Home-ish

The Thinker by Rodin

Another quick four hundred mile commute between states. The path varies a bit each time we go. Lately I have been trading money for time. The New Jersey Turnpike is no guarantee of a quick commute but when it works it’s worth the tolls. When you travel this path frequently you look for the optimal path.

There are two major obstacles between Easthampton, Massachusetts and Herndon, Virginia. One major obstacle is New York City, where the choice is either to drive through it or drive around it. If you drive through it, you should drive through it from east to west because the pricey George Washington Bridge is free in that direction. The cost of congestion sitting on I-95 in the Bronx is borne pretty much any day and at any time. Which leaves your options either avoiding the city and New Jersey altogether or driving around it. Around it means either I-287 or our more recent discovery: the Garden State Parkway that conveniently connects to the New Jersey turnpike west of Staten Island.

Obstacle two is Washington, D.C. itself, with arguably worse traffic than New York City. If you have to arrive there at evening rush hour it is better to go from east to west too because more people live in Maryland and work in Northern Virginia than the other way around. There are still inevitable slowdowns but it is less hellish.

This trip to our house settlement that spanned much of our week and that kept me from blogging was at least our last one, at least for the foreseeable future. Which is why I was glad to trade money for time. We have driven this route many times now and it is getting old. When the traffic is with you it is not too bad: six and a half hours without potty breaks with NPR stations along the whole route. But traffic can easily make it eight or ten hours or more, and there is no way to know; it’s a crapshoot. I don’t feel too bad doing 80 mph on the turnpike because plenty of others are going 85. Also, much of the turnpike is eight lanes in each direction, with four inner lanes reserved for cars-only. It’s so hard to police that the New Jersey cops have pretty much given up trying.

Still, it’s a sedentary trip and all the gear shifting (we were driving my wife’s manual car) and micro changes in speed to accommodate traffic dynamics hurt my feet. From bucolic Mount Tom in the morning to traffic soaked Reston, Virginia in the afternoon, but not to end up at our house in Herndon of 21 years. We ended up instead in a friend’s spare bedroom. Outside a Virginia spring told us we were going to miss the area. Dogwoods and ornamental cherry trees were in full bloom. The grass was a green as an Irish spring. And the temperature, at least this week, was ideal.

Also ideal were those last hours at our house before we said goodbye. Both our front trees were flowering, as were the flowers along the porch and in the main garden. The house was largely clean when the movers left. All that was left was some final sweeping and mopping of floors. Our buyers paid top dollar for our house. They deserved to walk into a house that sparkled. With almost everything outside blossoming, moving in should be a joy for them.

Last moments at our house
Last moments at our house

But for us this was an ending, not a beginning. Empty of our belongings our house looked surprisingly small, but it also felt lonely. Its future inhabitants will include a man named Rajkumar, his pregnant wife beginning her third semester and shortly after the baby arrives, her mother from India. Raj probably targeted our house for the mother in law suite in the basement, but also for its proximity to Washington Dulles airport. Years of working with Indians made me realize that they see themselves as part time inhabitants. At least once a year, sometimes more often, they jet half a world away to be with their real family, always very extended. Our modest house with the one car garage will doubtless seem palatial by Indian standards. In short, while we have departed, Raj has arrived, both figuratively and literally.

We arrived at the settlement a few minutes early to discover that they had beer in the fridge and plentiful snacks in the waiting room. I guess the writer’s cramp goes easier when you are mildly intoxicated and as long as it is just one beer, you are less likely to dispute items on the HUD-1 form. The settlement experience is much different when you are the seller. Within thirty minutes we had signed all our forms, turned over our keys and the remote controls to the garage door and a stack of manuals and had left, while an impressive stack of forms remained for Raj to sign. While settlement turned out to be the event that drew us back to Virginia, my wife had two medical appointments to keep. And there were family obligations too: a drive to Silver Spring to see my aging father and his wife, one final visit to Lake Anne in Reston to take a friend out to dinner and a six a.m. wakeup call on Wednesday to rendezvous with our daughter for breakfast. She works nights and goes to bed around 8 a.m. The trip back from breakfast had us sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along traffic clogged Route 28 in a 75-minute trip that should take twenty minutes.

