Driver's Seat: Coping with gridlock

Heavy southbound traffic snarls the Blue Route near Route 3.
Heavy southbound traffic snarls the Blue Route near Route 3. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 30, 2012

Gridlock. It's something almost every Philadelphia-area driver faces with great regularity.

I didn't arrive in Southeastern Pennsylvania until I was 33, and the roads of Central and Western Pennsylvania and even Cleveland move at a much different - read: faster - pace than here in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Philadelphia lesson: Patience is a virtue.

But how to get through the long commutes? Here are some strategies - my own and others' - for making the most of a slow situation.

What not to do. I've never been shy about sharing my own driving mistakes, so I'll start with 33-year-old Scott of almost 10 years ago.

I was busy. I had the lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat and Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 4.0, who were much newer and required constant upgrades, almost like Beta-test kids. I had a lot of places to be.

So while I was not aggressive (no middle fingers were shown in the making of this column), I would call myself assertive. I saw an opening, I zipped into it, and waited impatiently for the next opening.

The lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat was more patient with this than I deserved. But after just a few months I came to my own conclusion: This kind of driving was exhausting.

So I started to slow down, hang back a bit, wait and see whether I was behind one or two cars holding up the works or just caught in an endless row of commuters.

The result? My gas mileage improved - by 20 percent. And now I laugh at the people weaving in and out of lanes when I look down the Schuylkill Expressway and can see rows of cars from Gladwyne to the Curve.

A good backup plan. During the Days BG (Before GPS), I traveled with my copy of Franklin Maps' eight-county atlas on my front seat and quickly mapped my way around the Schuylkill.

No, I'm not sharing my secret alternative. Even if I did, you all would probably be lost after the eighth turn. Only 17-year-old Sturgis Kid 3.0 seems to have inherited the internal map that can follow the logic of my "shortcuts." (And it's not Conshohocken State Road. Too obvious.)

Knowing your way around real trouble may not get you there any faster, but the illusion of motion can soothe the savage breast.

Technological assistance. More high-tech help is available than simply GPS.

Gene Blaum, spokesman for PennDot District 6, reminded me that travel times are now posted on major highways to give motorists information on the time from point A to point B.

"My traffic engineer recalled some drivers insisting their lives were changed when we started displaying travel times on I-76 because it calmed their anxiety greatly just to know what travel conditions should be expected," Blaum wrote.

I have to hand it to PennDot. I've found the times listed on my commute tend to pretty much reflect reality. My only disappointment? They are often turned off on the weekends. Philly gridlock rarely takes a day off.

Tune it out. I mentioned soothing the savage breast, and nothing does that more quickly than some favorite tunes.

Jenny Robinson, who directs Philadelphia public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, says she finds some music can at least make a driver feel better when stuck in place. She relies on radio and a satellite subscription to get her through the hard slogs.

"Listening to salsa music is a surefire cure for the rush hour blues!" Robinson writes.

A view of the world. Of course, GPS has revolutionized driving. Now people who used to drive around slowing down to read street signs are driving around drifting from lane to lane as they try to focus on their GPS.

But seriously, I've had enough visitors tell me how lost they've gotten on the way to my house to want to remind drivers that GPS is simply another tool in the driver's arsenal. I've been able to re-drag the trip line on Google Maps enough times to find that my original route was at least as good as the one Google has offered me.

A friend in need. Jeannine Fallon, executive director of corporate communications for Edmunds.com, found the real cure for the rush-hour blues: working from home.

The Swarthmore resident now jokingly refers to people with 40-mile commutes like mine as "suckers."

But she's no stranger to long trips. Her last job involved her own 40-mile commute into New York City.

"NPR kept me company, but the commute really got better when I started carpooling with a colleague a few days each week," Fallon said.

"She and I didn't know each other well when we started, but over the miles we learned that we had a lot in common. It turned out that we were good sounding boards for each other on both professional and personal matters. The commute began to feel like a gift: a rare uninterrupted block of time to talk and listen and be a good friend."

So gridlock can even bring people together. How about that?


Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or ssturgis@phillynews.com.

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