employees’ shoulders to make sure they’re actually working (a habit Angie Jarchow, the center’s director, tactfully calls “micromanaging") probably finds telecommuting hard to trust. But in 1993, the City of Los Angeles estimated that employees who telecommuted were 12.5 percent more effective than non-telecommuters; and the County of Los Angeles calculated last year that telecommuting was responsible for a 10 percent increase in productivity and a decrease in absenteeism that amounted to an annual savings of $17 million.

A survey conducted for the Southern California Telecommuting Partnership in 1995 found that employers of telecommuters reported better productivity and morale, better employee retention, and improved customer service. The employees themselves reckoned they saved an average of an hour a day by eliminating their daily commute to and from the office, which they said gave them more time to themselves, less stress, lowered their car-related expenses, and allowed them to get more work done and spend more time with their families.

Telecommuting, as conceived in San Diego, at least, is justified less in terms of reducing the individual driver’s stress and more in terms of considering the overall impact of commuting on the region and its environment. Much of the center’s funding comes from Caltrans, the California Energy Commission, and the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District. To calculate its value in terms of net environmental impact, each user, when signing in, has to estimate how many miles’ travel he has saved by working in the telecenter. In some cases, according to the log, it may be 10 or 20 miles; in others it may be hundreds.

With this in mind, the design and construction of the telecenter is consciously “green.” The carpeting is made from recycled bottle caps; the partitions from recycled milk bottles; the paint is water-based; the adhesives used are nontoxic; the monitors, copier, and printer go to sleep when they aren’t being used, cutting down on energy use. The decor is a calming sea-foam green, and every cubicle is decorated with plants and underwater photography.

The place is loaded with the stuff we all like to stare longingly at in office supply catalogs. The ten workstations have a wide variety of software and hard ware packages, some of them customized to the needs of telecenter regulars; multiple phone lines with digital message systems; Internet access, e-mail, and Netscape; fax, copier, networked laser printer, conference room, bathrooms, and kitchen facilities — even ergonomic office chairs.

The East H Street center is currently running at roughly a third of its capacity. Four people have signed up for office time today, but as it turns out two are sick and two are out of town. The conference room, though, is in use, and every so often enthusiastic raised voices filter through the wall. (The telecenter in downtown Chula Vista has video conferencing. ) “We’re not a Kinko’s,” Angie asserts. “We don’t want a high amount of traffic. We want a more consistent use. One of the services we offer is a good working environment.”

If I’m a genuine telecommuter, that is, if I would have driven to an office if I weren’t in the telecenter, then I reimburse the telecenter only for the direct costs of the materials I use there. For this reason, Angie directs most of her marketing at employers. Some even come to her. She does a zip code run to see which employees live within a five- to seven-mile radius of the center, shows them the facilities, and trains anyone who is interested. If I just want to use it as a home office away from home, I could rent a fully equipped workstation for $40 a day or $400 a week.

There isn’t much exciting to see here, but again, that’s the point. What happens here is work minus the commute. Commuting is a kind of turbulence, an activity caused by an interruption to or obstruction within the system. When someone books in here, or when I stroll downstairs to my office at home, the turbulence is at a minimum. No fuss. Just getting down to work.

That evening, I meet Dorina Bautista at the county courthouse, where she works for Jury Services. As we walk up to Second and A, she tells me about her van pool.

She is one of the alternate drivers for the pool, in charge today because the principal driver is out sick. Only 11 are in the van today, in fact. She picked them up at four meeting places this morning. Once she has the van, a new Dodge Ram 350 leased from Van-pool Services Inc., out of its lot, she’ll pick up her riders for the trip home at a collecting spot just around the corner from the courthouse.

The vans are not cheap to lease. A 15-seater may run $1300 a month, but SANDAG subsidizes the costs, and Dorina tells me that her own share comes to $38 a month for everything— gas, lease, parking. (Adora, the principal driver, who also acts as group organizer, travels free.)

So, if a month is roughly 20 working days, with a round-trip of 20 miles a day at a wear-and-tear cost of, say, 30 cents a mile — that would be a cost of $120 a month, and, as Dorina points out, her family would have to buy another car.