Yes, Virginia traffic taxed us to the very end. It was literally taxing, as we were forced to pay $768 for a “congestion relief tax” as part of the house settlement. Doubtless the money would only cause more congestion, as 35 years had taught me that in Northern Virginia developer money talks and politicians will figure out how to accommodate all the extra traffic and people when hell freezes over. Speaking of traffic, it was stop and go much of the way from Sterling, Virginia (where my wife had an appointment with an eye doctor) to Columbia, Maryland where we spent our final night with my sister Mary.

Yesterday we did the trip all in reverse, but at least we started near Baltimore, which kept us from more hellish commuter traffic, easy to see from the solid mass of cars and trucks going south on I-95 toward Washington. The New Jersey Turnpike did not disappoint us. While we were making our journey home, $415K in settlement funds was making its way electronically into our bank account. We gave up a beautiful house with a gorgeous lawn with trees and flowers in bloom for a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Easthampton. But at least we were debt free for the first time in more than thirty years.

Back in Easthampton four days later, our apartment did not feel like home to me, but home it will be for a few more months. Our real home is under construction in nearby Florence. It will be built almost entirely from cash from our settlement. While we have yet to actually purchase and occupy the property, in a way we are already part of our neighborhood to be. Sunday we attended services at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and we almost immediately introduced to three people from our new neighborhood. We’re already booked to attend a party there later this month, and my wife has been invited to join their book club. Nearly everyday we pick up our mail from their mail kiosk, and our days are often spent with vendors nailing down the details of this new home to be.

So we are home-ish. I am wrung out from the last eight months, but with most of the hassle and work of relocation behind us I now have an opportunity to begin to recharge now and ponder what new adventures await us.

Sold to the man with $505,000

The Thinker by Rodin

Now here’s something I won’t miss I thought as we sat in capital beltway traffic during the middle of the day. How many weeks or months of my life had I squandered sitting in Washington traffic? There was no possible way to tally it, but at least it was coming to an end soon. While we were escaping to Baltimore, there was no escape from Washington’s predictably unpredictable traffic, at least not while we still lived here.

Or maybe there was. Ahead was the spur to I-270 north. A relatively new Intercounty Connector now connects Montgomery and Prince Georges counties in Maryland. For $3.20 we could avoid yet another tedious beltway tie up. It was hardly the shortest route to Baltimore but unsurprisingly it was the fastest today.

We were escaping to Baltimore because escaping was what our realtor recommended during open house weekend. Baltimore served the purpose of keeping us close but distracted while allowing our newly listed house to be easily inspected freely by prospective buyers. The big event was Sunday’s open house from 1-4. The calls from realtors had already started. Bright Photoshopped images of our house were now online, emphasizing light filled rooms, wood floors and empty kitchen countertops. Based on the calls we were getting, all the hassle of transforming our home into a house was clearing working. Come by anytime, we would tell the always-polite realtor on the other end of the call. The calls came while we drove down Eastern Avenue in Baltimore, in search of landmarks recommended by my sister who lives nearby. And they came in while we ate an early dinner at Matthew’s Pizza, Baltimore’s renowned hole in the wall pizza institution, also on Eastern Avenue.

The idea of escaping during open house weekend would only be partially realized. There was no escape Friday from the below freezing temperatures, endless snow banks and the partially snow filled parking spaces of Baltimore. There was no escape from the usury parking rates near the Hyatt Regency hotel at Inner Harbor, where we had a room for two nights. At least there wasn’t until we opted for the Arena parking garage six blocks away where the socialist City of Baltimore’s daily parking rate was just $16.00.

Inner Harbor was bone chillingly cold and mostly empty on this Friday night. We had made sporadic forays to Baltimore over the last thirty years, mostly to its touristy Inner Harbor area. In 1984 my then girlfriend Terri had surprised me with two nights in this very same hotel, a perk of being the one who made travel arrangements at her office (and being known by name by the Hyatt reservations staff). It is still an impressive hotel, but Inner Harbor was not quite as impressive thirty years later. The shops were less upscale and there were some vacancies. Thirty years ago Mayor (and future governor) Donald Shaffer might have been seen here strolling among the stores. Inner Harbor was his idea and it was very successful. While Shaffer is dead, his statue is still here overseeing Inner Harbor.

Saturday found warmth slowly returning and snow melting. The free Charm City Circulator made it relatively painless to get from point to point downtown. It helped if you liked to walk. Federal Hill was snow covered, but the walks to Fort McHenry were at least shoveled. The place known for the rockets’ red glare during the War of 1812 was unvisited by my wife, but even on this frosty morning the view of the harbor was still spectacular. The most spectacular find of the day turned out to be the Walters Museum accessed via a slow moving Circulator bus. William Thompson Walters was clearly filthy rich (he was a railroad tycoon). He and his son created a staggering collection of mostly European art, almost all of it in excellent condition that highlights medieval periods and the Renaissance. It’s all available for free but is largely unknown, perhaps because it is hard to get to.

