Can we rats survive the traffic maze?
The traffic chump

Sunday, July 19, 1998

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

I'm planning to be on my best behavior for the rest of the summer. If I like the way it feels, I may continue acting like an adult even when the weather turns cold, even when smog hibernates, even when the novelty of finding new routes to work wears off.

If I am to be a rat in a maze, I am determined to be a polite rat, a cheerful rat, a stress-free rat. Specifically, I pledge to retire the third finger of my right hand as a signal of my disappointment in fellow motorists.

The traffic chump

I am going to be the one who lets the Jaguar convertible merge into the line of traffic, even though the driver clearly raced ahead of the rest of us, hoping some chump would let him in at the last minute. Even though I suffer from auto envy. Furthermore, I'm not going to brood if he doesn't give me a thank-you wave.

I am not going to shake my fist when a little old lady pulls out in front of me, then continues on at 12 mph. She may be somebody's grandmother. She may be packing a gun.

Anyway, that's what I'm planning.

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Because I won't give up my car. I still need it. Metro doesn't go everywhere I want to go, and it's not fast enough. It might get me around the city, but forget the suburbs. So I commute. Then I store my car in a place where the monthly fees are roughly what it used to cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

These are facts of Cincinnati urban life.

Even Judi Craig still drives to work every day from Deer Park to Queensgate. She's OKI's Smog Czarina. Officially, she is Special Projects Manager, but she says she's really in charge of "selling clean air."

With my most ingratiating smile, I ask if telling individuals not to drive their cars isn't, well, kind of a hoax? Doesn't most of the smog come from industrial smokestacks? Just between us girls.

She returns the smile graciously and hands me a pie chart labeled "Smog Sources -- Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky." It says industry accounts for 26 percent. The rest of it is you and me. Our lawn mowers, our paint, our driveway sealers, our air r conditioners. But mostly our cars.

Reality check

We can't even blame it on the tourists from Michigan on their way to Florida. "The pollutants from drive-through traffic are negligible," Ms. Craig says. "The majority of pollutants come from cold starts." In other words, smog begins at home.

"Look," she says, "we know everybody can't take the bus. Or even car pool. But we can drive less." Commuting -- using our car to make a living -- accounts for only 11 percent of pollutants. "Other auto trips" is 21 percent of the total.

I think guiltily of the day before when I hopped in the car to run to Busken Bakery (a vital trip, as it was Kettle Danish Day). Then home. Then another "cold start" when I remembered that I would have to show up at work in cutoff jeans if I didn't pick up my dry cleaning. Then after I got home, I noticed that I was out of gas.

OK, I said to the Czarina, I give up. What can a miserable sinner like myself do? Besides think ahead.

"Use gasoline-powered lawn equipment after 6 p.m." Hey, I can do better than that. I'm not going to use it at all. I also will not use oil-based paints and stains before 6 p.m. Or after.

"Save electricity." Well, we have an electric stove and oven. As a responsible citizen, I believe that I will simply have to insist that we dine out for the rest of the smog season -- roughly until the end of October, with the worst of it coming up during the next six weeks.

On the way home that day, I waved two cars ahead of me at an orange barrel barrier. I smiled cheerfully at the woman talking on her cell phone who nearly sideswiped me. I walked to the bakery.

Already I feel like a better rat.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

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