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Josh Kurtz: In Praise of Driving (Sort of)

I recently inherited a car.

I had been without a car of my own for a decade, earning the moniker of “Mr. Public Transportation” in my household.

I have found to my surprise these past few months that I’ve enjoyed and appreciated having a car at my disposal. But I am not sure this is a good thing.

To be clear, I have been a car owner during all these years and in fact have owned multiple cars for some of this time. But I’ve never had regular, daily access to wheels because they’ve been a necessity for other members of my family. I can count, on both hands, the number of times I’ve used a family car for my job in this past decade.

This has mostly been possible because until very recently, I spent most of the past 16 years working near Union Station in Washington, D.C. To get to work I would either ride my bike, 7 ½ miles in each direction, or take the Metro. To get to the Metro from my house I’d either ride my bike, walk or take a bus – 1 ½ miles to a Red line station or 2 miles to a Green line station.

On those rare occasions when I needed to go out of town for work – out of town meaning Annapolis, or maybe Baltimore, or elsewhere in Maryland, I’d take a Zip Car, though I’d sometimes use the much-maligned MARC train to get to and from Baltimore, usually without incident.

Utilizing all of these alternatives, I felt very good about myself. I was getting plenty of exercise. And helping the environment. And making a statement. And being a pioneer in the car-sharing economy. Or all four.

And when you ride on Metro, or on a bus, or on the MARC train, you can read. Or get work done. Or stare aimlessly into the middle distance. You can leave the driving, and the fretting, to someone else.

But anyone who must rely on public transportation to get around Maryland or the Washington, D.C., region knows it can be grossly unreliable. Even at peak efficiency, without regular breakdowns or mishaps, the region’s transit system isn’t perfectly laid out and seems decades behind where it needs to be. It doesn’t reflect modern commuting needs or housing and employment patterns. It anticipates nothing about the future.

Perhaps I am spoiled from having grown up in New York City. Even in the 1970’s, when I was using transit to get to junior high and high school and the city was so troubled in so many ways, when the subway trains were saturated in graffiti and populated with unsavory characters, and the smell of urine and worse overpowered every train station, the subway system was fast, reliable, extensive and inclusive – and it operated 24 hours a day.

There is much to admire about the Washington Metro system, but it was designed, essentially, as a suburban commuter rail line. The breadth of places it doesn’t get you – or can’t get you in a timely fashion – is staggering. Baltimore’s transit system is shameful. And it’s nearly impossible to get around the rest of the state without a car.

For the first seven years I lived and worked in Maryland, I spent every workday on the Capital Beltway. And almost as often, I was on Interstate 270 or Rockville Pike or U.S. 50. There was an ice storm on my second day on the job, and it took me three hours to get home. It’s fair to say I’m still having bad acid flashbacks from those days – and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve been so happy to rely on my legs and public transit for so long.

But when I had the opportunity to use a car regularly this fall after a decade’s hiatus, I thought, why not?

Nowadays, I don’t have to drive for work every day – though that will change for the three months the Maryland General Assembly is in session – though I do drive fairly regularly. And I have learned how to become very strategic about driving.

I go to great extremes not to have to drive during rush hour. For me, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. is prime driving time. I will think long and hard about getting in the car before 10 or after 3, unless I leave the house at dawn.

I’ve come to rely on good parking karma. And I’ve learned to be willing to work from coffee shops, libraries and hotel lobbies between appointments.

Take, for example, one day this fall. I had a lunch with a prominent Prince George’s County politician and a staffer in Largo. That evening, I was covering an event on Capitol Hill.

So I drove to my lunch date in about 20 minutes. Then I drove to the Hill in about 20 minutes and parked for free, on the street, hoping that nobody would pay attention to the fact that I was violating the two-hour parking limit (no one did). I worked and made phone calls from a coffee shop for a few hours, went to my evening event, and zipped home in about 15 minutes.

I’m still puzzling over how I would have made this multi-stop journey relying on public transportation or my bicycle, and how long it would have taken.

Trips from my house to downtown Bethesda? To Greenbelt? To the Universities of Maryland at Shady Grove? To Washington Nationals games? Far quicker and more pleasant by car than by transit – especially if I’m avoiding rush hour.

I’ve also discovered, driving, that it’s possible to get work done by making phone calls – something I’m never comfortable doing on a Metro or MARC train, because who can stand all the blabbing in a public space?

So all’s good since I started driving regularly again. Except I feel terrible.

Not just because I feel guilty polluting the air with my Honda Fit – hardly a major offender when it comes to carbon emissions. Not just because I’ve lost a bit of my cool quotient. But because there’s something terribly wrong with having to be so reliant on an automobile.

Why should a midday drive in a major metropolitan area be so much more direct and efficient than a trip using public transportation? Why, in this day and age, is transit slower, less reliable and in many cases more expensive?

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and countless other policymakers have rightly touted the state’s commitment to the Purple Line – which lord knows, I would use – and to a steady funding stream for Metro. But for some of them, including Hogan, it seems like they’ve checked a box and are moving on. Hogan is now promoting an amorphous multibillion-dollar highway expansion project along the Beltway, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Wouldn’t that same money be better spent, given the looming climate disaster and the way younger people are thinking about lodging and work, on more investments in public transit? I don’t know the answer – I’ve heard a lot of people speak on both sides of this issue with complete certitude. But it sure weighs on me every time I get behind the wheel instead of hopping on my bike or hurrying for the Metro.

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Josh Kurtz: In Praise of Driving (Sort of)