I spent, on average, between two-to-four hours a day behind the wheel when I lived in Toronto, mostly coming and going from work and taking care of daily business such as running errands or shopping. This added up to roughly 20 hours a week, or 840 hours per year, which equaled 35 days over the course of year.
Think about that for a moment.
The year has twelve months; I was in effect spending more than one of those months behind the wheel navigating the daily hell known as Toronto’s commute.
“What did I do in January, you ask? Well, I drove, non-stop. Every. Single. Day. Of. The. Month.”
Of course, this is all natural and acceptable when you live in a city like Toronto. No one in Hogtown raises an eyebrow over daily commutes spanning several hours each day. Spending twenty to thirty percent of your waking day entombed in an automobile and snarled in traffic is just something you have to do. It’s all par for the course. Just a part of life. No point in complaining about it, eh?
For years, I did my best to remain stoic when it came to the commute, but with each passing year, getting around in Toronto became increasingly difficult, and my stoicism began to crack. I finally moved away from Toronto in 2000 and divided the next eleven years living in the following places: Budapest; Sarasota, Florida; and New York City.
I did not drive in Budapest and New York as both cities have excellent public transportation systems. Though not always pleasant, I found riding a subway or bus preferable to driving because I could at least read a book or relax on my way to work. I drove in Sarasota, but the traffic was never anything like it was in Toronto; thus, it was still depressing, but a little more bearable.
In 2011, my wife and I decided, rather unwisely, to return to Toronto to be close to family before my son was born. After a decade-long absence, I was back on Toronto’s highways. The soul-destroying feeling returned the moment I was back on Toronto’s 401, 404, and 407 highways. Two years later, I had a revelation. Stuck in a jam on Highway 404 where I spent 90 minutes mindlessly staring at the transport truck idling before me, I glanced at the snaking procession of cars in the rearview mirror and declared, “I’m not doing this anymore. I simply refuse to live like this.”
Within three months, we moved away. We made a point of staying clear of any big city with horrible traffic issues. Our first stop was Morpeth, Northumberland where we spent eight months in the English countryside while I fulfilled a temporary teaching contract. My commute to work was a thirty-minute bus ride. The bus was never crowded and I used the time to read or observe the Northumberland landscape. My mood and health improved dramatically during this time.
When we moved to Hungary, we bought a house about twenty-five kilometers outside of Sopron where I work. Though I could drive, I choose instead to take the commuter train, which brings me to within 100 meters of my workplace in a mere twenty minutes. Once again, I use the time to read or watch the passing scenery.
Long story short, I noticed an immediate and marked improvement in the quality of my life every time I eliminated car commuting from my daily schedule and kept my travel times to under one hour a day in total. Conversely, I experienced an instant and significant deterioration of life quality every time I had to spend more than one hour a day driving around some nightmarish urban/suburban landscape.
Now I am sure there are many for whom commuting by car is no big deal. There must be people who simply love to drive, or who use time stuck in traffic to listen to audiobooks, or some other constructive activity, but for most people commuting is a killer. Literally.
Countless studies outlining the negative physical and psychological effects of commuting have been published over the years; despite this, commuting times and distances continue to increase all the same. I certainly experienced the negatives associated with commuting when I drove to work. Driving more than one hour a day took time away from my family, raised my stress levels, lowered my physical fitness, and made me feel generally exhausted and depressed.
During the years I spent commuting in and around Toronto, I spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the inefficient design of most modern cities. The urban sprawl. The soulless subdivisions. The poor public transportation systems that forced nearly everyone into an automobile for even the most trivial of errands. The vast distances between places. The expansive parking lots. The rows of ugly, utilitarian strip plazas.
For all of its talk of building human-centered societies, the progressive authorities in the West are doing a stellar job creating physical environments in which the human dimension is, essentially, an afterthought.
The word soulless tends to pop up whenever subdivisions and strip malls marring contemporary urban and suburban cityscapes are described. To be honest, I cannot think of a better word with which to describe the bland, uniform, non-descript, sterile moonscapes most Westerners call home.
In many ways, it seems the exterior very much reflects the interior. All material needs are basically met. Base pleasures are attainable. Yet, something is missing. There is no soul.
Very little community exists within the communities. Most people have no clue who their third or fourth neighbor down the street might be, and nearly all modern city dwellers offer up at least one month a year to commuting god who, in return, blesses his worshippers by increasing debt loads, raising taxes, and making employment prospects scarcer and untenable.
So, which is it? Are our modern cities and towns and the grinding commutes one must make to subside in them a symptom of a cause, or the cause of a symptom?
Sometimes I think it is all accidental, the result of slipshod planning, obsessive efficiency, and corner cutting. Other times, I get to thinking it is all purposeful – that the ruling classes and their planners know exactly what they are doing and the results their modern, urban planning will create.
One thing seems certain, at least to me – the physical advantages we have gained over the past two centuries have come with a hefty spiritual price tag. In my own personal case, I have decided that I am no longer willing to pay the price, and I have molded my life in the physical realm accordingly.
The month I used to waste on commuting, I now spend with my family, or reading, or writing, or thinking. Though I have spent vast stretches of my life living in soulless conditions, I pay very close attention to ensuring my life in the physical realm is as soul-full as possible now. Eliminating hours-long commutes from my day has certainly played a role in that.