Part of our mind was stuck back home. We wondered how many realtors had come through our house with clients in tow. The phone calls had slowed down, but some realtors might have not tried our cell number and simply brought their clients by. We had seen that happen routinely the last time we had a home on the market.

Sunday morning my sister Mary, who lives in nearby Columbia, volunteered to give us a driving tour of Baltimore. Mary might as well have been born in Baltimore. She adopted the city and likes to dress up like a Baltimore “Hon” with a beehive hairdo during Honfest week. She gave us a tour of areas of Baltimore we had never seen. Baltimore has an undeserved reputation. It’s actually an amazingly diverse but very urban city, known for its endless brownstones and many ethnic areas, most of which are quite safe and festooned mostly locally owned businesses. Urban prospectors would be smart to check it out. We checked out the Broadway Diner on the far side of Eastern Avenue for breakfast before starting our driving tour. We also checked out my father and stepmother on our drive back home, and stayed for dinner with them as well.

We returned home near sunset, our house emptied of people but with the back doors unlocked and a stack of real estate business cards on our dining room table. We spoke by phone with our realtor. The open house was a huge success. So many cars were parked along the side of the street that our neighbors had a hard time getting down the street. One prospect had driven up over our curb into our driveway, leaving tire tracks on our sod. Our house was still clean, but the driveway was full of muddy boot prints and tire tracks.

Our realtor was proactive enough to hire an assistant. They had prospects leave their boots and shoes on our porch. Debbie (our realtor) handled the front of the house while her assistant handled the back of the house. Rooms were frantically inspected and closets peered into while various couples tried to imagine if they could live here and afford our $505,000 asking price.

Debbie said we had an offer and to come by her office Monday afternoon. When we arrived on a spring-like Monday afternoon, she had two offers for us to consider. Both were at our full asking price. Both buyers were highly qualified, putting 20% down in cash and financing the rest. Both were happy to pay our asking price. And both were single men. The offers were essentially the same. We chose the Indian guy mainly because his settlement date worked better for us. (We imagined he had a bride to be back from India, and that our house would eventually be full of children.) We drove home with an Under Contract sign to place atop our For Sale sign. Our house had been on the market exactly three days.

This outcome was surprising but should not have been. It’s not for the same reason that we sat in beltway traffic three days earlier. Despite the hassle of living in the Washington region, people still have a frantic need to live here, and are willing to pay the price. It is a seller’s market in our area right now. Moreover, we were the only house for sale in our desirable neighborhood, and our house is in excellent condition. We hit the jackpot, but it was by design, not by chance. It meant about $10,000 more in fix up expenses in the last six months, and a huge amount of labor. It meant cringing while a stager turned our home into something we did not recognize. And it meant a weekend in Baltimore playing tourist while buyers assessed our house and pondered offers on our hot property.

It was a triumphant and to me stunning conclusion to our house selling odyssey. We now have to figure out where to live while our house is built, and we already have an unexpected offer from my sister Mary to live with her rent free in Maryland.

The Walls of Jericho have fallen down. A new adventure in Massachusetts waits for us.

Life among the landlocked

The Thinker by Rodin

I wonder how many workers in Los Angeles who live on one side of the sprawling metropolis would book a room in a hotel on the other side for three nights to attend a conference because they didn’t want to deal with the traffic.

I’m guessing not many LA’ers would consider this possibility, even if they could do it on their employer’s dime. Perhaps they would have done so in the past, but move over LA. Your city no longer holds the title for having the worst traffic in the United States. Perhaps due in part to malaise from the Great Recession, the Washington D.C. area now holds the dubious title of having the nation’s worst traffic. And here in the D.C. area, considering the hassle of getting from my house near Dulles International Airport to my place of business for the week near Baltimore-Washington International Airport (a distance of about fifty-five miles) the answer was clear: better book a hotel room.

That’s how bad the traffic is around here. Unlike Los Angeles, which at least has plenty of ways to get from point A to point B, in the Washington area if you need to get from, say, suburban Virginia to suburban Maryland you are largely limited to the Capital Beltway.  This usually means getting in a frequently congested queue of slow moving cars many miles long.

