A driving ambition to get out of the car

August 08, 1999|By Susan Reimer

MY HUSBAND HAS made the sly observation that I should hang window boxes on my minivan because I spend more time behind the wheel than I do at home.

Why not? I eat in my van, sleep in my van, make phones calls from my van -- I have actually changed clothes in my van. And my children do these things, too. I probably could get mail delivered to my van -- but it is never parked in front of the house long enough.

My life revolves around my vehicle in ways Batman's never did.

It has been necessary to choose my friends from among the stops on my car-pool route -- I don't see anyone else often enough to get to know them.

Everything I do is done on the way to somewhere else. Food is purchased only if there is time to get to the grocery store and back between the drop-off and the pick-up.

And I paid close attention to news not long ago that truck drivers actually cook meals by the heat of their engines while driving their routes.

And, of course, I clean my van more often than I clean my house. Who could live in that mess?

I didn't really mind life in the car-pool lane until the Surface Transportation Policy Project reported that I will spend 17 days this year behind the wheel of my car. Suddenly my fanny felt numb.

"Mothers have stepped up and become the bus drivers of the '90s. They make two-thirds of all the pick-up and drop-off trips," says Barbara McCann, who manages the STPP's Transportation and Quality of Life Campaign. I told her I thought those two concepts were mutually exclusive, and she agreed.

"This is very much a quality of life issue," says McCann. "Women spend an hour a day driving. They average 29 miles a day, so it's lots of short trips. Just spending that much time driving is unpleasant. In and out of traffic is stressful.

"People talk about spending time in the car talking with your kids. But when you ask women what constitutes quality time, sitting in a car isn't one of the things they list."

Women do the driving for kids and the elderly -- the groups that can't drive themselves. But the fact is, more mass transportation is not the answer.

"It goes beyond bus lines and rail lines," says McCann. "It is about building communities that really work for people."

Communities with sidewalks and bike trails, where kids can get themselves to school, playgrounds and recreation centers. Communities built around services people need -- banks, drugstores, dry cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, day care. Suburban sprawl has put us all miles away from anything convenient.

The STPP crunched numbers provided by the federal government through the National Personal Transportation Survey that is done every five years. Travel diaries and transportation statistics show that Americans spend 43 more hours every year in their cars than they did just five years ago, an 11 percent increase.

But while everyone is driving more, women -- particularly mothers of school-aged children -- are the ones who squeeze more trips into their day than anyone else -- an average of five a day. And chauffeur service and errand running make up nearly half of these. The commute to work accounts for just 16 percent of her trips.

One time-use study shows women spend more time driving than eating.

I wonder if there is a study that shows we are driving ourselves, and our families, crazy?

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