Thursday, December 16, 2010

Adaptive Commuting Theory

Being the kind of guy who welcomes phone calls and never takes steps to bring a conversation to a close, I typically have phone conversations lasting until the early morning hours. This tendency can cause problems for someone who wakes up at 5:40 AM in order to attend daily morning prayers services located a mile and a half away. Going to bed late inevitably leads to a late rise, and an already stressful morning is compounded with additional time constraints. After sloppily tending to all the necessary morning chores, I am left with only one venue for mitigating the unbearable time pressure: The commute.

The time needed for commuting is frequently underestimated, especially when dealing with relatively short distances. If an appointment is scheduled for 10:00, and I leave my house at 9:45, it doesn't usually bother me that the normal travel time for that distance is twenty five minutes. To the contrary, if I happen to be running late, I typically plan to gain back lost time by commuting a little faster. When commuting by bicycle, there is always extra energy stored somewhere in my legs specially made available for these circumstances. When commuting by automobile, I push the gas peddle just a little closer to the floor. Even when commuting by train, I can play some neat tricks by transferring to express trains and then returning to local trains. The later I am, the faster I commute. The extra adrenaline rush helps me perform maneuvers that would have been unthinkable during a normal ride. I can sleep comfortably at night knowing that my adaptive commuting theory can take care of any delay that may arise from my tardy awakening.

Unfortunately, my beautiful theory of everything is lacking in one minor detail: There are other people on the road and there are other people in the trains. These people are going about there daily routine, and the fact that I am in a mad rush doesn't seem to cross their minds. While I slam the door, gun the engine and floor the gas peddle, a different and completely random human being is going about his daily drive in his good old humdrum manner. Although my world may be rushing, planet Earth isn’t rotating any faster. People of all kinds are capable of throwing a monkey wrench into adaptive commuting theory. School buses, garbage trucks, ambulances, fire trucks, pedestrians, cyclists, people looking for parking spots, people taking my potential parking spots, people double parking, people triple parking, people becoming sick on trains and people casually driving for fun, are all potential shocks to this otherwise perfect equilibrium. Although at least some of these threats should be anticipated, they are frequently overlooked.

These disturbances add elements of uncertainty to adaptive commuting theory. Can the commute really be relied upon to make back lost time? Some days I wake up late, yet everything works according to theory. On other days, I find myself stuck behind a garbage truck while circling for parking. This morning I was able to experience the clear contrast between both of these options during my daily commute.

I had been chatting with my brother until 1:00 AM, and the conversation only came to a close after his phone's battery went dead. With a working alarm clock and a theory of commuting, I fell into a peaceful slumber. At 5:40 AM an annoying alarm began slowly invading my dreams. I hit the snooze button three times and turned on the radio while only 10% awake. When I finally realized that all the vicious murder and robberies were not coming from my imagination but from 1010 WINS, it was already 6:20. I was running late! I had to reach my destination by 6:40! I hurried as fast as I could, and I was in the car and ready to go by 6:33.

I knew that I could make it on time if everything went according to theory. I backed up my one-way street to avoid a strategically placed traffic light. Approaching the first intersection, a delivery truck passed me by and stopped at the light. I was in no mood of following that slow moving vehicle, but there appeared to be no other option. The clock ticked to 6:36. Four minutes was more than enough with no lights and no trucks. After following the truck a few blocks, I noticed a red light ahead. It was at this point that I devised a plan to beat the traffic. I turned on a side street hoping to use a different avenue. As I raced down the block at about 40 mph, I noticed a car with New Jersey plates just thoughtlessly moving out of a parking spot. This time I floored the brakes, and was about to hit the horn. Didn't this guy realize that I was in a hurry? I held myself back from honking him, and I watched as he slowly and aimlessly glided through the yellow light, leaving me in the red. I didn't believe what had happened. I missed a crucial light because someone from a different state couldn't realize that my schedule was at stake. After waiting at two lights it was already 6:40. To make matters worse, I saw the same truck pass me by as I was waiting at the light. It turns out that my trick had made me even more late. It seemed like the commute would not be as adaptable as anticipated.

My plan failed and I was already late, but I wanted to be less late than more late. At this point I was ready to fly. The light turned green and I hit the gas. Light after light, I continued at a cruising speed of at least 45 mph. There were no cars! My plan was now working. I turned on a side street, found parking instantly, and arrived at my destination. It was only 6:43, and I managed to make up the lost time. The extra will power propelled by my desire for being slightly less late managed to shorten the commuting time substantially. The commuting theory had been partially vindicated.

I found partial evidence for adaptive commuting theory, but it still seems like giving one's self plenty of extra time for the commute is definitely the ideal. I have found that commutes can be completely unpredictable, and adaptive solutions can have equally unpredictable consequences. I still remember the time when I kept missing the train because I was switching back and forth between different platforms. I waited at one platform, watched one train after another arrive at the other platform, and finally switched platforms right before my train would arrive. Fortunately, my destination was only the Bronx Zoo. Commuting time should never be underestimated, and negative shocks frequently offset any gains produced through fanciful tricks. However, for the days that I happen to wake up late, I find comfort in fooling myself into thinking that the commute is relatively flexible.


  1. The Bronx Zoo?

    And what goes around, comes around my friend... don't you ever get frustrated at the guy on your tail as you rightfully attempt to pull into/out of a parking space? :)

  2. I went to the Bronx Zoo on a Chol HaMoed trip several years back. After watching a few trains arrive at the other platform I decided to switch. At that point a few trains came at the former platform and no more came at the current platform. This happened several times! I stuck to one platform until the train came.

    About this early morning incident, when I say this guy was driving aimlessly, I really mean aimlessly! He pulled out, and then was just sitting in the middle of the street. It was not what you would expect at that hour when you're in that much of a hurry.