Commutes are Driving us to Despair. By Design.

Soul-killing and racist, the American commute is deeply wrong

Jess Row
Traffic in smog
Bryan Katz / Creative Commons

Three years ago I was stuck on a New Jersey Transit commuter train under the Hudson River—we had been stalled on the tracks for forty-five minutes, the lights periodically flickering on and off—when I looked at my watch and realized my two hour and twenty minute commute, from the college where I teach in central New Jersey to my home in Manhattan, was entering its fourth hour. Four hours. The number had a certain awful grandeur. In four hours you can fly from New York to Dallas. I’d left the campus at 8:30; it was nearly midnight, and I still had to wend my way through the wretched, deserted corridors of Penn Station, try to make an express A train, and stumble home past the revelers on MacDougal Street. My wife and I are both college professors: she teaches at New York University, and we have an apartment in faculty housing, the only reason we can afford to live in Manhattan.

I wanted to laugh, or cry, or at least groan, but I just sat there, unmoving, not quite feeling all of my limbs. There was no cell coverage or Wi-Fi; no one could find me, and I couldn’t send out a distressed text, a tweet, or a post. I had my laptop and books with me, but I couldn’t read, or work, or even sleep. The bodies and faces of the few other passengers in the car were similarly still, drawn, unreadable, like a reenactment of George Tooker’s The Subway, if we think of that painting as less about existential dread than about the ordinary everyday faces of New Yorkers learning that the D train is running local every other stop on the C track, or that the second train to Ronkonkoma has been canceled.

How long can I stand this? is the commuter’s default question. Deciding that enough is enough can mean giving up work altogether—lack of transportation is one of the main causes of American unemployment—or, as in my case, abandoning public transportation and getting back into the car. Not long after this episode, I decided to start driving to work, the more expensive, more dangerous, and less ecologically justifiable option, because it was faster, more direct, and more predictable. I didn’t want to drive; no one wants to drive on the New Jersey Turnpike. But it was the better of two bad options.

And that is a good description of how most Americans feel about their commute: a sense of vague resignation and helplessness, tinged, I’ve noticed, with an element of shame, as if the issue were not even worth talking about.

Every commute tells a story. For those of us who suffer long commutes and would rather forget them as soon as they’re over, the story often begins with: I never imagined my life would turn out this way. But there’s more to it than that. In his 1980 study The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau calls adapting to the unpleasant realities of our environment “making do,” or “tactics,” as opposed to “strategy.” Strategy is the way a highway system is designed; tactics are the shortcuts commuters use to skip the tolls, circle the bottlenecks, skirt the speed traps. Of course, there’s an enormous industry built around helping American commuters develop better tactics for their miserable commutes: AirBuds and gigantic coffee cups, audiobooks and memory-foam car seats, podcasts, Siri, Waze. And more productive ones as well: bikes, bike lanes, public bike-rental programs, carpools. “Without leaving the place where he has no choice to live and which lays down its law for him,” Certeau writes, the commuter “establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in-between, he draws creative results from his situation.”

I have friends who, when I ask them, admit they look forward to their commutes: they can work uninterrupted on the train, or become absorbed in one audiobook after another, or just decompress after getting the kids off to school in the morning. None of that has ever worked for me. My mind, for whatever reason, resists it. Commuting has never felt other than deeply wrong. I can’t make do, in Certeau’s terms, or put up with it, or cope.

In place of adjustment, here’s my story.

The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), where I’ve taught for the past thirteen years, isn’t an easy place to find. To a certain extent, this is by design. The entrance is off an unremarkable local street in Ewing, just outside Trenton, part of a swath of suburbs that follows the spine of the state from North Jersey to Philadelphia. While there are local buses that travel between TCNJ and New Jersey’s regional rail systems, few people use them: the campus is de facto accessible only by car, and it is surrounded by parking lots and multistory garages that are full, or overflowing, most days of the school year.

It wasn’t always this way: TCNJ started life in the nineteenth century as the New Jersey State Normal School, a teachers college located in downtown Trenton. In the 1920s, when the African American population in the city began to grow in the first wave of the Great Migration, the city’s white administrators instituted official policies of segregation. Paul Loser, superintendent of the Trenton Board of Education from 1932 to 1955, so aggressively enforced a policy protecting whites-only schools that the NAACP sued him in 1944 and won; the case, Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education, formed an important precedent for Brown v. Board of Education a decade later. It was in this climate, controlled by the same small group of white civic leaders, that the Normal School chose to relocate just outside Trenton’s borders: the new Trenton State College, which opened in Ewing in the mid-1930s just beyond Frederick Law Olmsted’s genteel Cadwalader Park, marked a decisive, unmistakable separation between the campus and the city. Even with the existing public transportation—streetcars and local railroads—it was difficult to reach the college without a car. The new college was unambiguously oriented away from the changing city and toward New Jersey’s growing, overwhelmingly white, suburbs.

