Looking for Real Solutions to Congested Commutes

Earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported that Boston has some of the worst commutes to work in the country and that it has gotten exponentially worse over the past decade.

In 2017, drivers spent 2 hours more in traffic than in 2016, up to 60 hours. I’m above average because I spend more than 30 minutes in traffic every day I have to drive to the office, which is 90 minutes per week times 50 weeks, which is 75 hours. And I only have to drive in 3 days a week. I also drive off-hours. I work in the office 7:30am to noon, then drive home and work the rest of the day there. When I was leaving the office between 3:30pm and 5pm, it would take 1 to 2 hours to get home, peaking on Fridays in the summer.

The article notes that bus schedules are being changed to reflect the reality of more traffic. Real estate agents have to allot more time for clients to get from property to property. Cost of housing closer to the city has skyrocketed and now even the very wealthy can’t find places they can afford.

Some people complain that the Big Dig—the massive, decades-long construction project in the middle of Boston—didn’t fulfill its promise, but the truth is it took so long that the fix it promised was overtaken by time. More people moved in. Imagine how much worse it would be without it. Census estimates tell us that 250,000 more people live in Boston since 2000 and unemployment is so low that 300,000 more people are working since January 2010. They’re all commuting to work in and around Boston.

So, we’re all agreed something has to be done. The problem is that nobody seems to be thinking realistically about it.

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Our New Family Vehicle: 2015 Ford Transit Wagon

At the end of May we purchased a new family vehicle, a 2015 Ford Transit Wagon, to replace our aging Buick Terraza minivan. It’s quite the upgrade.

We’d had the Buick for about 10 years and we have been talking about replacing it for the last five years. The biggest problem was that even as a minivan, it’s capacity was limiting. We literally could not fit another child into the car and even with just the five kids, we moved Isabella out of her booster and Sophia and Ben out of their car seats into boosters before we were supposed to. We couldn’t take long road trips because the poor kids were so cramped and there was no place to put stuff. But we managed to endure until we took the Buick in for some repairs. Our great mechanic told us that we need to replace struts, wheels, and brakes and do major work on the air conditioner, all of which together would cost about $3,000. Truly, it was time to move on.

I knew we needed to move up to a larger vehicle and because the Transit was Ford’s newest version of the full-size van we settled on that, finding a couple of recent vintage with low miles locally.1

There’s a lot to like about the van. It doesn’t have a lot of frills, but it does have a very nice rearview camera in the bumper. If you’d asked me whether it was something I would want in a new vehicle I’d have said No, but after a couple of months with it, now I want it on my Honda. The camera is especially useful on the Transit because there is almost no view out of the back window. The design of the pillars in the rear doors is unnecessarily bulky, I think, so you can hardly see anything. But with the rear camera and the very nice side mirrors, that’s not a real issue. The side mirrors offer both a big straight up rear view mirror and a concave mirror that lets you see all around the side, removing blind spots, but also making parking within the lines easier.

The view from the driver’s seat is pretty good overall. It sits high up and the front windshield is a large expanse of glass, while the nose of the van is quite short, giving you an excellent view. There are several storage space and cup holders in easy reach of the driver and front passenger, but not much storage in the back and while there’s several cup holders in back, not one for every seat.

There are only two windows that roll down, the front passenger and driver and only half of the windows roll down. It’s kind of odd how much of the window doesn’t go down.

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The passenger version of the Transit comes in a number of seating configurations, holding up to 15 people, but ours seats 10.2 This gives us a big space right inside the sliding door, behind the front passenger where we can put all kinds of gear. The nice thing is that the two in car seats, Anthony and Lucia, are right behind the driver and passenger. In the next row, Isabella, who used to be cramped in the middle in the back of the old car, now has a glorious row to herself. And Sophia and Benedict are in the back without anyone competing for arm rests.

As a full-size van, we have new considerations like the height of the van. It’s taller than the minivan at 6-feet, 11-inches and won’t fit in some garages, a problem which Melanie ran into recently. And it’s certainly bigger all around when you’re maneuvering.

Overall, though, it’s been a very nice upgrade so far. I wish we could have done it earlier. I’m looking forward to really putting it through its paces in August when we take it for a week of camping.