I drove to the conference from my house on Monday morning, leaving about 7:30 AM. I arrived ninety minutes later. This is actually a pretty good commuting time, considering it was in the thick of rush hour. I was helped in part because the bulk of the commuter traffic in the morning is from Maryland into Virginia. This is because Virginia has more jobs than Maryland, so Marylanders queue up on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway and on I-270 to get to Virginia. Many of those Maryland commuters were commuting to Tysons Corner in Virginia, so there were the usual clogs of cars on this road to tediously slog through. For me, because there were no accidents on the inner loop, the beltway was not a bad bottleneck, although it was slow in spots between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

This is what you do if you are a Washingtonian with a car. You are on a road that was designed to be an expressway. Instead, you stop. You go a little. You stop. You go some more. Sometimes you creep for miles at five to 20 miles an hour. Then you stop some more again. And you go some more again. Many of the spots where this will happen are predictable, but on any given commute you know there are guaranteed to be a few gotchas, i.e. bozos involved in wholly preventable traffic accidents. Often Type A drivers cause these accidents. We are overrun with Type A drivers in this area because we are all here to make our mark on the world. We live on overly caffeinated coffee and work crazy hours. One in ten of us are lawyers.

So traffic is just another battle we must win. So we dodge and weave crazily in traffic and then crunch someone’s fender. Since the traffic is already bumper-to-bumper, this just causes a huge queue of cars to stop for miles behind the accident. The service vehicle often becomes a victim too. Crazy Washington drivers being who they are, they have few qualms about driving on the shoulder when convenient, in the process blocking the service vehicles.

So of course I opted to stay in the hotel. While most of the congestion and/or mayhem happen during rush hours, there is no accounting for the time of day for these events. Tuesday I witnessed a ten-mile backup on I-95 approaching Baltimore from the south. Fortunately I was going the opposite way. (I had to teach a class in Virginia that evening, so I left the conference early.) Some jackknifed tractor-trailer was responsible for blocking four lanes of traffic. The usual. And speaking of “the usual”, as I made my way from Baltimore back to Virginia there was the usual creeping traffic on the outer loop near New Hampshire Avenue and approaching the American Legion Bridge, then more in Virginia. In Virginia the beltway is being “modernized” to put in HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes and this construction is squeezing the already squeezed commuters on the road. These HOT lanes are basically expressways for the obscenely rich. But that’s okay in Virginia because the rich are basically in charge anyhow and god forbid we spend public money to make the beltway faster for the 99%. The very idea!

Spending three nights in a hotel fifty miles from home actually made a great deal of sense. I saved huge amounts of time (at least three hours a day) by not commuting even if it meant being deprived of the company of spouse and feline. Yet the experience seemed so ridiculous, to be so close to home and yet to sleep in a hotel. It was the only practical alternative because taxpayers around here apparently are masochists. Instead, we regularly pave over what we have, and very occasionally adding a lane or two. In general traffic moves much better in Maryland than in Virginia because they spend much more on transportation. You can see it on Route 29 with all the new interchanges. Even so these modest improvements are not enough, and in Maryland they just result in less gridlock than in Virginia.

Today, at the conclusion of our conference, I contemplated yet another stop and go largely unpredictable commute home on the Capital Beltway and decided I just couldn’t endure it again. Instead, even though it was further and probably a half an hour longer, I drove to Frederick, Maryland and then across the Potomac River at the far north Point of Rocks Bridge. At least I could move. At least, except for some congestion on I-695 (Baltimore’s beltway) I could move at highway speeds. At least there was some predictability of when I would get home. Had I tried the beltway, there was probably a five percent chance I would still be sitting in traffic somewhere. I just didn’t want to deal with the possibility.

I do hope that when I retire I can retire somewhere with much better traffic. You know, some place like Los Angeles.

Oh the Mediocrity! Driving America by Interstate

The Thinker by Rodin

We are wending our way home from a vacation in Chicago, traveling I-70 east from Columbus, Ohio. Overall, Chicago was a good destination for a vacation. Nevertheless, having done Montreal and Toronto during our last vacation, Portland and Denver on recent business trips and New York City many times I am citied out. On my next vacation, I want a few weeks far from civilization.

