Technology can’t clear the idiots off the road on your drive to work, or improve the housing market so much that you’re no longer riding the train or bus. But the right kind of tech tools, along with some planning, can make your commute less a cost of living and more a productive warm-up. Here are some smart ways to rethink your commute.
Make some eye contact for a more human commute
A constant theme in Traffic, journalist Tom Vanderbilt’s fascinating multi-disciplinary look at the modern state of driving, is how the design of cars and roads turns driving into an impersonal, insulated experience. That makes it easier to feel angry, cheated, and brash without thinking about the people in other cars. Vanderbilt notes, for example, that drivers in convertibles use their horns less often than other cars, as they lack the anonymity of an enclosed cab.
Reclaim your vehicular humanity by making eye contact with pedestrians at intersections, consider how much a "late merger" really means to hurt you, and give cyclists their due space, helmet or no. And don’t assume every horn is meant for you.
Do your self-improving "reading" while moving
If you don’t like driving, or have a particularly boring mass transit commute, it’s easy to scheme on how to pump some enjoyment into your ride—carefully crafted iPod playlists, smirk-inducing satellite radio, or maybe the latest mystery/romance/fantasy out in audiobook. But load up some of those books related to your job, or the job you want to have, and you’ll kill two birds with one stone: guilt about staying on top of your field, and dread that you never have enough time to read.
Web PR maven Steve Rubel once called it making unusable time usable. All day at work, you deal with the nitty-gritty of your profession, barely getting time to stick your head up and take some big-picture views. Pick out some books that the smart people in your field are reading and share their headspace, and stop feeling guilty that print is dead.
Mount your phone, whatever kind
Your phone can now be your car’s GPS navigation, music server, communication system, and traffic and weather alert system, so it helps to give it a good, safe, convenient home. But the car dock your phone carrier wants to sell you is overpriced, and if you lose, break, or upgrade your phone, that very specific dock probably won’t work with the next phone. So wake up early one morning and make your own universal smartphone car mount from cheap office supplies: binder clips, string, rubber bands, and duct tape. Productivity blog Lifehacker (this writer’s former stomping grounds) has a step-by-step illustrated guide and a video demonstration. You can spend the time to make it a bit more eye-pleasing, but, be honest—how long can you hold out if the next iPhone gets freaking face recognition?
Get woken up at the right train station
If you ride the train to work, or do the park-and-ride commute, catching a nap on the train can be a day saver. So can going earphones-and-eyes-first into a great book or album. But if you miss your station, you’ll be late to work with an even worse excuse than oversleeping.
Got an Android phone? You might not know just how covered you are. Google Maps just updated on Android to include Transit Navigation, which follows you around via GPS on more than 400 transit systems. Tell it where you’re going, and you’ll get estimates on how many minutes until you get there, along with alerts when you should get ready to disembark. You’ll want to test it on one or two wide-awake dry runs, to see if your phone can accurately keep up, but it’s generally reliable on above-ground trains.
iPhone owners have much less robust Maps tools, but at least one third-party app can stand in and support their shut-eye. iNap: Arrival Alert is in need of a multi-tasking update, but it can at least stay working while you listen to music. If your train heads underground, you might luck out with a track-specific app that alerts you based on average travel times. TransitGuru, for instance, covers the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), Chicago CTA, and many more.