Musings on Traffic and the Schuylkill Expressway

Though we intend to buy a second car soon, we are currently still operating with one. This is mostly my fault, as I am having a very hard time getting my head around the idea of driving a minivan. As of October, I will have three children who require car seats or booster seats, and I know that minivans are very practical. I also know that what kind of car you drive says absolutely nothing about you as a person. On the other hand, I’m having a hard time pulling the trigger, perhaps hoping there will be a new car on the market soon that is sleeker, more sophisticated, and gets better gas mileage (and holds three children).

Anyway, since we’re still at one car, I drove my husband to the airport at 5:45AM the other morning. Driving in Philadelphia often requires a trip on the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76). It is the only real highway leading out of Philadelphia and up toward the suburbs and suburban corporate parks to the city’s north. It is also wedged between the hills and the Schuylkill River, which means that expanding it would be a logistical nightmare. Consequently, traffic seems to be heavy at all hours of the day, both directions. The cars were moving at 5:45AM, but they were not zipping freely. And by 6:30 when I was on my way home, you would have had a hard time going the speed limit the whole way. I can only imagine what it looked like at 8AM.

I have spent the past 9 years working out of home offices, so I have mostly been able to avoid rush hour driving and traffic (and mass transit travel). I’ve also spent plenty of that time pondering why we work the way we do. Some jobs are location specific. While we can ponder an interesting future where hair cuts, grocery store shelf-stocking, brain surgery and caring for children can all be done remotely, at the moment, you pretty much have to go where your job is for professions like that.

But many of us don’t have such jobs, and yet the old school belief persists: that you need to be in a specific place (preferably a large, sprawling, suburban corporate campus) during specific times to actually be working. I know there is great value in collaboration, but one could also see a great middle ground, where many information workers work remotely 1-2 days a week. Given the algorithms of traffic, a mere 16% reduction in cars on the road during rush hour (the estimated 40% of people who could work remotely working at home 2 days per week), you could cut travel time considerably. This would save on gas and carbon emissions, and boost productivity.

So will we see change on that front? I don’t know. I’m writing a piece for Fortune.com on the future of the suburban office park (got thoughts or know an expert on this topic? Let me know!). Many young workers would prefer to work in cities, and even some older workers who want suburban houses prefer work locations that are accessible by public transit. Crain’s did a piece recently claiming such parks were on the decline. As we slowly move out of the Organization Man era where the leadership wants a giant empire of employees they can see, maybe we will finally come to see remote work not as a perk but as a much smarter way of working. But old attitudes die hard. I was discussing the topic with someone in publishing recently. Trust me, there is nothing urgent or location-specific going on with this particular publication. The editor told me that remote work sounded fascinating. “Of course, it would never work for us,” he said.

And hence, we’re all in traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway at 6:30AM.

In other news:

  • Ellen Galinsky has a piece at the Huffington Post on the “male mystique.” In dual income families, men appear more likely to report work-family conflicts than women. Why? As we discussed here recently, men work more hours than their wives for pay — and yet the parenting standards for men have also risen quite a bit in the last 40 years.
  • J. D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly writes that “Every purchase is a trade-off.” Money is perfectly fungible, so every decision to spend it on one thing is a decision not to spend it on something else. Everything has an opportunity cost. Readers of this blog will recognize this idea from the “What Else Could That Ring Buy?” newsletter essay this winter (and the title of chapter 1 in All The Money In The World!)

15 thoughts on “Musings on Traffic and the Schuylkill Expressway

  1. Well, I would have suggested to stick with one car if you had two children but with third one arriving by October, you definitely need to start thinking about 2nd car. Once you start researching and shopping for the car, it won’t seem so difficult. Good Luck!

  2. Some sedans hold three car seats. Toyota, Buick and Honda are possibilities. I drive a Buick Century with 3 car seats in the back, though I wouldn’t choose such a vehicle as the primary vehicle for a 3 child family. (Children came 3 years after I owned the car.)

  3. Twin Mom is correct — there are options other than Minivans. I have 3 sons, of which 2 are approaching 6 ft. I am driving the new Ford Explorer and love it! It seats 7 comfortably and is just as convenient as any mini-van.

  4. From a theoretical economic standpoint, I want to point out that an employer bears a direct cost if a worker misses an important meeting (and most are not scheduled 2+ days in advance in many fields) due to working from home but receives only an indirect minimal benefit from less traffic and a cleaner environment if a worker works from home. Better and more reliable videoconferencing technology may help, but one of the most important hours of my week was the hour I spent with my team members, planning projects and chatting about current obstacles. When problems occurred, these discussions were spontaneous and far more frequent.

