This weekend's trip from Chicago to Windsor, Canada was accompanied with the usual brand of pure commuting hell.

America In Decay

My family lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, just across the Detroit River. The distance separating where we live (the Northwest Chicago suburbs) from Windsor is about 300 miles. At 70 miles/hour this should take 4.5 hours in best case. With Chicago/Detroit traffic this can take closer to 6 hours. However, for over two years now the I-94 highway has been experiencing worse and worse delays, sometimes up to an hour as various sections of the highway undergo construction. Experiencing an inter-state highway at standstill for up to an hour with tail lights stretching off into the horizon is something special. Having to experience that in the dead-heat of summer with two infants/toddlers ... well, there is a new definition of hell in my book...

I could have put up with this once, twice or even thrice, but consistently now for the last two years and you think I would have already done something about it. Who is in charge of the inter-state highways? I'd like to take the person responsible for the drawn-out periods of construction to experience my brand of hell. And more than once, too.

The end-points of my journey on I-94 are especially hellious: The section of I-94/80 south of Chicago right around the border of Illinois and Indiana has ALWAYS been a blocker with all the excessive trucking traffic and the merging highways, but now the other end, at the Detroit bridge/tunnel has also been experiencing bad delays, re-routing and detours. On top of this, we were held up for over an hour in the middle of Michigan several times too (construction and/or vehicle accidents) in both eastbound and westbound directions.

Let's just say it makes travelling difficult.

What Can We Do?

What are the alternatives:

  • Trains: I love the train, leaving all responsibility of travel to someone else can be quite liberating, especially when you can plug in your laptop, go to the snack car and walk about. The ideal travel times are not much more than driving and it costs you about the same in gas. The only problems are: a) when you need to travel with multiple people the price goes up linearly, b) you need to carry all your luggage (this is exponentially worse if you travel with infants) and c) you need a method of transportation once you get to your destination. Another downside: When my Mom took a train ride from Windsor to Chicago somewhat recently the train was stopped a couple times while freight trains were allowed to use the main track. I suspect this is not a rare occurrence.
  • Fly: MUCH quicker but same 3 problems with Trains above and more expensive. Also with heightened security measures it is more stressful.
  • Take I-90/I-80. This highway spans roughly the same section of the continent, but you have to head south from Detroit into Ohio and then head straight west and then INTO Chicago (i.e. through the city rather than around it). Driving into Chicago turns out to actually SAVE you some time with all the recent contruction elsewhere, so this is not a big concern. No, what annoys me is that I-90 is a toll road and travelling from Detroit all the way out to the Chicago suburbs is going to cost you about $7 dollars total. Nonetheless, after getting stopped for an hour on I-94 West last night, we finally bought a map and made our way to I-90/80.

I blame greedy capitalists for the whole thing: Specifically, the I-94 midwest corridor is one massively clogged trucking route, basically trade between US and Canada. The trucks do the majority of the damage to the highway (considerably more than regular passenger traffic would) and this results in excessive repairs, stop-and-go traffic, etc. So more funding gets poured into road repair when instead the money could be spent upgrading America's rail infrastructure to make it cost effective and convenient for companies (and passengers) to use it.

If you've never gone to Europe, you will be blown away by their public transportation system (that's a gross generality, but for the most part, still true). And why doesn't America have a good rail infrastructure like in Europe so that industrialists can use rails for transportation of goods and so that passengers can use rails efficiently? My guess: Auto-Maker Lobbyists. Once again, greedy capitalists...

What Should We Do?

It's true that "Americans love their cars", and could also be considered "greedy capitalists" in this equation, but with rising fuel prices combined with the above problems I think people going on long trips simply want to get where they are going as fast as possible and with the least frustration and risk possible. Here's my idea: The government needs to really fund the railways. Lay more rails. Add more trains. Increase the speed (mag rails, maybe?). Add special ticket deals for family rate. Drop ticket prices where possible but:

  1. Put wireless internet on trains and charge people for it
  2. Have a dedicated car that have public internet access points for a fee
  3. Have a "movie" car and charge admission to see the movie (how simple would this be? A 27" TV and a DVD player would cut it).
  4. Rent CDs, DVDs, Video Games, CD/DVD players, Portable Game units
  5. Have special train packages that have romantic, gourmet meals.
  6. etc...

In essence, the rail company (companies?) need to figure out ways to increase their profit from each passenger while still dropping the bottom line for people who just want to get where they are going. If you could go from Chicago to Detroit in 4 hours for $20 round-trip, wouldn't you pay $3 to watch a movie with a $5 finger of single-malt scotch? And wouldn't you pay $3 to keep Little Johnny quiet blowing up things on a PSP?

§108 · June 20, 2005 · Life · · [Print]

Leave a Comment to “My Own Brand Of Hell”

  1. Rob says:

    I think it was really the last line that sold me. Internet access is nice, but a sip of scotch makes the trip desirable.
    I remember in Ottawa they had a lot of access for bikes and public transit looked good. Public transit in the city is one thing though and transit between cities is another. I’ve always said that Canada should have a much bigger interest in paving more of the country. I love the natural scenery and all, but if people can’t get to it then the country’s economy can’t benefit from it. Canada should be dumping more funding into more airports, railways and highways because there’s so much ground to cover. It would go a long way to helping solve national unity issues as well. I think there’s a problem when it’s cheaper for me to travel my own country by flying through someone else’s.
    As for I94, I just close my eyes and try not to think about it. Well, not when I’m driving it. Usually.

  2. Robert says:

    The US’ infrastructure was built at precisely the moment when autos were ascendant and oil was cheap and abundant. Now, the US is importing over 60% of its oil, and even if people wanted to take the train…they can’t. It might seem obvious to state this, but in the US I believe that it needs to be said: land use dictates the viability of rail. Most US downtowns, let alone suburbs, are too spread out for rail to be of use. How and when will this change? It will change when those rivers of people driving –to work/school/to the supermarket/big box/driving just about everywhere — begin to go bankrupt. In fact, this is already happening: much of the external debt that the US racked up over the last two or three decades has been for oil. Ingeniously, this extravagance (and heedlessness) was paid for by selling shares in suburban real estate overseas. When will the situation change? It is already changing, but look to 2012-2015 to be a critical period, one in which oil not only increases exponentially in price, but one during which spot shortages appear.