  1. I think we got a pretty good deal on the van we purchased, if the sour looks and attitude of the finance manager were anything to judge by. He was especially unhappy when I got him to admit that the “couple bucks a month” extended warranty would be $5,000 extra — and he was going to finance it to boot! No thanks. ↩︎
  2. It can come with seating for as few as 8. To seat 12, you need the long wheelbase version and for 15, you need the extended-length version. ↩︎

They Get You Coming and Going

There are basically five major highways in and out of Boston: The Southeast Expressway from the south, the Mass. Turnpike from the west, Route 93 from the northwest, the Harbor Tunnels from the east, and Route 1/Mystic Tobin Bridge from the north. Of those, three have tolls on them: the Pike, the Tobin, the Tunnels.

Years ago, the Tobin had tolls coming south and going north, but eventually the northbound tolls were dismantled in order to make at least one of the two daily commutes less hellish. But to compensate, they doubled the southbound tolls, of course.

Flash forward several decades and the tolls are coming back.

A spokesman with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) said crews installed the infrastructure for all-electronic tolling on June 2. The equipment is now visible as drivers enter the Tobin Bridge in the northbound direction.

Except they didn’t bother to tell anyone. There’s a reason for that. Commuters from north of Boston have complained for years that they bear the brunt of tolls because there are no good options for getting in the city with paying a toll whereas drivers from south of the city have never had a toll. So every time the topic comes up, politicians north of the city have a field day. I suppose someone at the Transportation Dept decided it would be better to ask forgiveness than permission.

But, you may say, the total tolls aren’t changing! Whereas the single southbound toll was $2.50, now it will be $1.25 each way.

Yeah, and if you believe that it will stay that way for long, I have a bridge in Boston to sell you.

Is Texting and Driving Really That Bad?

texting and driving

I’m not going to propose that texting and driving is something we should all do, as if it doesn’t affect anyone’s ability to drive safely. But like many cause célèbre, the way it is portrayed in the mainstream media tends to distort the reality in favor of a preferred outcome.

The Boston Globe reports today that drivers in Massachusetts are receiving more tickets than ever for texting and driving since the law against it was passed in 2011. The article and the people interviewed for it seem to suggest that increased application of the law is its primary benefit. But is it?

The report says that in 2015, Massachusetts police wrote 6,131 tickets for texting and driving compared to 1,153 in 2011, the first full year of the law. It then says:

The habit has had a devastating effect: Nationally, distraction-related crashes killed 3,179 people and injured an estimated 431,000 in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There’s no doubt that the deaths of those 3,179 people was devastating to them and their families, but notice that it does not offer a context for those numbers to tell how devastating it is on a wider scale. In fact, in 2014, there were 32,765 total motor vehicle deaths in the US. That means distraction-related deaths accounted for less than 10% of all motor-vehicle deaths.

Oh, but is a “distraction-related” crash the same as a “texting and driving” crash? Not according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which compiles these reports. In fact, only 13% of the distraction-related automobile deaths were reported to have involved the use of a cell phone. That’s about 1% of all automobile-related deaths.

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Better iPhone Audio for My Commute

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I used to spend a lot more time in my car each day than I do now. When we lived further from my office, I would spend an hour in the morning and as much as two hours in the afternoon commuting back and forth to work, but now we’re just 15 minutes from work and perhaps 30 minutes when there’s traffic.

How does one stay sane while sitting in the car all that time? I know that most people listen to the radio, but I get bored by that. I prefer podcasts, lots of podcasts of many types, from economics to politics to general interest to Macintosh to productivity to, of course, Catholic. Because I have an older car, a 2000 Honda Civic, my options for playing the podcasts have always been somewhat limited. Back in the beginning, I connected my iPod–and later my iPhone–to a cassette adapter to play them through the car’s stereo. But that’s always been a second-best option and more so now since the stereo’s speakers are really going and sound awful.

So I thought I’d share a little of how I make listening to audio in my car work today. It all starts with the iPhone and an app called Downcast. (I wrote about Downcast a couple of years ago.) I have it set to download update my list of podcasts each day automatically before I get in the car. It does it again when I leave work through the use of the iPhone’s built-in geofencing features that Downcast accesses.

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Rather than leave my iPhone sitting on the car seat where it can slide all over the place when I’m driving around, I use a mount to keep it in place and at hand. There are all kinds of iPhone mounts available on the market. Some of them clip to your air vents, but I’ve found that blocks the air and you can redirect the air flow. Others go in your cup holder, but then you’re out a cup holder and plus my cup holders are in an awkward location. Most either attach to the dashboard or to the windshield via suction cups. I’ve had back luck with those, mainly because the suctions cups refuse to stay attached, especially when it’s either very hot or very cold out. But I’ve finally found one brand that works very well.