Van pooling and car pooling are two of the initiatives SANDAG offers to those who call the 237-POOL number and actively promotes them to employers in the region because the reduced traffic and improved air quality are in everyone’s interest Employers seem to be in favor of pooling (though only if it is offered as a choice; the Chamber of Commerce lobbied heavily against a mandated pooling ordinance that was ultimately defeated in 1995); poolers arrive at work less stressed, and they are more productive. It’s also a cheap benefit to attract employees. Their travel costs are lowered, and they get to park closer to the front door.

Dorina pulls over for her riders, and the atmosphere on board becomes...um...domestic. People settle into their seats as if they have worn grooves into them or as if they intend to. A quiet conversation springs up at the back, probably in “Taglish,” the mixture of Tagalog and English they habitually speak in the van.

This particular van pool was founded in 1981; Dorina was one of the originals, as were Carol and Linda, who are listening closely to correct Dorina’s history. The first van was a private nine-seater owned by Cecilia Martinez, who worked in the D.A’s office, a venerable vehicle that broke down from time to time. Even then the pool was subsidized, and the county subsidized the parking space. Some of the administrative details have changed, as has the van, but the pool has never dried up, at times even running a waiting list. At the moment there are 15 riders, 13 women and 2 men, and everyone is Filipino—by coincidence, the riders say, looking at themselves as if it had never occurred to them —though in the past they’ve had Hispanics, blacks, and whites. Fourteen of them work in the courthouse; the other works for the county.

On Adora’s birthday they all get together for a lunch of gratitude; sometimes they’ll all agree to stop for dinner on the way home. Eight of them have hooked up for a lottery pool, chipping in $4 each per paycheck.

“How do you decide which number to choose?” I ask. “Quick Pick!” they chorus, laughing.

From time to time, someone will bring doughnuts or rolls for everyone in the morning. And it’s understood that if someone goes on vacation, they’ll bring back mementos for the group. If someone tries out a new recipe, she’ll bring extra along for the pool to sample. They trade videos, books, recipes, advice, a friendly ear. It’s not uncommon for riders to lament their family difficulties on the morning run or vent about work in the evening, and Donna makes it clear that the group applies its collective wisdom.

When Helen’s mother was dying of cancer, several riders decided to say rosaries for her on the commute for a few days, then stopped out of consideration for the non-Catholics in the pool, even though no one had complained.

“I’ve never heard of anyone [in the group] going to a psychologist or a psychiatrist,” says Donna. “Maybe it’s because there’s always someone there who’s willing to listen.”

In half an hour we’re in an area of small, neat houses in Paradise Hills, with their trimmed shrubs and dwarf trees. Everyone is dropped off in four or five stops, depending on the day, as it works out, several of them are right on Adora’s route and get door-to-door service.

What is it I find so appealing about this van? Part of it, surely, is that the atmosphere is profoundly maternal and reassuring. Far from being solitary and stressful, like the usual one-occupant commuting experience, the van is its own mobile society. No matter how much the vehicle is exposed to the existential tarmac, the people are not, and the driver has her support system in her task of getting the big van from A to B and back again.

Also, they don’t drive on the interstate. Their route is among the actual dwellings of real people, some of whom they know. This not only gives the experience greater psychic meaning, it affects the way people drive. One librarian I talked to confessed to driving “very aggressively” on the freeway, but when she is in her own community, she said, she slows down to exactly the speed limit and takes umbrage at the out-of-town drivers who pile up behind her, fuming.

This is the point: the freeway is nobody's hometown. There is anonymity in motion. If we are just passing through and will probably never see someone again, why do I need to be considerate? (Especially since I have the car as my metal shell and my means of escape.) An ethical relationship demands a sense of community.

Somehow, all the “green” arguments — the natural gas, the saving of the environment — seem almost less important than this sense of community, security, and shared endeavor. Perhaps it will never be possible to foist environmental consciousness on a public that already feels overextended and under pressure. But once the right social circumstances are developed, environmental consciousness probably arises of its own accord. The van is a society; it must already be harder for these riders to think in antisocial terms.

Day Five

At 4:15 a.m. Christine Bayly is already up and in the shower. Cup of tea, English muffin, check the briefcases, fill the tan Buick Century with gas in the darkness (“I spend $150 a month on gas for this trip”), and by 4:58 we’re on our way from Ocean Beach to Los Angeles.