When Trenton State changed its name to the College of New Jersey in 1996, the process was already more or less complete: only a tiny percentage of the college’s students came from Trenton. As of 2018, less than 6 percent were black. These facts exploded into public view in 2016, when a group of students held a sit-in to demand the renaming of Paul Loser Hall, the college’s administrative hub and welcome center. Loser’s name, the students argued, spoke to all the ways TCNJ has cut itself off from Trenton. After a period of study, TCNJ’s president agreed to rename the building Trenton Hall. Everyone at the time agreed that this was a significant, but cosmetic, gesture: the college’s movement away from the city (including the decision to remove “Trenton” from its name in the 1990s) was decades in the making, and the relationship between the two continues to be tenuous at best.

When I drive to TCNJ because there’s no other practical way to get there from New York, this story becomes my story. As the historian Kevin Kruse put it succinctly in an article for The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project: “Commuters might assume they’re stuck…because some city planner made a mistake, but the heavy congestion actually stems from a great success. In dozens of cities across America, daily congestion is a direct consequence of a century-long effort to segregate the races.” One of the pivotal features of that effort, in Trenton as in many larger cities—Detroit, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland—was to discourage mass transit between so-called majority minority cities and overwhelmingly white suburbs; another was to build interstate highways and commuter rail lines in ways that benefited affluent white communities and enforced racial segregation. (This explains, in part, why no single interstate highway links New York, Trenton, and Philadelphia, forcing me to follow a fishhook-shaped route around Trenton to reach TCNJ while avoiding traffic-clogged Route 1.)

When I first came to TCNJ, in 2006, I brought up this question in faculty forums and meetings with administrators: Why, I wanted to know, aren’t there regular shuttle buses or vans between campus and the nearest train stations? Don’t people want to travel easily to the region’s major cities, which are, geographically, not far away? No one had an answer. No one seemed very interested in the question, either. That too is part of my story, as it is for so many commuters: being told your problem isn’t really a problem. It’s just the ways things are. It could be so much worse.

It could be so much worse. Stories abound about the routineness of three-or four-hour commutes: workers who sleep in their cars; twenty-four-hour daycare centers for the children of extreme commuters who might not get home until 1 a.m. Worse still, new research shows that even in cities with booming economies, such as Chicago, racial inequities in commuting still mean that in 2019 poor black women spent eighty minutes longer getting to work every week than their white counterparts. My own commuting life is so far outside the norm that it hardly compares. I only have to be on campus two (sometimes three) days a week, and my teaching semesters take up only seven months in a year. My job pays well enough to enable me to afford the costs of my commute, high as they are: $310 a month for parking, and roughly $50 in gas and tolls every day I travel. Also, crucially, I have tenure: if I’m late, stuck in traffic, if my car breaks down, I won’t be fired. “The truth is, you’re an outsider to actual commuting,” a friend who works in the New York media industry told me recently, when I mentioned that I was writing this essay. “I take it for granted that I’ll lose an hour each way, every day, forty-eight weeks a year. You’re not desensitized to it. That’s why you care.”

I do care. Partly because I’ve been writing for years about race, whiteness, and the American landscape, and so I can’t not notice how deeply the conditions of my own life intersect with my work, but mostly because my commute has always made me disproportionately unhappy in a way I’ve been at a loss to understand. When I started my train commute to work in the fall of 2013, I felt a creeping depression, a kind of psychic blight, that at first I had trouble identifying. Before moving to New York in 2012, I’d lived twenty minutes away from campus; if I needed to stay an extra half-hour after class to meet with a student, or attend a meeting on a day I wasn’t teaching, it was no big deal. Now I was getting up at 5:45 in the morning to be on campus by nine; I had just enough time to teach my classes, hold office hours, eat lunch, and leave. I felt exhausted by the time my first class began; I rarely saw my colleagues outside monthly department meetings. I began to feel that everyone resented me.

Worse still, this feeling of displacement crept into the rest of my life as well. It seemed to take me a full day to recover each time I returned from my commute, and I couldn’t quite say why. Yes, I was spending five hours a day each time I traveled to campus, but driving or sitting on a train or subway doesn’t seem like such a big deal; our bodies shift into neutral, at rest—or at least a posture that looks like rest. I had adapted all the tactics of the professional traveler, but nothing helped. I couldn’t imagine doing this for nine more months, let alone the remainder of my career. I had been extremely lucky, nearly to the age of forty, to have had commutes of half an hour or less—which, it turns out, is a kind of dividing line beyond which commuting becomes both stressful and bad for the human body. Now, suddenly, I had vaulted into the realm of “extreme commuting,” trips of ninety minutes or more, the fastest growing category of commutes in the United States. I felt fundamentally unsettled, as if I no longer lived where I lived or worked where I worked.

