Cedar Rapids Public Transit’s mental toll

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Heard of the cognitive tax? This week, thanks to Cedar Rapids Public Transit, I’m feeling it.

Cognitive tax is a term used to describe the mental state of those living in poverty or other stressful situations, also known as a scarcity mind-set. The more uncertainty in your life, the more mental work you need to expend, which takes a toll on the quality and number of tasks that can be completed.

I think of it in terms of bandwidth, and how computers and smartphones bog down when they are trying to do too much with too little.

When people have stable jobs, stable homes and generally predicable lives, routines go somewhat smoothly. We know where to go when we get hungry, know where we sit for work. Those are things we don’t need to really think about, which frees up space to think about other things.

When I committed to parking my car this week and riding Cedar Rapids Public Transit, I expected it would disrupt my life somewhat, but did not think I would develop a scarcity mind-set.

Most days I wake up with a certain set of routine tasks. I need to brush my teeth, wake the children, get dressed, get the children off to school and get myself off to work. These goals are so routine that I normally don’t spend much mental bandwidth to accomplish them. While I’m brushing my teeth, I may think about topics for future columns, remind myself to pay the electric bill or consider if I should up the percentage of wages I’m tucking into my savings account.

I’m functioning in the present, even as I am planning for the future — on multiple levels.

My daily commute has become a part of that routine. I use the time to return phone calls (hands-free), think about what I need to accomplish that day, line up doctor visits for the kids or clear my head and sing along to a song.

I need one piece of information to keep things smooth: the drive from home to office takes between 15 and 20 minutes.

Switching to public transit this week has forced more of my mental bandwidth to focus on the present. I’m not just getting in my car, which is parked in my driveway. I’m walking to a bus stop, getting on a bus and sharing space with strangers. But before I can do that, routes must be reviewed and bus schedules checked. Otherwise I won’t know if I’m on the bus that can take me where I need to go, in the time I have to get there.

This was especially true on Wednesday, when I rode public transit for a midday appointment. Planning ahead was required, as was remembering the steps I’d planned.

All of this transit planning has supplanted things I usually have no trouble remembering. For instance, I forgot what day it was — a pretty big deal when your work involves rotating deadlines.

I rescheduled lunch with a friend because it is no longer as simple as plugging an address into my GPS. There are no step-by-step directions available for this public transit system.

Just like when I used public transit before, I can feel my world shrinking. What I didn’t remember from before, but am re-experiencing now, is that the shrinking is a form of self-preservation. There is only so many things the mind can concentrate on at any given time.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 7, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette