LOL, Interupted by a Screech, or Not

Last week I heard about more “Driving While Texting” accidents than ever before. The problem has drawn heavy attention from lawmakers and law practitioners. Oprah is talking about it. The Georgia legislature is looking into the problem. A local news station is promoting pledges from its audience and running safety segments every time surf past.

We have evolved to this problem socially with emphasis on greater productivity, multitasking and multimedia ad nauseum. We took our children from one planned activity to the next with Gameboy in hand while also attending radio, video, conversation, whatever, . We used television as a baby sitter in the home and in the car. There is a constant feed of multiple stimuli in every aspect of life with no down time, constantly training us all to have divided attention. It is not surprising that we would carry that one step further to the operation of a car. The words usually used to describe a quickly growing problem like “epidemic” or “rampant” are so over used as to be meaningless, but the difficulty with divided attention and driving is growing at such a rate that “Texting while Driving” covers those concepts without any additional words to convey the magnitude or prevalence of a problem so large.

There is hope. Sometimes the solution to a problem lies in finding a way to accommodate a desire rather than trying to suppress it. There is a way to get commute time and down time or text time at the same time. Those kids in Japan wearing the school uniforms know the answer. It’s called public transportation, something we’re strangely lacking and strangely resistant to in the United States. On a recent visit to Japan I was invited to dinner by a Japanese family. The son travels a long distance to go to the better school and excused himself to go study. A friend asked “Do you study while you commute?” The mother interrupted protectively “NO, no no, that is his down time” and went on the convey that he uses that free time to relax, text, listen to music and “regroup” on the way home. Public transportation is magic. It allows one to do the impossible, to multitask down time. How great is that? And you won’t drive your car through someone else, their bumper or their living room while you do it.

I dream of the day when I can multitask my commute with down time or distractions without embarking on international travel, but unfortunately, public transportation is not practical from my home to anywhere else. The attempt to use public transportation from my home reminds of an old family story ” Lawd, you caint git there from here, yous gots ta go someplace else ta staart.” I’m also reminded of a neighbor who left Georgia saying that she felt like a prisoner of Marietta. She could never get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time, but we can have our cake and eat it too. We don’t need to pave over paradise to put up a parking lot, or make more lanes to accommodate more gridlock. We don’t have to spend our mind space primed in anticipation of hitting the brake when 70 mile per hour, bumper to bumper traffic converts to gridlock in a hiccup. We can switch to seeing faces instead of tailpipes and and let someone else do the driving. When I hear the idea of public works projects as a means to stimulate the economy, I think of all the compound ways that investing in public transportation that the public can and will use pays off. It just makes so much sense. Some day maybe my dreams will come true.

Compounding Benefits in all Walks of Life

by Karen

I read a book on Human Resources recently. It posed the question of whether of not there would be a workforce shortage in the coming years. In fact, more than one book posed the question. In light of the current unemployment rate, automation, the increasing life span and the accompanying need and/or desire to work later in life, the question was a surprise. I’ll even say it, it seemed almost silly in the current atmosphere, but the book did address the issue of a workforce that would work later in life, a “longer living workspan”. The author considered the availability of older workers to fill this expected gap in available employees to be overestimated and used numbers from the United Nations (UN) World Health Organization (WHO) for Healthy Life Expectancy (HALE) to support the argument, saying that though the United States had a long lifespan, it had the lowest workspan in developed countries. While we here in the United States are expected to live longer than people in many countries, we are not expected to spend as much of that time healthy enough to work. There is a gap. As an American I have an interest in the gap and I do not like the expectations at all.

This book was using 2001 figures and I wondered if there were more recent numbers. I went to the WHO database website. In fact, there are numbers updated in 2003. This page has a convenient filter on the side so that you can isolate only the countries of interest rather than page through all 191 internationally recognized countries. Not knowing exactly which countries this researcher chose as “developed”, I picked the G-7 nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and the United States According to the 2003 data the United States has improved the healthy life expectancy a bit, however, we still lag behind all of the other G-7 countries in healthy or working life expectancies and Japan remained on top, improving by a much larger proportion. The HALE expectancy for someone in the US born in 2003 is 71 and the same number for someone in Japan is 78. Let’s put the workforce shortage question aside for a moment and focus on something that I find enormously disturbing. Weather or not I am fortunate enough to be able to retire when I wish, I still want to be healthy enough to work because healthy enough to work is also healthy enough to play.

