Friday, July 11, 2008

Traversing Commuting Options

I used to joke about the difficulty of my daily commute. The 30-second trip from the coffee pot to my home-office desk was fraught with obstacles. Those 30 seconds could easily stretch to a full minute if I had to dodge a pile of toys, hop over the dog, or grab a kiss from one of the kids dashing out to school. If I spilled some of the coffee, I might not get to the office for a full 15 minutes! Even the worst traffic jam on the Dallas North Tollway wouldn’t increase your commute by 2900%!

Sadly, I had to give up the full-time, telecommuting life style last year. I returned to the world of real, physical commuting in November. Compared to many of my fellow Frisco residents, the 30 minutes it takes me to get down Coit Road to Forest Lane is fairly reasonable. Heck, some people take that long just to get down El Dorado to the Tollway. Even so, some days I really dread spending precious time fighting traffic and listening to inane chatter on the morning radio shows. But that’s one of the trade-offs I accepted when I chose to live in an ex-urb like Frisco.

What I didn’t bargain for 9 years ago – or even last year – was $4 per gallon fuel costs. The financial hit to our family budget has been tough to swallow. And it’s led me to start looking for other alternatives to making the solo drive every morning. I’ve investigated getting a more fuel-efficient vehicle, or even a motorcycle. But the payback period for either is years away, compared to my paid-for Toyota. Car pools? My job makes keeping a regular schedule kind of tough. I leave for the office at the same time, but coming home is often an iffy proposition.

That leaves public transportation.

Oops. I live in Frisco. We don’t have public transportation. Right or wrong (and I largely believe it was right) Frisco chose to devote its sales tax revenue to economic and community development, rather than sending it to Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). Which means I can’t just jump on the bus and ride. I have to drive to the nearest stop (Coit and Parker) and catch the bus there. For me, that’s actually a viable option. It’s a direct bus route down Coit, and then only a short walk to my office. But most of my fellow Frisco commuters don’t fare so well. For example, those wishing to take the light rail service to downtown face a 30-minute drive just to get to the nearest station, then another hour-plus on the train. The direct drive to downtown isn’t that much further, so I don’t expect many people are choosing this option.

There have been a number of suggestions offered in recent months to help address our commuting needs. One suggestion is to build a commuter rail line into Dallas. While this seems like a viable solution, it certainly isn’t going to happen soon. Another option has appeared in the form of purchasing limited transit services from DART. At a recent meeting, their board members were briefed on the idea of non-member cities, like Frisco, purchasing bus service on an ad-hoc basis. While the service would not be cheap, it could be implemented much more quickly than developing a new rail system. Plus, it could potentially serve a wider base of citizens than rail.

During the campaign, recently-elected councilman Scott Johnson suggested that, while we need better transit options, we need to focus as much energy on attracting the kinds of businesses to Frisco that will allow residents to work locally and avoid the commute altogether. This is certainly a laudable goal, and our Economic Development Commission (EDC) is doing everything in its power to make that happen. But again, this is a long-term solution and ignores the nature of Frisco as a prototypical suburban city. We’re always going to have a hefty portion of our population commuting to jobs in Dallas and other cities.

At the end of the day, we all have to decide whether the costs and inconvenience of commuting are worth the benefits of living in a community like Frisco. Over time, the cost of fuel will balance out; they still haven’t revoked the laws of supply and demand. And city leaders are working to develop a wide range of transit solutions, since there is no “one size fits all” magic genie. “Frisco is aggressively pursuing all avenues at this point,” commented Mayor Maher Maso. “There is nothing off the table.”

Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for other alternatives. I’m going to test ride a Vespa scooter next week. And I’ve discovered books on CD, transforming my commute into an opportunity to catch up on my favorite mystery novels. It can’t beat working from home, but at least I arrive most days with a smile on my face.

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