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Commuting - a round trip to nowhere

By Marilyn Gardner / December 15, 1999



Not long after calendars around the world flip over to that shiny new number, 2000, my 11-year-old car will reach a millennial-style milestone of its own, complete with a string of zeroes. Early in January, the odometer will roll over to 100,000 miles.

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There will be no confetti or paper horns or fanfare to mark the event. At most, I might simply pat the dashboard and whisper appreciatively, "Good job, faithful little car - thanks."

These days, the 100,000-mile mark hardly ranks as a notable automotive achievement. But what amazes me in this case is the realization that two-thirds of those miles were accumulated by commuting. Back and forth we've traveled, my car and I, from suburban house to urban office. At 24 miles a day, five days a week for 48 working weeks, we've logged 5,760 commuting miles a year. Multiply that by 11 years and four months and the figure totals nearly 66,000 miles.

That's the equivalent of 2-1/2 times around the world, or 22 coast-to-coast trips. But forget about the splendor of spacious skies, amber waves of grain, or purple-mountained majesty above the fruited plain. For this car, scenery reaches its modest peak as we pass a golf course and a park. The low point comes along a graffiti-lined street congested with trolleys and buses.

My calculator tells other sobering stories, one about the economic cost of commuting, the other about the cost in time. In the two decades that I've been driving this route, the number of traffic lights has doubled, from 10 to 21. What began as a 30-minute trip now often stretches to 40 minutes each way, not counting days when detours, construction, and bad weather make it longer. That's three hours and 20 minutes a week, or 160 hours a year - the equivalent of four 40-hour weeks.

Over a working lifetime for any commuter, numbers like these add up to a staggering loss of leisure time. Think of the books not read, the movies not seen, and above all the family outings not taken. And this is a relatively easy commute! Some road warriors in cities like Los Angeles and New York spend far more time behind the wheel.

No wonder the American automobile has become an extension of home, functioning as entertainment center, dining room, and all-purpose grooming salon. I have watched women drivers curling their eyelashes and applying mascara, while their male counterparts have combed their hair and shaved. One morning at a red light, the man behind me was vigorously brushing his teeth. Yes, really.

It's all tangible evidence of how work patterns have changed over the century. One of my great-grandfathers, a dairy farmer in southern Wisconsin, "commuted" 100 feet from the house to the barn. Another great-grandfather strolled 50 yards down a hill from the family homestead to the general store he owned in central Wisconsin. Later, my grandfather in Illinois drove an easy mile to the small oil company he owned. And my father, an electrical engineer, commuted just three miles to his desk at a large manufacturing firm.

Gridlock was a word unknown to all of them.

Where to live? Where to work? For many workers, those questions offer no easy answers. They want spacious homes and leafy backyards. They want good schools. They want easy access to supermarkets and malls. At the same time, who can blame them for sometimes longing to trade places with city-dwelling colleagues, especially in winter? They're the ones, after all, who simply stomp the snow off their boots after walking to work, then smile triumphantly as harried suburbanites stagger in late after inching along roads resembling parking lots.

As the search for affordable housing pushes more families farther and farther from work, and as the daily commute begins earlier and ends later for everyone, a 21st-century challenge looms large: how to ease traffic congestion.

Simply building more roads, parking lots, and garages will never solve the problem of gridlock. The hard task for traffic experts and social engineers will be to convert drivers into riders on public transportation. Cocooned in the comfort of our own vehicles, we're reluctant to give up our privacy, our flexibility, and, above all, our autonomy.

Telecommuting offers another partial solution. Already an estimated 24 million Americans telecommute, at least part of the week or month. As electronic umbilicals make virtual offices and remote workers more acceptable, what has been called a "placeless future" could become a reality.

It's hard to imagine a wholesale return to the era of cottage industries, when the home doubled as the workplace. Virtual connections, and even virtual meetings, don't serve all companies in all situations. "Face time" has its place.

Still, even one telecommuting day a week per commuting employee, where work permits, could make a difference on the road. It could also boost productivity for those freed from the rigors of traffic.

It's a possibility worth considering as calendars and odometers herald new beginnings, on the road and off.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society