Nonetheless, if you have to visit a huge American city and have deep pockets then Chicago is a terrific destination. It has the virtues of New York without most of its downsides — like the hellish 24/7 noise, the incessant congestion, the filth and the rats. (I am speaking only of downtown Chicago. The rest of the city, from our views of it, was far less enamoring.) While in Chicago, we saw terrific museums and took in two musicals. The more memorable one was the touring version of the new Broadway hit musical Wicked. The other was an irreverent but very funny Second City musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Aside from four nights in Chicago, we spent three nights in the Ohio suburbs. Each stop was convenient to traveling and the people we were visiting. Our overnights were in Maumee (a convenient rest stop south of Toledo), Springfield (a suburb on the north side of Cincinnati) and Dublin (on the periphery of Columbus).

I am afraid that the driving part of our vacation left a lot to be desired. It also left me sad and more than a bit nostalgic. Driving used to be an adventure. Now driving across America is a bland, frustrating and sometimes abrasive experience. I should wax poetic at the marvel at our interstate system. Undeniably, it is overall a convenient and usually quick way to zip across the country by automobile. Our transportation infrastructure, even if often congested, is still a marvel that is reached neither in size nor in scale by any other country. However, driving the interstates today, at least here in the Midwest, struck me as a sad and extended experience in the mediocrity and homogenization of modern America.

You can get a feel for the values of a state by traversing their toll roads. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you feel doubly squeezed: by the often-narrow road and the high cost per mile for the toll. Pennsylvania goes for minimalist rest stops that are often crowded and dirty. Getting back on the toll road may mean putting the pedal to the metal because the merge lanes do not last long. Fortunately, Pennsylvania has greatly improved their turnpike. While it can be considered fair at best, it used to be downright poor. The surrounding scenery helps to make up for road itself.

The Ohio Turnpike has both the best rest stops and the best-maintained toll roads. We travelers actually feel welcomed on their turnpike. Admittedly, large stretches of it may be flat and boring. At least much of their turnpike is three lanes in each direction, so you do not feel like you are going to be scraped by a passing vehicle like you do in Pennsylvania. While Ohio’s tolls are not cheap, you feel like you got your money’s worth. Their rest stops are attractive to the eye. They offer a variety of restaurants that are well maintained and uniformly clean. The gas prices on the turnpike plazas reflect street prices off the pike. The good citizens of Ohio have decided that travelers should not endure either a second-class road or second-class services on its toll roads. I appreciate these kinds of values. Perhaps I will retire in Ohio.

Contrast this with traveling on the Indiana Turnpike. In Indiana, you get the feeling the state just wants your dough, and as much of it as they can get for the least amount of money. The road quality quickly degrades. Unfortunately Indiana, as experienced from its interstates, does not speak well of the state. If I were to judge the state by what I saw along its interstates, Indiana would rank near the bottom of desirable states to live. The values of Indiana seem to be large annoying billboards, cheap fireworks, adult superstores, strip joints, casino gambling and, oh, religion too. Go figure. There is not much of anything bucolic to see on their turnpike other than cornfields. As you pass through Gary, you may have to roll up your windows to avoid the chemical stench. In short, from the interstate Indiana gives the impression it is a state full of trailer park trash values. If this red state is an example of Republican utopia, Republicans are welcome to it. If I were in charge of promoting Indiana, I would be thinking about making some major changes.

Venture off the interstate in Indiana to buy gas and it becomes impossible to distinguish one place from another. It soon all runs together: garish billboards, large signs for restaurants and hotels hoisted hundreds of feet in the air, neon lights, harsh industrial lighting, and the ubiquitous but deafening drone of accelerating trucks. Alas, in this respect Indiana is like most other states. Junk food is cheap and plentiful, which may explain the girth of the people I encountered. Unless you are close to a city, trying to find a place to purchase something resembling healthy food off Indiana interstates is a largely a pointless endeavor. You had better be hungry for McDonalds, Wendy’s, Taco Bell or KFC if you are traveling through Indiana. If you are lucky, the exit may have a Subway.

While there are still many cornfields in Indiana and Ohio, it increasingly feels like the cities are encroaching on each other. (Cincinnati and Columbus are good examples.) Each place where we stopped overnight seemed indistinguishable from the others. The nearby restaurants and theater chains were largely the same that we have at home. There was nothing particularly memorable about Maumee, Springdale or Dublin. They offer bland uniformity and convenience for the traveler, but not one thing that will make you turn your head. You would think they would be cleverer at marketing. Those who drive I-95 to and from Florida certainly know about South of the Border.