She lives in what was once her grandmother’s house, with its tiny pool, its tiny orchard, and its tiny lawn where she and her friends get together at Christmas, hold a Tackiest Santa contest, and burn the most egregious ones while singing wicked versions of Christmas carols. She’s lived there on and off since she was five. She’d far prefer to live in San Diego than L.A. To be honest, she could do most of her sales work for Monterey Home Video from out of her home, where she runs her own film and video acquisition and sales company, but MHV pays her handsomely to be in Agoura Hills three days a week (“They want the body in the office,” she says, echoing unwittingly what Angie said about micromanagers), so she sets out before dawn on Tuesdays and comes back after work on Thursdays and has been doing so since last Halloween.

“Once a week for seven months, and I’m real bored now. It’s taken me up to four hours, and then you’re just useless for the rest of the day. I work a lot of hours to pay for the gas to make this trip,” she says, as if it has never struck her before. “But once you’re in a career and everyone knows you.... In San Diego the options are limited in international film distribution.”

Road repairs are underway, and the fast lane runs next to a line of massive temporary concrete dividers. “I don’t like this lane,” she says, checking her mirror and pulling across. “I hate the concrete. It’s claustrophobic” We pass Del Mar at 5:18.

“On a good day we hit Oceanside on the half-hour."

She thinks mostly about business. “Things I have to accomplish. I’m bringing in cartoons from Poland and translating them into English. We’re editing out the chicken’s anus they included in great detail, because that probably won’t fly in Peoria. A lot of the time I turn the talk radio on. It keeps me sane, hearing people natter about stupid stuff.

‘This must be karmic retribution for something, because I hate to drive. I like the mobility, but driving is something I never look forward to.” All the same, she and her girlfriend recently saw Thelma and Louise and took off in a Chrysler LeBaron convertible all the way across the South, 7000 miles and 14 states in three weeks. Her friend did the city driving, she did the highways. “I just go fast and straight. I’m a little laid back and not as aggressive and always watching out for the other guy to be an idiot. Also, I like to do two or three things at once, and when you’re driving you can only do one. It’s boring. I also don’t sit still very well for a stretch.”

A car pulls past us on the right. “Yeah,” she says caustically. “I’m going 85, and he has to pass me on the inside.”

How does she manage to maintain this speed and not get pulled over? “I find fast friends and stick with them. We travel in packs and don’t alert the gendarmes.”

We pass Oceanside and enter what she calls “the 17- mile Camp Pendleton run. Pendleton is the only reason why San Diego and LA don’t touch.” She checks the time. “We’re right on track, barring accidents or idiots, to be right at LA about 7:00, which is a target goal.”

The 405, though it looks quicker, may be up to half an hour longer, she says, and runs through her route in a flurry of polynumerals.

“I don’t mind going 25 or 35, but I hate stopping. Stopping is not my friend. When you’re just sitting in your stupid car just waiting for some stupid idiot up ahead of you to do something.... One of the DJs said it’s like there’s a designated idiot in your lane about 5 miles ahead just to make your life miserable.” I’m struck by this routine denigration of everyone else, or perhaps a division of this entire unsociable society into fast friends or idiots. I’ve done it myself, in fact, the more pressure I’m under, the more likely I am to feel the rise of that choking sweep-’em-aside frustration. Ken Fitzgerald, an attorney who used to commute to law school at UCLA put his finger on the relationship among speed, frustration, and freedom. On the return journey, fleeing LA, “I drove very, very fast,” he said quietly. “The air, the traffic — I just had to get out of there as soon as I could. Yet it almost wasn’t so much a question of speed; it was more a matter of trying to get some open road in front of you.” The more we believe in the car as instrument of freedom, the angrier we get when it can’t deliver and the more we blame those around us, who have exactly the same conflict between illusion and reality.

Christine points dramatically at a rest area on the southbound lane. "That is the rest area. The only one between here and LA In the afternoon, a pit stop’s almost always in order.” Going north she rarely has a problem, she says, which surprises me, as she has left the house with a large thermal cup of coffee and another of water.

Now she’s switched to KNX1070 to listen to their every-six-minutes traffic reports. The fiercer the commute, the more the radio is the drivers’ only friend, their only advisor, company, and reassurance out there in the war.