RAM Mounting Systems sells a complete line of mounting products to all kinds of customers, including police forces, and they can mount anything in vehicles from laptops to fishing rods to GPS’ to phones and tablets. There are a couple of options, but the best one is the Universal X-Grip, [Amazon link] which has two spring-loaded arms that will grip just about any phone, whether or not it’s in a case. The way RAM Mount works is that you choose the working end that holds the device and then select the other bits and pieces that make it work for your car. In my case, I got two articulating ball-and-socket arms and suction cup window mount. (You can also get bicycle arms mounts, plates for attaching to surfaces with screws, and arm that attaches to the passenger seat frame rail and more.)

I know I said suction cups have not worked for me in the past, but this one is different. This is one tough and durable and solidly built suction cup. It’s not perfect, but it stays attached long after lesser suction cups have refused to stay attached. If you haven’t experienced the fun of your phone falling off the windshield at your feet while driving on the highway, let me tell you that you haven’t lived. As long you keep the windshield glass clean under the suction cup, you’re good to go.

I keep the iPhone mounted just to the left of the steering wheel, close enough that if I reach out with my pointer finger from the place I normally keep my hands on the wheel, I can operate the phone quite easily. This has been great and keeps distraction to a minimum.

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Because I don’t use my stereo for playback, I need something other than the phone’s built-in speaker to listen. I used to have a small cheap speaker that connected via a headphone cable, but the cable was so short that it made keeping the speaker in a convenient place difficult and it just didn’t sound very good. So I moved up a little bit to a Bluetooth speaker, specifically the Logitech UE Mobile Boombox, which not only works as a speaker, but also as a speakerphone. This has been a rock-solid addition. The battery life is great, going weeks before needing a recharge and setting up the Bluetooth was very easy. If there’s any negative about it, I could wish it could go a littler louder because when I’m driving with the windows open the wind noise can drown out some of the speaking voices in the podcasts.

I keep this right in front of me on the instrument cluster, in front of the tachometer. Since the Honda is an automatic, I never look at the tach anyway. And because it’s Bluetooth, I no longer have a dangerous headphone wire snaking around and through the steering wheel to potentially get tangled.

ipadrammount

Finally, I did also get a RAM Mount for my iPad. There have been times when I wished I had a larger display for, say, Maps when navigating to a new address, and so being able to mount my iPad in view is very useful. The mount I got isn’t available anymore and that’s probably for good reason since I ended up breaking the mount while trying to get my iPad in and out of it, which is better than breaking the iPad, I guess. They’ve since re-designed this style and at about $20 on Amazon it’s a good deal, but they’ve also recently added a version of the X-Grip, which should work beautifully but costs three times as much at $66 on Amazon! (There’s also a $20 X-Grip for 7" tablets. The cost of having being popular.)

As I was taking photos for this post, I had to manhandle the iPad out of the mount and this retaining pin broke off. As I was taking photos for this post, I had to manhandle the iPad out of the mount and this retaining pin broke off.

Keep in mind, as well that you need to add in the price of the other components, so you’re looking at about $50 total for the mount. It sounds like a lot I suppose, but when you’re in your car every day, how much are you willing to pay for your sanity and for the safety of not blindly flailing for your phone that fell off the windshield or slid off the seat?

In any case, this setup make at least my comute at little more pleasant every day.

Would you give up some privacy for lower premiums?

So the Progressive insurance company has a new product that lets you earn a discount by plugging in a little dongle to your car that reports on your driving habits. It raises some interesting questions about how much privacy we’re willing to give up, not to the government, but to a corporation.

At first, it’s very off putting because we can imagine how we could be penalized for bad driving – or even the kind of driving we do every day if they deem it to constitute a bad risk. Of course, there’s only so much data they can collect from today’s cars, like engine RPM and acceleration. And Progressive, at least for now, promises that your rates can’t go up based on the data they collect.

On the other hand, let’s take it a step further. What if they could collect data on things like attentiveness, how well you change lanes, whether you’re prone to jackrabbit starts or abrupt stops? (Such things would be possible if the car’s computer collected data like turn signal activation or if an eye-tracking camera were mounted on the visor or rearview mirror.)

