On The Literary Benefits of Mass Transit
In 2003, I took a job running a bookstore in Costa Mesa. I was living in Koreatown, a few miles from downtown Los Angeles. The difference between the two is about 50 miles. 50 miles through Southern California traffic, down the 110 to the 405, is, well, unpleasant. On a typical day, it took me an hour and a half to get work and another hour and a half to get home. I made this commute in a Dodge Neon that leaked oil, had intermittent air conditioning, and no CD or cassette player. I listened to a lot of talk radio. I discovered things I never thought I'd know: where the traffic always slowed, mysteriously, on the 405, the cadence of Jim Rome's many dead air pauses (Rome, the master of the dead air pause), the lay of the fairway on the 8th hole at Domingez Hills (it's right off the 405), where Brookhurst is (Fountain Valley. Until I took that job, it was just a name intoned mournfully by the traffic reporter every morning).
Looking back on that commute, I can't help but think of the time wasted, the hours spent in a steel box, waiting, waiting, then finally moving. I sometimes wondered what else I could have been doing with my time. It turns out, I could've read War and Peace or listened to the entirety of Wagner's Ring Cycle. This handy chart, from Good Magazine (who has a fancy new website with a lot of, um, good content) shows exactly what I could've accomplished with all that time.
My commute these days is much shorter -- I can generally drive to work in under thirty minutes -- but, for the most part, I've stopped driving to work. Instead I take the train, changing trains at Union Station, and walking the final six or so blocks to Vroman's (check it out on the Metro map here). This trip takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes, depending on trains, each way. In other words, it's about the same as the commute I had into Orange County back in 2003. But otherwise, it couldn't possibly be more different.
Initially, I began riding the Metro for environmental reasons (and economic, of course), but as I've grown accustomed to riding the train every day, I'm starting to notice the secondary and tertiary benefits of mass transit. I'm getting some exercise (I always take the stairs up from the station), and man, am I getting some reading done! Since I started riding the subway to work, I would estimate that I've read three times the number of books I read in a similar time span while commuting by car. In fact, I've read more books than I did last year already, and last year I worked mainly from home, with a commute of roughly three seconds (from my bedroom to my living room). And I'm enjoying my commute so much more. I arrive at work having already jump-started my brain with an hour of reading (and a liter of coffee), and I'm ready to begin my day. I haven't read War and Peace yet (It's a touch too heavy for the train), but thanks to my commute, I can at least envision a world where I have the time to tackle it.