Of the many studies of commuting’s impact published in the past decade the most striking to me is “The Daily Grind,” a landmark 2013 piece by a team of political scientists at Stony Brook and the University of Connecticut who found that increased commuting time measurably decreases political participation among American workers; most dramatically among lower-income workers. “As the process of urban and suburban sprawl continues, and the trend of more commuters and increased commuting times persists,” the authors wrote, “activists and mobilizers will have to contend with a powerful societal-level process depleting citizens’ psychological resources and thus undermining mass participation in the nation’s political life.” Commuting, phrased in a different way, is a highly effective strategy of social control. It inspires feelings of helplessness, despair, and dislocation that reverberate throughout American social life; it destabilizes and disempowers the communities most harmed by lack of access to transit, jobs, and educational opportunities.

Racial homogeneity is still, often, the only map that matters.

Very little of this story has ever been told. If I had to choose a typical image of the American commuter, even today it would be Michael Douglas, the forlorn, enraged white Everyman in Falling Down who abandons his car on the freeway and goes on a shooting spree across Los Angeles. Trace this narrative back to the 1940s—to Cheever and Updike, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Organization Man—and observe how often the commuter appears as a white man, emasculated and atomized by the demands of a corporate job. These are the people for whom midcentury transportation systems were built; they’re the best-case scenario, or perhaps the guinea pigs, but as the authors of “The Daily Grind” explain in great detail, they’re a tiny fraction of a despair management system. All commuters are trapped within it, testing the limits of the bearable. They do so partly because the price of opting out can seem unimaginable—as in the case of Armando Ibarra, a hotel worker near the San Francisco airport who, as National Public Radio reported, lives in his van to avoid commuting four to six hours from his room in San Jose. Ibarra, not Douglas, and certainly not me, should be the new icon of American commuting: the person for whom commuting is no longer possible, who has seen its failure arrive in real time.

NOT EVERYONE SUCCUMBS to the feeling of helplessness: over the past two decades, progressive coalitions have formed across the country to fight for the expansion of public transportation and affordable housing. But they’ve had decidedly mixed success. On the one hand, “active commuting” (by bicycle, on foot, or by other means) has seen enormous growth in some areas, partly through bike-sharing programs. Los Angeles has a functioning commuter rail system for the first time, and some of the hardest-hit major cities, such as Oakland and New York, are discussing a return to rent control as a way to enable workers to live near their jobs. On the other hand, New York and Washington have seen their subway systems reach a point of near-collapse, Amtrak is still insolvent, federal funding for public transit and infrastructure has hit critical lows, and the overall cost of housing in the United States has risen so sharply that many millennials and Generation Z citizens have concluded they’ll never be able to own a home anywhere, let alone in a walkable downtown or along a bike path.

The truth, as many urban planners acknowledge, is that remaking American cities and suburbs so that they genuinely serve the needs of most residents—and will survive the climate shocks of the next century—means unmaking much of what is recognizable about postwar America. We need to build more high-rise affordable housing clustered around mass transit portals; to offer more protections for existing residents in gentrifying cities; to invest in more high-speed trains, more access for bicycles; to place restrictions on cars and disincentives for building and buying large single-family homes. These are principles many citizens applaud in theory but oppose in practice, hence the opposition to changing building codes in cities like San Francisco, where the scarcity of housing has driven the average monthly rent of an apartment to almost four thousand dollars.

And of course another narrative is at work here: as recently as the 1960s, racial segregation was the explicit, legal, government-sanctioned goal of American housing policy in many parts of the country, and the legacy of racial exclusion has remained with us ever since. It is no accident that my students at the College of New Jersey, many of whom are third-or fourth-generation descendants of Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, and Ukrainian immigrants, come from families that long ago moved out of crowded tenements and working-class city neighborhoods into spacious suburbs with “good schools,” such as Freehold, Flemington, and Metuchen; they were encouraged and enabled by government lending policies and private business practices that excluded people of color. At another notch up the socioeconomic scale, “excellent schools” are why the most affluent families—overwhelmingly white and Asian—tend to cluster in certain small pockets of larger suburban areas: Shaker Heights, Takoma Park, Chappaqua, Bloomfield Hills, Maplewood, and Palo Alto, all of which have very high property values.

This, some scholars believe, is the reason that one of the farthest-reaching improvements in American urban planning would be to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which affirmed the right of towns and cities to control their schools independently through local property taxes. Why? Researchers have demonstrated time and time again that in the United States race, real estate, infrastructure, and access to a quality education are interdependent: where someone lives determines how likely that person is to go to a four-year college, or college at all, how much financial security he or she will have, whether the person will own a home, and so on—and all these statistics can be calibrated and broken down by race, to an astonishing degree.