Right now insurance companies base their premiums on general demographic data–age, gender, where you live, what kind of car you drive– plus your driving history, i.e. tickets and accidents. But if they had more data about your specific driving, they could better assess how much of a risk you are. There are some people who are effectively a zero risk. I can imagine they might offered a near-zero premium.

Conversely, a driver who is a higher risk might pay a higher premium. However, what if the insurance company could incentivize bad drivers to become better drivers? Perhaps on a month-by-month basis they could provide feedback to the drivers with ways to improve their driving, maybe with free training. And maybe they would say something like, “If you change these factors next month, we will reduce your premium next month by $50.”

Not only would that help reduce the risks for the insurance carriers from those drivers, but they would also reduce the risk for their good drivers as well.

With a few bits of already available technology, this could be a reality. It would take changes in what data cars record, thus how automakers build them, as well as a change in the regulatory environments in most states, but it’s something to think about.

 

They should have had a Lifehammer in Logan, Utah

Perhaps you’ve heard the news story out of Utah about the car with a dad and three kids that flipped into an icy river. Eight men in passing cars leapt into the river to rescue them, including one man who shot out a window with his handgun and another who had a knife to cut them from the seatbelts. It sounds like they’re all going to make it, but it’s a scary scenario right out of my nightmares.

Living in Massachusetts, I can’t count on passersby having a handy handgun or knife to help us in a similar situation, which is why I purchased two Lifehammers, one for my car and one for Melanie’s. They are designed for the single purpose of getting you out of your car in an emergency. One end has a pointed steel hammer that punches readily through tempered auto glass while the other has a razor in a safety position for cutting through seat belts.

They sit right in the little map pocket by the driver’s door for at-hand access. I keep in mind that it’s not just for an accident that I may get into or Melanie, God forbid, but if like in the story above, we encounter others in similar need.

(Note: Although that’s an Amazon affiliate link, I don’t have any interest in Lifehammer other than wanting people to be safe when driving with their kids or to be able to help others at need.)

 

What car should a growing family buy?

Our Buick Terraza

It’s time for our family to start thinking about a new vehicle to transport us around. Our lease is up in February and we want to plan for the future. Unfortunately, the options for large and growing families are limited.

For the past four years, Melanie and I have been driving a 2006 Buick Terraza, or as I like to call it “the minivan no one has heard of”. It’s a decent enough vehicle, with two sliding doors and three rows of seats. It even has an in-car DVD/TV system, although we’ve used it just a couple of times total. (Our kids don’t watch much in the way of movies or videos.) On the downside, the rear seats don’t flat, like those in newer, more popular minivans and so in order to haul anything big, you have to take the massive and awkward contraptions out and store them somewhere. (And since we don’t have a garage, storage options are limited.) And when the seats are not folded flat, the view to the rear through the headrests on those seats is somewhat limited.

The Terraza seats six, at least when there are four kids in car sears. Two adults in front, two car seats in the middle bucket seats, and two in the rear bench. In Massachusetts, child must ride in car seats until they are five, and then they can use a booster until they are 4’9”. Bella just turned five so we’ve picked up a booster seat, which should allow us to get a slim adult, like my sister-in-law, in the back between Bella and Sophia, getting us up to seven and just barely allowing everyone in our house to travel places in one car.

We lease the Terraza from a company I’ve been doing business with for about 14 years, which leases out one- or two-year-old vehicles, mainly from rental fleets. I got my Dodge Stratus from them way back in 1998 and then upgraded to the Dodge Intrepid. About 18 months after we were married and when Bells was six months it was time to bow to the inevitable and move up to the minivan. The way this company works, when you get into the last year of your lease, which I’ve generally taken for five years at a time, they offer to let you get a new lease early. They keep a loyal customer and I get a newer car. So now we’ve just received the letter from them and we’re starting to think of a new vehicle.

So what kind of car will we want to have for the next four or five years? We have had four children in the past five years. We hope to … slow that pace down from here, but we are open to God sending us more children. Melanie conceivably (pun intended) has another 10 years of possible child-bearing. (To reiterate, we are not expecting another child at this time.) Meanwhile, in four years Isabella, Sophia, and Benedict will have moved up to booster seats, but will not yet be old enough to go without. Anthony will be just about to move to a booster. Yet there could one, two, or even three more kids. (Eep!)

So the big questions is: What do we get?

I asked this over on Facebook and got a variety of answers, including 12-passenger van, 15-passenger van, Chevy Suburban, Honda Odyssey, GMC Acadia, and even a school bus (though that was tongue-in-cheek.)

