Road Wage: Your Guide to a Post Pandemic Commute

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Angry commuter

It’s upon us. With some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel after this long, dark slog of a year, soon we’ll be seeing real light in real tunnels again. 

The tyranny of Lord Zoom may not be over, and many of us may find ourselves on the work-from-home train indefinitely. I know one small company that is going permanently remote, abandoning their $125,000 per month commercial lease, and the landscapes of cities are changing. 

However, a significant portion of workers will be returning like the swallows of Capistrano to offices and job sites all across the country in the next few months.

This means also the return of that time-honored American tradition: the commute.

traffic jam at sunset

Like all of our old social interactions from the before times (and commuting is nothing, if not social) – ordering a fillet in a restaurant, chatting with your dentist with a mouth full of gauze, making eye contact – wading back into our daily commute is going to feel really weird, and will take a bit of preparation and practice. But, it’s just like riding a bicycle (I used to commute on my bicycle, come to think of it…).

The first step is going to be giving your ride the once over. 

If you have been ordering all your groceries and your meals in for the last few months while watching the deeper cuts of the Hulu backlog, your car probably has suffered from some neglect. I know I have been trying hard to give each of the 90s-era Land Rovers and Hondas in our stable at least a little spin every week, but it’s no substitute for driving them on the regular. This goes especially for older vehicles.

Man diagnosing engine problems

Batteries go flat, tires go flat, fluids break down, and seals dry up. Putting the chariot back into daily service sparring with morning traffic will add stress that neither you nor your vehicle have experienced in quite some time. 

As a baseline, first, give your car a bath. Having languished in the driveway all winter it’s probably collected a fair amount of grime, scale, bird poop, and tree leaves. Have mice moved into your engine bay or HVAC system during these months of slumber? Double check wiring and other important rubber components as you vacuum and sponge. Scrubbing this all away will help with further inspections, and, frankly, will give you a deep sense of satisfaction. I know I always feel better after I’ve washed my car. 

car in automatic car wash

Next, make sure your major services are up to date. Change your oil, check the condition and level of your coolant and transmission fluid, and confirm that the pressure in your A/C system is up to spec. If you have a four-wheel-drive, stick a finger in those filler holes to make sure your differentials are happy, and that your u-joints are good and greased. Pull a wheel off and check on the thickness of your brake pads. Verify the level and condition of your brake fluid – is your brake pedal a little squishy? It may be time for a fluid flush, or simply a good bleed.

Using a multimeter, make sure your battery reads out between 12.4 and 12.9 volts when the car is off, and from 13.9 to 14.9 volts while the car is running. If things seem fishy on the electrical side of things, bring your battery to the local O’AutoQuest and they can run a quick load test to determine its true health. Are all your lights functioning correctly? (BMW drivers excepted.) Fill your tires up to their proper highway pressures, and scope them out for sidewall damage or other signs of deterioration. Adjust your mirrors.

car battery

Honestly? These are all things we should be doing for our cars on a consistent basis anyway – but it’s especially important after they have been sitting for a long time.

Next, prepare yourself mentally. 

Back in the days of our thoughtless weekly commuting hours, the long drive to and from work could seem like the whole experience was on autopilot. Even subconsciously, you knew the route, you knew the timing of the stop lights, the location of the worst potholes, where cars regularly got rear-ended, and where traffic was likely to back up. You probably even saw the same drivers day in and day out. 

All that has likely changed quite a bit in the intervening months – the geography of your commute may have shifted, from traffic flow and density, to new commuters, and maybe even unfamiliar construction or re-routing. Dial in a bit more attention than you normally would, keep an eye on those blind spots, and expect the unexpected. Leave home a little earlier than you used to. 

Happy commuter

Also, remember that we’re all in this together – everyone will be easing back into this routine behind the wheel after a significant amount of time off. Give your fellow laborers some extra space, and merge confidently, but not aggressively. Wave folks in when you find it will keep things flowing. Breathe deeply, and take in stride the delays and the lousy driving you’re sure to encounter. Be self-reflective and honest with yourself. Are you tailgating? Is your own driving pissing off other people?

Keep the vibes mellow. A smile and friendly toot of the horn goes a long way toward easing the collective misery we all suffer with our garbage infrastructure. Tune out the traffic report and leave the Pantera CDs at home. Stream an audiobook, or Bob Marley, or HAIM at low volume – enough to tickle the calmer pleasure centers of your brain without creating too much of a distraction. Ditch the arrival estimates on the nav system, you know the way. Every little thing is gonna be alright. 

Lastly, embrace the commute. 

Think of it this way – even though it’s not the most exciting or adventurous way to spend time in the car, at least you’re driving. Feel the action of the gear shift, enjoy the wind rushing through the open window or the sunroof, the rumble of the exhaust. Revel in the solitude and time for yourself. 

car driving fast on a highway

I recall fondly quite a number of my two hour Boston commutes in my former life after a long day of grad seminars or work. Just the solid *thunk* closing the door on my old GTI VR6 shut out all the stress of the day. Running through the gears on the long way home with tunes cranked was good therapy, even battling crumbling concrete and my fellow Massholes on the 495. 

Reconnect with driving, reconnect with your car or truck. Or take the opportunity to try something fresh – getting new wheels is a good way to symbolically start a new life. Perhaps it’s finally time for that Miata you’ve always wanted, or even an EV. I hear there are plenty of old Nissan Leafs floating around out there for cheap.

See you on the highway.

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