Making Peace With Traffic

In Chicago, traffic is pretty much a fact of life. There is simply no way to avoid it, particularly if you live on the South Side and want to get anywhere north. I remember reading some ten or fifteen years ago, about the time my husband and I had just moved here, a piece in one of the local magazines that promised to give alternate routes (i.e. non-freeway routes) from anywhere in Chicago to O'Hare. On the North Side, there were a number of options, but for the South Side, well, we were pretty much stuck: there wasn't any faster route than the I-90/94. So there. If the freeway snarls up, that's still the only way to get to the airport.*

When my son and I started fencing together six years ago, we joined a fencing club that practiced downtown in the Loop. This was heaven: we could get on the Metra, ride the train 20 minutes to downtown, and walk to our club, no worries. My husband would come pick us up in the evenings after practice well after the rush hour traffic had died down. And so for four years, I was blissfully unaware (except hypothetically) that there was even such a thing as rush hour. The trains might be a little crowded depending on who was having their meetings at McCormick Place, but otherwise, rain, snow or shine, it made no difference to how quickly we got to our club. Plus, I've always loved riding on trains. It was bliss.

Alas, no longer. When the athletic club where our fencing club practiced closed down two years ago, the fencers moved to a new club, considerably further north. I could still take the train if I were willing to switch from the Metra to the CTA in the Loop or if I caught the CTA to the west of where I live, but then I would be spending as much as twice as long to get there and back as I do in the car even with traffic, plus coming home I'd be riding the CTA well after hours, with which, sadly, I am not entirely comfortable. So I drive.

It's eleven miles from my home to our club. On good days, that is, on days when the Cubs aren't playing such that the traffic backs up from Soldier Field all the way to Wrigley, I can make it in about 35-45 minutes during "rush" hour. Just for the sake of comparison, it takes me about 25 minutes to get home some three to four hours later. On bad days, when there's a Cubs game or a festival in Grant Park or a Bears game at Soldier Field, it can take upwards of a hour sitting in traffic for me to make it to practice. And, no, there isn't any other way to get from here to there than Lake Shore Drive or, if I went on the freeway, the Dan Ryan/Kennedy expressways. Once you hit midtown, it's traffic lights all the way down. Short of a miracle--or Hans Monderman's intervention--there's simply no way to avoid being stuck in traffic if, that is, I want to get to practice (and now, yoga class) anywhere near on time. So what to do?

I could rage at all the other drivers. What business do they have getting in my way, anyway? What could be possibly so important in their lives that they have to be driving north on Lake Shore Drive at exactly the time when I want to get to fencing practice? All they're trying to do is get home from work or to some dumb ball game.*** Um. It's funny, isn't it, how we think about traffic, as if it is somehow a personal affront that there are others who want to be out on the road at the same time that we do, as if, indeed, we are the only ones with places to go and schedules to keep. One of the things that I have to contend with, I know, is how nervous I am when I'm driving: accidents just seem so much more likely to happen when there are so many cars out on the road, and I've told you before how I don't like changing lanes. But I recognize, too, that I am part of the problem: I could get to practice some other way, but I choose to drive.

Well, okay, no, I don't choose to drive, but I do choose to drive to get to practice, so it would seem that it's up to me to come to terms with what that entails. Raging at it won't help and it's not like I can outwit it by going some other way. The only thing to do, it would seem, is make peace with it. "Wait a minute," I can hear you saying. "Make peace with traffic? You've got to be kidding, right? Traffic is the enemy; traffic is to be avoided at all costs! Worst of all, traffic wastes time. Think of all of the things you could be doing if you weren't sitting there, stuck in traffic." Well, yes. Except that if I weren't there sitting in traffic, I'd never get to fencing practice, which is something that I want to do, very much. So traffic is the price I pay for wanting to get to practice. No, that's not it: traffic is a gift that is meant to teach me something about how important it is for me to get to practice.

You think I'm kidding, right? Perhaps. But as I've said, there really isn't anything else I can do. Getting angry won't help. Nor is it likely that the traffic patterns are ever going to change. So all, it seems, that I can do is, yes, plan for traffic. Which means I can't really plan, because the traffic changes from day to day. Some days, it's simply not there. Others, like yesterday (which is strange for a Saturday), it is. All I can do is leave early enough--and hope that it is, in fact, early enough--and plan to be in the car for something like an hour listening to book tapes.**** If, for some reason, the traffic is worse than I've planned for, well, so it was better the other day; that's just the way it is. Hopefully, my yoga teacher won't mind if I come in a few minutes late.

*This was before Midway's renovation when O'Hare was often the only way to get where we wanted to go. It's still the only way to get to Europe, of course. Or for direct flights to Texas.** Go figure. Maybe Texas really is another country.
**Although there is a rumor that Southwest does some flights that might work. I'll have to double-check.
***Sorry, I'm really not a sports fan, not, that is, of sports I don't myself play, even after reading Michael Mandelbaum's excellent The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do (2005).
****Which, truth to tell, I would never listen to except when I'm driving, so, you see, the traffic really is something of a blessing. It gives me time to do something I enjoy that I would not give myself the time to do otherwise, including listening to music.


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