One car has burst into flames somewhere, and another has stalled; three lanes are blocked thanks to water and gas leaks elsewhere. “I don’t care about that,” she says. None should affect us. I have a momentary sense of a blockage somewhere in the circulation of the blood.

“If the 5 has a sig closure, you obviously bail to the 405,” she says offhandedly. “I’ve no idea what sig means. It’s just a piece ofI LA-speak they don’t use anywhere else.” I’ve never heard of roads referred to as “the” 405 or “the” 101 either, and it sounds odd. I expect “the Santa Monica” or “the Santa Ana,” but to give a numeral a definite article seems to be giving it some kind of promotion in importance. Later, as we get close to the heart of LA., I realize that this is all too true. In that repetitive wasteland of cement and scrubby grass, the numbers of the roads are the only things that change. They are landmarks; they deserve their definite articles.

As we pass through San Clemente, a high wall down the western shoulder blocks our view of the freeway’s neighbors, and theirs of us. On the other side, a thin screen of shrubs. This is it. This is the logical architecture of commuting. The drivers don’t want distractions, the residents don’t want to see and hear the traffic. As a result, the closer we get to L.A. the more the freeway becomes its own landscape. The logical conclusion toward which the act of automobile commuting drives us, then, is a landscape of storm drains. In fact, the perfect medium for efficient commuting would be a personal culvert for each driver, a concrete tube leading from home to office or factory, free of distractions, stoplights, and gridlock, fast and free. We would have arrived: humans as sewage.

The sun is now well up, but the visual impact of the road is increasingly a kind of gray-out. The Seasonal Affect Disorder specialists who study the impact of light wavelength on our moods and health should study the effects of this narrow-spectrum light experience, bereft of cool greens and calming blues.

At San Juan Capistrano, Christine takes advantage of my presence to use the car-pool lane, and we cruise past several dozen slower vehicles, but the lane doesn’t last long.

“We’re doing pretty well. We’re almost at the 7, and it’s a few minutes till.”

Christine’s theory about hours and half hours is that commuters set themselves a round-number ETD, saying, “I’ve gpt to be out of here at six,” or at six-thirty, or whatever. “If you’re there at six, right as they’re leaving their house, you’re beating them.” And, sure enough, as we hit Laguna Niguel at six, the traffic suddenly thickens. “Tell me I’m an idiot now. Four minutes past six.”

She points out that many of LA.’s high-speed roads were originally built as parkways — not that there’s much park left now—and only three lanes wide but impossible to widen and now are bottlenecks. “Bridges with concrete risers and buildings within ten feet. But here they’re getting rid of the shoulders and putting in two new lanes or car-pool lanes or something.”

All the way up, she’s been talking about the “El Toro Y," where 5 and 405 split, in a mixture of loathing and dread. But in fact the traffic is not too bad, and we cruise through.

She points ahead at an IKEA, another pit stop possibility, as is a mall called Main Street Plaza in Santa Ana. “If there’s too much traffic, I just get off and shop.

“Culver,” she reminisces. “I once sat here for a real long time when some idiot had a wreck up here.

“It wouldn’t be like this if we hadn’t torn up our trolley car tracks,” she says of Ocean Beach in particular, but of California, even America, in general. “Some guy from Detroit came through buying up all the trolley systems and telling people that the bus was where the future was. That guy should be burning in hell for ripping up our mass transit.”

There’s some truth to this. San Diego is unusual in having a working trolley system. In 1937 about seven million people rode streetcars. But then GM, Firestone, Standard Oil, and Mack machinery joined forces to buy up electric trolley and streetcar outfits, according to the World-watch Institute, acquiring more than 100 electric rail systems in 45 cities, dismantled the electric lines, and paved over the tracks. By the late ’50s, about 90 percent of the nation’s trolley systems had been eliminated or had collapsed under the unequal competition against subsidized gasoline and the automobile, the vehicle of the future.

Whether or not a coalition of interests was at work in the trolley takeover, Los Angeles found other ways to sabotage its own rail and trolley systems. The land purchased during World War II for parkway development was specifically measured to allow rapid transit lines to be built along the median between the tracks. When it came time to build, though, a group (though not necessarily a conspiracy) of forces voted against building the rail lines, and the path was suddenly cleared for I os Angeles to become a great big freeway.

We reach Disneyland in 78 minutes, almost a record. Then suddenly we slow down. “Okay. Here we go. The 91 is screwing us up. I’m going to drive you nuts and have a cigarette. Normally I’ve had eight by now.” She has tried to quit but broke out in hives. She says she’ll try again when she hits a low-stress phase in her life. The traffic speeds up again. “We’re lucky. We’re on the numbers. This could be my fastest commute of all time.”

We cross into LA County at La Mirada at 6:26 and immediately find ourselves crawling at 25 miles an hour, then slower. Three lanes here, no car-pool lanes. “And our first stop.” We gaze around at the grim sight. “Frightening, isn’t it? And it just gets worse now. Until 10:00.” She shakes her head. “But now we’re committed. There’s no place to bail. This is probably the 605 screwing us up all the way back here.”

Now everyone is shifting, a lane here, a lane there, jostling for the positions that open and close, glimpses of progress and hope. “Stupid truck,” she mutters. “I had my spot and he took it.” From now on, many of the exits will be on the left, which she hates, just as she hates traffic merging from the left into the fast lane. “They should come into the slow lane. Let them fight it out”

But we pick it up again after a while. She points out how 101 is one of the notorious parkways, and to my surprise we’re virtually in downtown LA, which looks oddly small after all the endless flat, scrubby, monotonous prelude.

And this is it, the thing we all overlook because we are intelligent, adaptable creatures, as Raymond Novaco says, and we will make the best of the situation, even if it means we have to sit in traffic for half an hour or an hour or two hours a day, even if we end up sometimes feeling like shooting some idiot who has cut us off. The point is that commuting, like so many evils, is the by-product of competing seductions — the desire to have a good job, the desire to live in a nice house with some land, the desire to move freely. All three dramatically affect the way we have planned and developed our cities and our countryside; and the answer, as Caltrans knows, wiU never be simply to build more roads. Roads act as magnets or, perhaps more appropriately, as drains; build them (this is the Moses/Aldrich solution), and still more traffic will be attracted to them, will flow into them. The answer is to reduce our reliance on the car, but that reliance is not merely whimsical. “Californians love their cars,” people said to me, shaking their heads. “They’ll never give up their cars.” But that love is at least half necessity, a necessity that has been graven in stone and brick and concrete.

“There’s not many places you can walk,” Amy McKibben had said. “In La )olla you can walk anywhere. In San Francisco you can jump on a bus for three blocks and do your grocery shopping. The shops are only a mile and a half away from where I live, but I still have to get in my car and drive there.”

Commuting is intimately related to urban planning. The new “urban village” or “growth center” planning theories design a community densely, around the movements of people rather than cars. Other models use public transport as a network or hub.

George Franck is a SANDAG senior planner with special responsibility for the transit element of the region’s long-range transportation plan. He provides staff support for the Regional Growth Management Technical Committee, a group of planners from every city in the county that aims to influence development over the next few decades. One of their methods is to give input to cities as they update their general plans, though this is a long-range process since many cities haven’t updated their plans for a decade or even two.

Some of his group’s recommendations are: develop highest residential density near rail stations and along bus corridors; establish residential enclaves within employment centers; look at ways to enable people to make fewer, shorter trips using more mass transit, bikes, or on foot; and reduce the amount of undeveloped or agricultural land that is developed — in other words, reduce sprawl.

The nature of population growth in San Diego County is changing, Franck says, and in a way that suggests the area is ripe for a greater sense of stability and community. Over the last several decades, two-thirds of growth was from people moving into the county. Soon 50 to 55 percent will be from natural increase of those already resident.

Transport is not just a matter of cars and bottlenecks, but of community in general. In the old urban village model, the transit stations would have been a focal part of the village center, along with shops and essential services. The decay of the nation’s rail, trolley, and bus services (and of its downtowns) has meant this focus has vanished. Consider the desolate image that springs to mind when someone says “Greyhound station”; or consider the lack of local identity around many of the San Diego South Bay trolley stops, some of which seem to have been dropped almost at random, as Franck says, next to a gas station or a 7-Eleven. One plan is to intensify growth around these urban village centers and thereby build (or in some instances rebuild) a sense of community.