Consider how much American wealth is bound up in real estate, and how much the value of real estate depends on nuances concerning the “desirability” of one community, even one block, over another. Often the deciding factor is the locally zoned elementary school. Millions of Americans live farther from their jobs than they would wish to because they’ve followed the basic rule of American real estate: pay more to live near the best schools, and travel farther to work. To create racial and economic integration across the American landscape, the argument goes, widespread affordable housing, even if it existed, would not be enough: it’s equally important to end the opportunity hoarding in affluent communities by spreading school funding more equitably.

This calculation also suggests precisely why it’s so difficult to imagine most people’s commutes becoming shorter anytime soon: there’s simply too much money bound up in property values as they are, and in the racial-geographic-educational matrix that keeps them that way. In an economy of reverse distribution that angles wealth, opportunity, and success ever upward, no one wants to surrender his or her place on the scale. In the fall of 2019, Newsday released the results of a three-year investigation into housing discrimination on Long Island that illustrates this point at every turn: real estate agents, well aware of the requirements of the Fair Housing Act, ignore them systematically, steering people of color away from white communities and discouraging white clients from shopping for homes in “undesirable”—economically and racially diverse—communities.

This is the crux at which the despair management system, the “daily grind,” of America’s current infrastructure does its best work: by convincing Americans that the kind of large-scale social shifts necessary to create the landscape they need—government intervention in the housing market, an expansion of HUD investigation and enforcement, systematic rezoning, school-district reform—can never happen. School desegregation, many Americans believe (incorrectly), was a failed experiment in the 1970s; the long trail of that belief is a graph that shows how dramatically schools have resegregated ever since. Even Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has spent a decade reporting on school inequality for the New York Times, argues that “it is unlikely that we will ever again see an effort to deconstruct our system of caste schools like what we saw between 1968 and 1988.” What matters, she says, is to admit the nature of the failure: school desegregation slowed, and stopped, because white parents were determined above all else to maintain “racially homogeneous environments for their children.”

It matters just as much to say this about the collective failure that commuting represents: Americans travel too far, waste too much of their lives and resources, largely for the same reason. Racial homogeneity is still, often, the only map that matters.

WHEN I ABANDONED the train and started driving to work, my commute went from a source of endless frustration to an almost frictionless hum. My garage is built into my midcentury apartment complex; my route out of the city is simple, and because I commute against the traffic, I’m only stuck in traffic jams for brief periods. My commute is simply a matter of time: an hour and a half each way, or an hour and forty-five minutes most days. It could be worse. A driving commute, I’ve discovered, is less stimulating than traveling by train; it’s a permanent reverie, a dream-state. Driving is the worst possible way to try to read a landscape as you travel through it; it’s also impossible to feel a sense of solidarity with your fellow drivers when you’re speeding down the Turnpike at seventy miles per hour.

Certeau’s term, “making do,” is what more recent scholars might call the political affect of the commuter: feeling suspended in time and space, filling the dead time with podcasts, or talk radio, or simply staring out the window, waiting to get on to the next part of the day. It’s important, it seems to me, for historical reasons at the least, to recognize the sense of solidity, inevitability, permanence that attaches to this experience. For none of it is real. As insurmountable as the barriers to change feel, the commutes of today cannot last much longer: if spiraling home prices, neglected infrastructure, and/or widespread protest movements don’t cause the system to break down over the next few decades, climate change will. My children won’t have the option of traveling 120 miles to work in a gas-powered car. They’re likely to have far fewer options, in general, about where and how they live. Significant areas of coastal cities and states, in their lifetimes, will no longer be habitable.

And what will happen next? I try not to limit my thinking to the cynicism of the present, dominated as it is by players in the free market. (“We live in capitalism,” Ursula Le Guin said shortly before her death. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”) Eventually the twentieth century’s infrastructure of racism and social control, already degraded by disinvestment and neglect, will become unusable. What will take its place—another system, like the Green New Deal, or no system: something more ad hoc and unpredictable? Novelists have traversed this terrain for more than a century; I think of Denis Johnson’s post-apocalyptic fishing villages in Fiskadoro, or the ruined city in Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, or Le Guin’s own communal planet in The Dispossessed. But the advantage (or disadvantage) of my inability to adjust to commuting, to understand and normalize it, is that my thoughts don’t stay anywhere for long. There’s a horizon I can’t quite make out, hemmed in by the present. I am simply relieved, and a little surprised, when the drive is over.

Jess Row is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and other awards. His most recent work is the essay collection White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination.
Originally published:
April 1, 2020


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