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The 1,000 Mile Marriage (Part 3 of 3)

July 27, 2010

This is part 3 of a 3 part feature article I wrote last fall for a class with David Beers. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Technology is no panacea for a commuting-crazy culture.

Every techno-advancement comes with utopian promises. Skype, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service used for video phone calls, pledges to “set your conversations free,” or at least nearly. The main page of their website features a man and a woman embracing at an airport – they’re connected, see – and all for the low price of mere bandwidth.

But technology also pushes people apart. A high-tech global economy means increased job specialization. Just like going 150 kilometres for a perfect match in love, workers go farther to find a perfect match with an employer. The trouble happens when getting down to trying to balance it all.

Photo by Austrini (Flickr cc)

Technology can’t be trusted to solve commuter woes since it’s the root cause. Beyond the existential choice to advance my career, the reason individuals commute across the country really comes down to one thing.

“Because they can,” says Gordon price, a former Vancouver city councillor who directs Simon Fraser University’s urban planning and sustainable development program. “People are trying things out because these options exist.”

Price sees commuter marriage as a “real aberration” of what he calls “motordom,” Motordom is built on technology and the false assumption of nearly free transportation. Lives, in turn, are constructed on road accessibility, a calculation of the trade-off between distance and quality of life, or where they can commute and afford a mortgage. The more people on the roads, the more congestion creates demand for bigger and wider roads. The bigger the road, the further out of town the commute takes. It makes heads spin and cities massive.

Commuter marriages are based on similar algebra: quality of life – distance and time. While the average commuter will tolerate a trip of up to roughly 40 minutes, commuter marriages just come up with a bigger number and a different way of eliminating the remainder. In a sense, we’re all commuters, Price says. Because we can.

Motordom is often blamed for congestion, sprawl and blight. But Price identifies another problem – ballooning infrastructure costs – which assume continual growth, cheap service land, and secure energy. Whatever you think of motordom, the fundamental question is whether it’s infrastructure is sustainable.

“Can government keep doing that?” Price asks. “I think the odds are practically zero.”

Sprawl aside, Price is a fan of the possibilities of technology. Advances in telecommunications are on the cusp of providing corporations a virtual face-to-face alternative to moving employees across the globe.

“The technology is getting good enough,” Price says, that long-distance commuting “will be increasingly offset by the quality of the telecommunications.”

But even if video-conferencing is embraced wholeheartedly in the corporate world, it won’t be the death of the commute. As long as families are able, they will still plant themselves within an affordable 40 minute radius of their other destinations. Because they can.

Photo by Khairil Zafri (Flickr cc)

It may be driven by planes, and not cars, but one of the hidden costs of commuter marriage is carbon emissions.

The weekly activity of flying has an enormous ecological impact. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization carbon calculator, the aviation regulator of the United Nations, Wilson’s weekly flight from Edmonton to Toronto will consume an average of 8,631 kilograms of fuel, generating 243.09 kilograms of CO2 per passenger. If she makes the trip forty times over the course of her year in Toronto, that’s a whopping 19.5 metric tons of greenhouse gases just to go to work. The average Canadian, already the eighth worst generator of CO2, generates an average of 16 metric tons each year.

But that’s a conservative estimate. The numbers at the carbon offset dealing website Less.ca are less rosy. Ranked by the David Suzuki Foundation as the best dealer, Less estimates Wilson’s weekly commute creates nearly 80 tons of CO2, costing a whopping $3,733.20 to offset.

Wilson can’t help but think about the environmental impact of her weekly airplane trips. She even catches herself rationalizing her trips.

“You start thinking, ‘Even if I wasn’t on the plane, there’s still a hundred other people on the plane and the flight would still go if I wasn’t there,’” laughs Wilson.

Like most people, the Wilsons try to make environmentally-friendly choices, even if they know it doesn’t balance their current lifestyle: Smart car, fervent recycling. But Wilson doesn’t buy into any delusions of cosmic balance: the decision to commute is to lessen the psychological toll.

“It sure does bug me, but man oh man, I can’t not come home,” says Wilson.

Beep.

The elevator doors chime and open at the Oakville retirement home. When Alison Wilson meets one of her elderly neighbours, she often finds herself explaining why she’s there.

“They always ask who I’m visiting,” laughs Wilson. When she replies, she is met with frowns and furrowed brows.

“You should see the look on their faces,” Wilson says, breaking into her impression of a sweet old grandmother. “They’re like, ‘Why would you want to live with us old people?’ They don’t get it.”

Wilson’s own assessment of the commuter life is mixed. She loves her job, loves her company, and sees a bright future not far away. The emotional and relational toll, on the other hand, knocks her squarely into mundane reality. After eight months in an old folks home, she sounds world-weary and worn-out.

“I’m not as driven to progress my career if I have to sacrifice this much,” says Wilson. “I would never leave Edmonton again. If that hinders my chances of getting promoted, so be it. It’s really not worth it.”

But Wilson tries not to let it get her down. Like many commuters, she has an exit strategy in place. Eight months in, there’s just over two years left. She’s already counting down.

“You’ve got to justify it to yourself every time you get kind of down or upset you’re doing this and you’re away from your family,” she says.

“It is only temporary, you know?”

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