How Long Things Take

Published Friday, August 8, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

When I think about what I love best about home, there’s one item that’s not an item at all, but a huge comfort nonetheless. After living in Eugene for about a dozen years, I know how long most things take.

I’m sure economists can and do measure the economic advantage of a such knowledge, in terms of human productivity. Come here from any place where your commute to and from work takes a half hour longer than it should, and it’s as if Eugene offers a 25-hour day, every day. Those extra hours add up. For a recent college graduate contemplating a 40-year career in Eugene, that’s the same as living an extra two years.

Commuting is where this advantage is most noticeable, but it’s much more pervasive than that. Every errand, every meeting, every outing can be more efficient. If you have to leave the house 20 minutes early “just in case,” how much time is that? Add also the time you spend waiting for somebody who didn’t add that “just in case” time. Even non-commuters benefit hugely from reliable transportation connections, be they private or public modes.

We have our slow times for traveling, but they are mostly predictable. They may be annoying, but they don’t fill our brains and conversations all the time. Not long ago, I visited friends living near Washington, D.C. Over four days, I counted the conversations of any substance which made no reference to traffic: exactly two, and one of those included a reference to parking. If I’m tallying lifetime hours, I’d like back the conversation time devoted to how long it takes to get someplace.

But I wasn’t even thinking about travel when I began pondering how long things take. I know which checkout clerk at my local grocery store like to chat with each customer. I know which video store employees will give quick picks or probing answers. Of all the things I love about Jerry’s Home Improvement, the single line for all customers has to be the best.

I’ve renewed my license plates twice so I know how much time to allot for a trip to the DMV. I know who will come running to replace my tires and who won’t. I know when it’ll take time to find parking downtown and when it won’t. I know that it’s quicker to park on the outskirts of campus and walk in than to hunt for a parking spot closer in. I know when to tune into which radio station to get the news of the day and nothing more.

I know which restaurants give quick service and which ones don’t. I know what to order when I’m in a hurry. I know Ritta makes a burrito faster than anyone, but everything else at Saturday Market will take a long time.

I know that meetings on campus will start right on time, but that nothing will be resolved at the end of it. Meetings in Eugene seldom begin on time, but sometimes there is a vote at the end, if not an actual resolution. If I’m looking for something that both starts and stops on a schedule, I’ll go to a meeting in Springfield.

Knowing how long things take gives locals an unfair advantage, which we protect fiercely. If there’s a traffic accident, we know how to use alleys or one-way streets to get around the bottleneck. If there’s a slowpoke on the bike path, we know how to pass safely on the left. If we’re running late, we know the shortcuts. We know the odds of getting a parking ticket after 5 PM downtown or the odds of not getting a parking ticket anytime near campus.

Visitors don’t know these things. A friend once overheard two tourists walking on what was then the remnant of the downtown pedestrian mall. The husband said to the wife, “I think downtown is close enough that we can walk there from here.”

If we want to be more hospitable to visitors, better signage would go a long way, but I think many of us take comfort in knowing that visitors will be going the long way most of the time.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs. He’s never stopped to count how much time he spends doing that.