THE FREEWAY

Look at them, lined up like weary soldiers in a chow line, bumper to bumper, hundreds of wage slaves trying to get home from work, but going nowhere. It’s like this during every afternoon rush hour and, I assume, every morning rush hour, too. I try to avoid rush hours like the flu, jury duty and people who keep saying “Quid pro quo,” but this afternoon I find myself stuck here in traffic.

At least it’s not raining. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that the average Houston commuter spent 75 hours stuck in traffic in 2017 — 22 hours more than 10 years prior in 2007. The Institute’s 2019 Urban Mobility Report ranked the Houston area seventh for most annual hours of delay with 247.44 million total hours in 2017.

The study also determined that peak congestion times in Houston are 5 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays and at 4 p.m. Fridays — like right here right now. The annual cost of congestion in Houston is roughly $4.5 billion, which is calculated by combining time and fuel spent. The region also ranked fifth among all urban areas for most wasted fuel.

But what if you could cut your commuting time by 20 percent? It’s the four-day work week, which has been talked about, even tried, but never seems to gather steam. The idea is simple: cram 40 hours of work into four days at your assembly line at the pig rendering factory and take off Friday. (Obviously, no one would take off, say, Wednesday but skipping Monday might appeal to some.) You work 10-hour days, then bug out Thursday afternoon, thoroughly beat, but you have a long three-day weekend ahead.

There are obvious problems with this arrangement. If the wig store, muffler repair shop or tattoo parlor is closed on Fridays, so is income. Will customers squeeze their shopping into Monday through Thursday and maintain the same weekly cash flow?

Texas had blue laws, keeping department stores closed on Sundays. That way Sears and Neiman’s didn’t have to staff their stores on Sundays. Now they do. Did the expanded workweek hurt business and/or income? A lot of beauty parlors and barbershops close Sunday and Monday. Most museums are closed on Mondays.

Today a lot of people already work only four and a half days a week. Try ringing up a doctor or lawyer on Friday afternoons. “We’re sorry, but the Stitch & Staph Medical Center is closed. Please call us on Monday.” This is particularly prevalent on Fridays before a Monday-off holiday. Everybody leaves at noon on Friday, and one poor secretary is left in the entire office building to answer the phone: “Mister Twister is in a meeting and ….”

For proof, look at any out-bound freeway about 1 p.m. on the Friday before a Labor Day or Guy Fawkes Day weekend. It’s jammed. When the Fourth of July falls on July 4th and it’s on a Wednesday, just take off the whole week. Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, so forget doing business on the following Friday. The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a dead zone.

Firefighters and EMS workers often work straight through four days, so many of them don’t have to commute daily. They live five counties over and have an extra job. Here in Texas, we have oil field hands who work offshore for a week, home for a week. If they work in Nigeria or Norway, it’s six weeks home and away.

The five-day workweek is the spin-off of a six-day time in the trenches. In 1908, a New England mill expanded the one-day weekend to two days, Saturday and Sunday, to accommodate Jewish workers who observed the Saturday Sabbath. Less than two decades later, Henry Ford instituted a five-day workweek throughout his company and the idea caught on.

Now we have pretty much settled on a five-day, 40-hour schedule. So what if everyone started taking off on Fridays? You can’t go shopping because all the stores would be closed. TGIT. Maybe you leave Thursday afternoon to lay sewer pipe and paint the barn at your farm outside Bastrop.

Actually I went to college so I wouldn’t have to lay sewer pipe and paint a barn, but a lot of my neighbors seem to love it. The freeways are jammed because everyone is leaving, too.

Meantime, guess I’ll just stay here until this expressway is my official voting address. It’s starting to rain.

Lynn Ashby is a Houston-based columnist. Contact him at ashby2@comcast.net.

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