In addition to the vital but amorphous sense of community, such change will reduce the number of trips San Diegans make every day and change the means by which we make them. Reducing the use of cars avoids the extra burden of the walk just to get to the car, the walk from the car to our destination, and the extra walk required because the landscape has been planned for the car. If nothing else, huge park ing structures require the non-car-user to walk across a hundred yards of asphalt simply to get past the cars and into the shops.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Franck says, he knew the people who lived around him because he walked among them and talked with or at least saw them regularly. We don’t need sociological analyses of the relationship between a sense of community and, say, crime to realize the connection. The popularity of A Prairie Home Companion is surely among people who (possibly) remember and (certainly) wish for the strong sense of local identity that Garrison Keillor creates and for such tranquil values arid settings. Franck mentions Mission Hills as a district that managed to retain something of a sense of localism; his daughter can still ride her bike or walk to the park in safety.

But the desirability of a denser population, long accepted in Europe and Japan and such “European” North American cities as Montreal, raises the question of white America’s fear of pluralism and the fact that many believe density inevitably leads to crime. The response is to buy distance from the poor, a response that ultimately leads to a “walled city” mentality, increasingly popular in some areas such as California, Texas, and Florida. Franck’s argument is that poverty rather than density leads to crime, but as California (and America in general) becomes more multiracial, this issue will not be resolved easily.

Franck also makes the point that simply building more densely may be worse than useless, citing the example of North Park, where greater density paradoxically can lead to greater isolation. You no longer have “eyes on the street” to reinforce the sense of community and deter crime. “It’s a major issue that we’re going to have to find an answer for,” he says. America is also becoming more polarized in terms of wealth. So whether poverty or density or plurality leads to crime, the issue is not going to go away. And if we adopt the walled-city form of development, we are simply sucking money from those areas outside the walled city, where we still have to work, and giving ourselves a longer commute through an increasingly desolate wasteland.


Downtown LA. is in sight off the port bow. I’m curious about this weird Gomorrah, this child of mad architects and cradle ofbrain-dead film directors, but having gotten up so early, I have no desire to explore, and I can’t imagine how Christine will get a day’s work done. I just want to get back to San Diego. But Christine, despite having lived in and around LA. for several years, has the classic Angelino’s ignorance of public transport. She once dropped her lawyer off downtown only to find herself lost and stuck in a bus lane, where she could have been ticketed.

But wait. There’s Alameda, so Union Station is right off the freeway. But in that instant, a ramp has opened up underneath us, and we’re about to branch off onto the freeway without meaning to.

“I don’t want to be on the 10!” Christine yelps. “Help! I’m lost!”

In this instant of panic, what saves us is neither good driving nor good navigating, but one of those rare, illuminating moments of human decency, someone lets us in. We’re back on 101, then off it, then in the Union Station concourse, two hours exactly after leaving San Diego. Christine has another 40 minutes ahead of her, but so far this looks like a good day.

The day isn’t quite over for me either, as I have the chance to see main-line rail commuting firsthand.

Union Station is downright weird. Its L.A. film noir interior is almost deserted. At 7:00 a.m., the height of the rush hour, 12 people are in sight. No one stands in line for tickets. Is this the principal station of one of the world’s major cities? And when the San Diegan boards at 8:35, the platforms, too, are deserted. Grand Central Station is busier than this at 2:00 a.m.

My ticket (subsidized by Caltrans) is $25, which is probably cheaper than the wear-tear-and-gas cost of driving, but Amtrak does little else to make people think twice about taking the automobile. The selection of food is pitiful, the windows tiny, the officials use a strange herding method of boarding people, and the train has apparently been booked to the absolute capacity of its few cars. By saving the cost of hooking up another car, the company has grumpy passengers packed in like lab rats.

The scenery may be incomparably more interesting than it is from the interstate, and San Juan Capistrano may have one of the most beautiful small stations I’ve seen, but in what other First World country do trains run between two top-seven cities so slowly and so infrequently? And the trip back to San Diego takes a full hour more than Christine’s commute, traffic notwithstanding. No wonder people drive.

—Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the author of Catching My Breath and a regular correspondent for National Public Radio.

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