We found the truck traffic on the interstates to be often overwhelming. I have to assume that the railroads are having a hard time attracting customers. It seems that all of our freight is now moving by truck. We recreational drivers spend much of our time jockeying around the voluminous single, double and even triple trailer trucks. Between the laboring trucks and the heightened volume of the summer traffic, we found that the cruise control had little value.

Perhaps things are different in Europe. If we were to vacation there, as we hope to at some point, perhaps every place where we stop will feel different, look different and have a unique character. However, the more I travel the United States, the more homogenous it feels. It feels particularly this way when I travel it by car. Perhaps these are simply expressions of our deepest values. Perhaps we are truly one United States now in fact. From our highways, the evidence seems overwhelming. It seems that in America we want our travel experience to be like our fast food: familiar, mediocre and predictable.

The late CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt used to travel the highways and byways of America. In every community, he seemed to find a unique culture or story. Maybe that is still the case. You probably will not find it along America’s interstates. They are best breezed through and forgotten.

Bring Back the Trolleys

The Thinker by Rodin

There was a time not too long ago when most people did not need an automobile. They got where they needed to go by hopping on the neighborhood trolley. Most cities and towns above a certain size had trolleys. Trolley rides were ubiquitous, cheap, environmentally friendly, quick and convenient. After seeing the DC Trolley Museum today, I could not help but wonder why we were so boneheaded as to get rid of them. We must have been out of our minds.

Oh, I know about the economic reasons that caused trolleys to disappear. They are well documented on Trolley Stop, a wonderful website full of details about our recent trolley-filled past. The automobile did them in. As automobiles became cheaper, those with automobiles often turned their cars into illegal forms of public transportation. They offered people rides for a bit less than the trolley charged. Their cars were called jitneys. Later on after World War II, cars became reliable enough and gas became cheap enough that cars finally became more convenient for many people than the trolley. Trolley ridership declined to the point where they were no longer economically sustainable. The car became king.

So here we are half a century or so later. For many of us the car is a painful and expensive necessity because we have no other options. Instead of taking us where we want to go quickly, they instead often take us where we need to go slowly. When my mother was in the hospital in June, I decided to visit her on a Friday evening. What was I thinking? A twenty-mile trip from the Northern Virginia to the Maryland suburbs during rush took me two hours, much of it on a merge ramp trying to get onto an already clogged Washington Capital Beltway. It boggles my mind that people who commute from Maryland to Virginia do this every day. They do it because they do not really have any other realistic alternatives. The trolley lines are long gone. If there were buses that could take them, they would be stuck in traffic too.

Now the only place that you are likely to find trolleys is in a museum. The DC Trolley Museum, in far northern Silver Spring, Maryland on Bonifant Road is blessed with dozens of working trolleys used in Washington, in cities across America, and overseas. They have a small but educational visitors’ center. But why read about trolleys when you can ride one instead? Most visitors to the museum buy a ticket and board one of the trolleys that pull out of the garage every hour or so. From the ding ding of the trolley’s bell to the call of the conductor to the squeal of the trolley’s brakes as it rounds corners, you can get a taste for public transportation in our recent past. It should make you wistful.

Trolleys were not just creatures of the cities. Trolleys created the suburbs. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not expensive to extend trolley lines. So trolley companies extended them into the country and housing followed. Washington suburbs like Chevy Chase are a direct result of extended trolley lines. Many trolley companies found they needed to create interesting destinations for their passengers. The Glen Echo Amusement Park in Cabin John, Maryland was one of many such parks created by trolley companies. The profits from the parks helped keep the trolley system financially solvent.

In their heyday, trolley lines also gave stiff competition to the passenger railroad systems. At the DC Trolley Museum, I learned that there were profitable trolley lines between Hagerstown and Frederick in Maryland and many major and minor cities. These “interurban” trolley lines connected with their more urban cousins. They were also usually less expensive to ride and more centrally located.

Although trolleys were originally pulled by horses and mules, they eventually became all electric. In our increasingly polluted cities, they would now be a blessing.

In some places, trolleys are making something of a comeback. They are now referred to as light rail. Portland, Oregon is one of many cities making use of light rail. During a recent visit, Portland’s light rail system left me delighted. It took me from their airport to downtown but it also goes to many other places in the city. It cost me $1.70 and 45 minutes of my time. I could have spent $40 by taking a taxi. However, the light rail system was much more fun. It was also satisfying to see how the downtown area of Portland accommodated light rail on its streets. Some of its streets are designated for light rail use only.