    1. @Twin Mom – I think it is a trade-off, and as usual, a question of optimization. Over time, an office culture can develop to set most meetings on T-W-Thurs if people decided it was a priority, leaving M and F for home work. Given that many people zip out early on Friday anyway (to beat traffic?) you might get more hours out of people. If home workers can be more focused then that is a win too.

      1. I think it depends on what you do. I worked in manufacturing, where responding to problems in the line is much of the job. If I were a social worker, I imagine Monday, after a weekend of problems, would be busy.

  5. My brother works for Edward Jones and works at home two days a week. As I understand it, their direct benefit is that they are always near the top of the Best Places to Work lists. His team manages meetings with that day’s homeworkers dialing in and being virtually present.

  6. As my husband and i were both considered our jobs to be ‘lifetime’ jobs that we would stay at many years, and teaching being a job you can’t do at home, we chose to buy a house close to our jobs. (within a 2 mile radius for each of us). I plan to bike to work in the Fall and Spring. . As it seems with the Schuylkill, there are few north/south options on Long Island. My friends have great backyards, but spend so much time in traffic that they don’t get to relax in them; we have a smaller piece of property, but more time to enjoy it. It’s always about choices.

  7. My husband telecommuted for 11 years; with this upcoming move to Chicago he’ll be working in the main office for the first time (with the exception of the 3 months he was there this spring). He’s thrilled. We also chose the house and community we did because it was close to a commuter rail line that would drop him 2 blocks from his office. He’s not going to deal with Chicago traffic twice a day; even in the far north suburbs it’s miserable. For right now we’re going to keep both cars, but it’s entirely possible we’ll sell my minivan (sniff) and keep his hybrid until we see the need for 2 again.
    As for minivans, I was convinced my current one was my last one (even though I love it), and then I saw the new Odyssey. Sleek, as sexy as a minivan could get…I may get that after I drive this one into the ground. 😉

  8. I love my minivan too. The newer Odyssey looks better, but my friend with 4 kids said it is smaller inside, with less storage space, a big drawback in my book. I love that I can keep the beach things in the back all summer, and not have to take everything out just to go to BJ’s etc.

  9. Sorry, I’m going to skip the meat of your post, where I have only anecdotal evidence (30+ years of being an office worker – and someone who “worked from home” on a huge, heavy remote terminal with dial-up in 1976!!!), and talk about minivans.

    I’ll admit I don’t get the thing about minivans, I mean why folks don’t want them. 14 or so years ago our ancient Toyota Tercel(!) was on its last legs (or wheels) so we sat down and asked all kinds of questions, even fundamental ones: could we manage without a car? (We live in the central part of a big city, and I usually transit or bike to work.) For reasons too tedious to relate here, we decided there’d be value in having one.

    I have an M.B.A., and I was good at it 🙂 so I, ahem, did a needs analysis. What are all the things we want a car for? What do we ACTUALLY do? Then, I figured out how much we could spend, and looked at the market, based entirely on capabilities.

    SUVs (like your commenter’s Explorer) are 2/3 the car (in volume etc.) at 1.5 times the price – without the much higher operation and maintenance expense.

    We ended up with a minivan (a Dodge Grand Caravan back then; now a 10-year-old Honda Odyssey, bought new), and have never regretted it, even though our kids were almost gone when we got the first one – they’re now 30 and 32, and long gone.

    When my daughter was captain of her high-school ice-hockey team, I could carry tons of equipment and girls to & from games.

    When we went canoeing or camping we never lacked for capacity.

    We can move small pieces of furniture without special considerations.

    I do triathlons & love cycling, and a minivan allows us to carry a LOT of stuff to where we’ll use it. (When I drove to Florida to do an Ironman I didn’t need to exercise much choice about what to bring: I brought EVERYTHING!).

    I basically think that if you can afford the $25,000-40,000 that new minivan costs there’s no RATIONAL reason not to get one.

    A socio-psychological (i.e., non-rational) reason to get a minivan is that you automatically absent yourself from the implicit class-comparisons and racing-type one-upmanship that some drivers (not all men!) bring to their driving. When I drove a Tercel I could tell I was being bullied; when I drive a sporty car, guys (and sometimes women) will try to get ahead of me – but when I drive a minivan I’m outside that competition.

    All the best in your car-buying decisions!

    1. @Richard- Thanks for the analysis. We go back and forth on this… I still have not gotten serious about buying the car. I will likely test drive the Toyota Sienna, and also the Toyota Highlander (for non mini van comparison of a 3-row) and the Accura MDX, which we know a few people with 3 kids have. I guess I just don’t like big cars, but I probably should have thought of that before conceiving a third child.

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