I have been to Japan twice and I love it. What ever they are doing I am likely willing to adopt. So, what is different in Japan and how can I get 7 more years of healthy life expectancy? Stress is known the “silent killer”, but that would not be the difference because they have equal if not greater levels of stress when compared to us.

One thing they do have that we do not is widespread public transportation. What difference does that make you ask? In Japan they use the public transportation and that means that they walk. People walk from the train station to home, to the market etc. They also bicycle a lot. In some places there are bicycle garages. Some are even quite large and resemble American parking decks in many ways.

Is their solution to commuting the answer to my health question? It could be. There are countless articles and studies from reputable, unbiased organizations showing the benefits of walking. Here is what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has to say on the health benefits of walking, or other “moderate intensity aerobic exercise”. The minimum level of recommended exercise is not optional for them, it is built in to every day.

That’s not all though, there are compounding effects when using public transportation. When you take Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit (MARTA) you change your carbon footprint and help to increase the number of summer days when Kennesaw Mountain is visible from Stone Mountain and vice versa. You decrease the number of days when ground level ozone is above healthy levels and reduce the number of SMOG alerts. This also helps us to keep our federal funding for road projects, so public transportation even benefits motorists (in more ways than one).

Change is scary though and we Americans love our cars. I have had more than one friend who didn’t like public transportation and didn’t want it to be funded or built. One couldn’t even really articulate why, she just liked her Suburban and didn’t want to consider anything else for anyone else. I have argued that one doesn’t need to use public transportation to support it or benefit from it. If drivers could support my ability to have public transportation, I wouldn’t be on the road competing for space in and we would both spend less time commuting, and have an over all lower tax burden per capita. Sometimes working through a change in attitudes is worth the work.

So, if you are open to a committed relationship with public transportation what would that be like? It is something I can only dream about. I chose my current home for reasons that at the time were more pressing than access to MARTA. That meant moving into a public transportation black hole, at least as far as commuting into Atlanta is concerned. However, I know people (outside NYC) that do not own, and never have owned a car. One of my grandmother’s never learned to drive. I really thought long and hard about Granny’s decision. It would be easy to see it as a weakness, a disability. My grandmother was born before 1919. In other words she was born into a world that did not consider a woman eligible to vote by reason of gender. She wasn’t weak though. She was really quite independent. In her home town there was a single taxi. She had to plan because there was only the one. If someone was using it, she was out of luck. But she did plan. She went where she wanted to go and had her groceries delivered (from two blocks away).

Pamela and her walking shoes

Pamela and her walking shoes

I know someone much younger though, Pamela, who has a committed relationship with public transportation. A friend and former co-worker who is also quite independent, she never chose to learn to drive either. I don’t know if I could be that committed, especially in a country with the limited options we have here in the US. I would need at least one car for the household. Occasionally I just need to get out of the city. Ironically, I need my car to get away from all the cars! But, Pamela doesn’t feel limited any more than my grandmother did. She does what she wants to do, and I’ll admit that there are times when I’m fascinated and a little jealous of her decision. She has no auto expenses. I love the sound of it, No auto expenses! Do you know what that means?

The average person (not the high end person) spends a little over $600 a month on auto expenses once insurance, fuel and maintenance are considered. Many companies subsidize public transportation for their employees, but let’s look at the numbers for someone who doesn’t work for one of those companies. Let’s take that over six hundred number down to $500 so that it allows some money for both local and occasional distance travel. What happens when your budget gets a monthly $500 shot in the arm? Let’s say that you were able to save that money and get the proverbial average of 8% return on it. Over a 40 year work life that comes to $1,757,147. Yes, better than 1.7 million dollars. I could give up my car and my lottery habit for that kind of money! Yes, a change could do me good.

So to recap, if you have the option and become totally committed to public transportation, you can feel better, reduce health risks, increase healthy lifespan, reduce carbon and other emissions, breathe easier and when it is all done have a big pile of money! It is time for a change isn’t it?

I used the savings calculator here if you would like to check your own figures and see what could happen in your own situation.