This is good and as it should be. Other cities could learn a lot by emulating Portland. Many of our clogged divided highways have medians that are ideal for light rail. As usage of light rail increases and as automobiles become increasingly expensive to own it may be possible to devote some auto lanes for trolley or light rail use. I think that if we build trolley lines out from the cities toward our suburbs again then passengers will come.

The age of oil is ending, but it is unlikely that mankind will stop growing. We need to reexamine practical solutions that worked well in our past like trolleys and refine them for the present.

Bicycle Commuter

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s 7 AM. Do you know where your car is? Increasingly my car remains parked inertly in my driveway. Instead of driving to work I am finding I’d rather bicycle instead.

I realize I am fortunate to have this option. I haven’t really ever had it as a realistic option before. Yes, there were times when I biked to work all the time. But it wasn’t because I had much of an option. My one car family growing up meant my Mom usually couldn’t drive me. Actually since I was one of eight siblings it never occurred to me to ask. So biking was the only way to get to work short of walking for an hour or more in each direction. This was the case in my first job (1973) when at age 16 I worked at a Winn Dixie store in Daytona Beach. It was three or so miles in each direction to the store on the peninsula from our house on the mainland. In 1978 I had moved to Maryland and lived a couple miles from where I worked. Bicycling again was the only realistic option, unless my hours worked out so that I could catch the bus instead. My car at the time was too expensive to fix up. I had no credit cards and only a couple hundred bucks in the bank.

But now I can choose between biking and driving to work. And unless the weather doesn’t suit I choose to bike. It’s about three miles in each direction and largely a straight shot on a bike path next to the Fairfax County Parkway. And ironically I can get there in about the same time it would take me to drive it. That’s because when I drive I have to deal with rush hour traffic. I often have to wait with my engine running for three minutes just to get on the parkway. Then it can be stop and go for the rest of my commute. No executive parking spot for this GS-14. I’m back at the end of the parking lot, which means several minutes of walking just to get to my building.

All these issues are rendered moot by the bike. At most it adds a couple minutes to my commute. On a bad traffic day I can beat the traffic. No parking for me at the far end of the lot anymore. Rather I zip my bike up the main ramp of my building dodging the jersey barriers. I lock my bike in the bike rack right next to the main entrance. I arrive with my heart racing but feeling so very alive. My only concern is that I’m not so sweaty that I offend my coworkers.

As best I can tell there is no downside to bicycling. On most days the six miles of bicycling suffices for daily exercise. I don’t have to add a workout or a run when I get home. This gives me more time to do what I want. Rising gas prices no longer frighten me. I don’t worry about contributing needlessly to global warming or the ozone problem. The only way that would happen is if I ate too many beans with meals.

And it’s not a bad commute either. I would prefer my commute to be a bit more bucolic. Instead I hear the roar of my fellow commuters thirty feet next to me. But when peddling at 20-30 miles an hour the wind drowns out much of the noise. And in the morning the ride is usually cool and a bit bracing.

The ride home can be a bit more problematic in the summer time. Thunderstorms are a frequent occurrence in the late afternoons this time of year. I am sure a thunderstorm one of these days will drench me. But I also have the Internet now. I can see if rain is approaching by going to Weather Underground and checking their radar map. If I am proactive enough I can leave work early and dodge the rain. Once home I can telecommute until my workday is over. Or I can wait until the storm passes. These storms don’t usually last long.

There is never a traffic jam on the bike paths. I may pass one or two fellow bicyclists in each direction but as far as I am concerned I am on my own private expressway. The only thing that really slows me down is crossing the Fairfax County Parkway. Alas, there is no bridge to carry me over the traffic so I must wait at the light just like a car. But sometimes I get lucky and have little or no wait and cut a couple minutes off my commute.

I’m wondering how long I can keep it up. I won’t do it if it is raining. There will be code red or code orange days when it would be healthier to take the car, even at the expense of adding to the ozone problem. Once the morning lows hit forty or lower I may weenie out. But for now my goal is to keep riding. I could always stand to be a bit trimmer. Perhaps bicycling will be the way I finally lose those last necessary pounds. I’ll find out in time.

I find it healthy, fun, invigorating and a great way to arrive at the office full of energy and ready to be productive. I wish more of us had this option. Starbucks would sell a lot less coffee because we bicycle commuters don’t arrive at work half asleep.