I think I will eliminate the Odyssey and Acadia right off the bat, although they are both nice looking vehicles. The Odyssey’s main seating advantage over the Terraza is that the middle seats are a bench, not buckets so you get on extra there. And the Acadia has no seating advantage over the Terraza. Otherwise, both are very nice vehicles with lots of interesting options, although the Odyssey is so popular it will be hard to find used and the Acadia is just pretty expensive.

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I’ve seen a lot of families go for the large-capacity vans, especially since there are so many in the used-car market and they just have capacity galore. I’ve been told by some who’ve owned them that I should go for the 15-passenger variant instead of the 12 because the 12’s back seat butts right up against the rear door, leaving almost no cargo room, unless I take out the rear bench (cf. no garage, no storage, above). Some have warned that these are difficult to drive in the snow, get terrible gas mileage, and big and bulky to drive and park in general. Melanie will be driving it most of the time so difficulty, especially in snow, is a concern. But my sister just got a full-size van so we’ll ask her how she feels about it.

And then there’s the Suburban. My brother owns one of these to carry his family with six kids and has taken many long road trips in it. With front and middle bench seats, it can also seat nine, although the ninth passenger sitting in the middle between the driver and the right-side passenger has to be over 12 years old. Still, even without that seat, you can get a good six in the back, which is two more than we can do now.

So we’re still thinking about it. What should we get? What do you big families drive and how many of your kids are in car seats still?

 

Once born, tolls and taxes never die

masspiketolls.jpgLiberals like to use taxation and regulation to bring about social engineering. Unfortunately, they also use those tools as an opportunity to expand the reach of government through new programs funded by those new taxes. Thus they tax cigarettes, for example, rather than outlaw it, so they can fund health-care for poor kids, which is one of the ways they sell the tax to voters. But when the tax has its effect, as in reducing the number of smokers, the liberals cry that these “vital” programs created by these taxes are under-funded, and so another new tax is born.

The latest example of this round-robin is the gas tax in Massachusetts. Years of increasing gas taxes, plus increases in the cost of oil, have forced taxpayers to buy more fuel-efficient cars—whether those cars are otherwise the best car for them or not—or to ride public transportation. This led to decreased purchase of gasoline and lower revenues from the gas taxes, which in turn led to shortfalls in funding for road maintenance and whatever other less necessary pork projects the solons on Beacon Hill dreamed up.

And so, they’re dreaming up new ways to tax us like Gov. Deval Patrick’s idea to create open-road tolling or tracking the mileage you drive and charging you a mileage tax. Open-road tolling means cars drive at highway speed through places on the highway where receivers in the road pick up radio-frequency transponders rather than forcing cars to slow down to go through electronic booths or to stop to give money to a toll taker.

Placing more tolls on fewer drivers is not the solution

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When you’re in over your head, stop digging. That old saw same to mind as I read this article that says fewer people are using the Massachusetts Turnpike because of rising gas prices so they’re thinking of raising tolls to compensate. Huh?

Drivers, struggling with high gas prices, avoided the debt-plagued Pike this summer as the department’s finances inched closer to junk-bond status yesterday.“This is yet another wake-up call,” said Pike board member Mary Connaughton. “Barring some type of state aid, the only solution is a toll increase.”

Typical liberal thinking. It ignores actual economic behavior or that people will act in their own self-interest. What we see is that commuters who are cost-conscious are finding alternate means of getting to work because of a rise in the cost of commuting. So is the solution really to increase the cost even further? That will only drive even more tollpayers away from the Pike and exacerbate the problem.

I’ve told the story before of the Democrat Senator in the early 90s who asked the Congressional Budget Office to conduct a study of the potential revenue from a 100% tax on income over $1 million. That is, you pay normal rates on all the money you earn up to $1 million, but every dollar you earn above that you turn over to the government. He was actually surprised to learn the CBO’s answer: The potential revenue would be ZERO. If the state confiscated all income over $1 million why would anyone bother earning that much? Better to let the company keep the money to invest in itself, in new employees, pay raises, capital improvements, than to simply give it away.

What the liberal Senator—and the liberals running the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority—don’t seem to get is that taxpayers and commuters act in their self-interest and aren’t just waiting for some out-of-touch bureaucrat or politician to tell them what to do.

I have a suggestion to the Turnpike Authority: How about cutting tolls and then cutting costs and seeing how many more people, not fewer, start using the Pike.

 

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