I knew I’d be sorry the next day
Wednesday was about as good a day as can be expected, given that my North Haven work location is a horrifying 125 miles away. As I was driving there in the morning, much of the trip before dawn as usual, I was thinking to myself that traffic seemed lighter than what I normally encounter. I made it to the Throgs Neck Bridge in 45 minutes and to North Haven in just over two hours. During the day a co-worker mentioned that today was Yom Kippur. Which, in turn, brings up an interesting point. I don’t know how many people have the day off from work, but I wouldn’t imagine that it’s more than maybe 5%. 10% tops. Yet that relatively small reduction makes a big difference in rush hour traffic volume. It reminds me of the time several years ago, when I was working in Manhattan, that the taxi drivers staged a one-day strike. Without the taxis on the road the streets seemed bizarrely empty, even though actual traffic volume was only about 20% lighter than normal for a workday.
In any event, my trip home from North Haven was another comparative breeze, clocking in at about 2:15. The only slowdowns I encountered on the Long Island Expressway were just before Exit 38 and around Exit 57, and both of them were much less than usual. There also was some heavy traffic for about a half-mile on the Cross Island Parkway, attributable – oddly enough – to two completely separate crashes about 500 feet apart. Without them my return time would have been an amazing 2:05 or so.
My elation on Wednesday was slightly tempered by the fact that Thursday surely would be payback time. As it most definitely was. Morning traffic volumes were noticeably heavier than on Wednesday, though not bad enough to affect my travel time. In the afternoon, unfortunately, things were bad. Really bad. It took me almost 45 minutes to cover the first 15 miles from North Haven, due to a crash on I-95 near Exit 40 in Orange. Or so the message signs said, as by the time I got to the vicinity of the exit the crash had been cleared. This delayed me enough that I ran into another stretch of very heavy traffic, this time strictly volume-related, around Stamford and Greenwich.
It was almost five when I got over the Throgs Neck Bridge, and I knew that Expressway traffic would be the dog … and I would be the hydrant. As a result, I decided to implement the Panera Bread Strategy, getting off the (crawling) Cross Island at Northern Boulevard and making my way to the Panera at the Nassau-Queens line where Little Neck Parkway intersects with the Expressway. I spent an hour or so going on Facebook with my phone and having a steak-and-blue cheese salad (highly recommended). Stereotypes were in full play, as near me four Jewish ladies were playing Mah Jongg – a Chinese game that is largely a Jewish pastime in America – and at other tables young Asian people were doing math and science homework. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Gypsy fortune teller.
During my stay at Panera, I was musing on the current paradox of both high unemployment and miserable rush hour traffic. With so many people out of work there should, logically, be fewer cars on the road during rush hour. As I noted with respect to Yom Kippur, a difference of just a few percentage points should be highly visible. But then, as I neared the end of the salad, a possible explanation occurred to me. Many employers give workers the option of telecommuting a day or two each week or even sometimes every day. When the unemployment rate is high, however, people may be less willing to exercise this option because they fear that not being physically present in the office every single day might make them appear less than completely vital to their companies’ operations. For similar reasons people may be letting vacation days go unused and are dragging themselves into work when sick. I have no idea if there’s any way to prove this theory, but I really believe there’s something to it.
My stereotype observations and traffic theorizing complete, and my salad finished, I got back on the Expressway around six. Traffic had lessened enough by this point that I made it home in just under 45 minutes. Had I not stopped at Panera, and just dealt with peak traffic, I probably would have made it home somewhat earlier, but preserving what little remains of my sanity was more important than getting home at 6:30 instead of 6:45.