A crawl-along in America's traffic capital

At 7:22 a.m. Kerry Dockstader climbs into her white Chevy Lumina minivan and pulls out of the driveway of her Redondo Beach home, west of Los Angeles.

Destination: her law office in Glendale, 28 miles - and infinite lane changes - north.

"If I make it in 50 minutes I'll be really happy," says Ms. Dockstader, pulling her cell phone out of her briefcase and placing it on the dashboard as she inches down Artesia Boulevard toward the 110.

For the business immigration lawyer, the next hour is a test of patience and endurance - not to mention her 1994 transmission, which she's already had rebuilt once.

Welcome to Monday morning rush hour in Los Angeles - one of the most congested highway systems (sorry, freeway systems) in the world.

There is no official start to rush hour here now. It's seemingly omnipresent, like Regis & Kathie Lee.

"When you move to southern California, there are wonderful opportunities but there are also costs," says Cheryl Collier of Southern California Rideshare. "Commuting is one of those costs people adjust and adapt to." Or try to.

Americans across the country are spending more time driving to work. In their search for affordable homes and a backyard big enough for a sand box, they're settling in exurbs and former orange groves that offer a more leisurely lifestyle - but also are a moon-shot away from the job.

The result is a growing nation of commuters who are burning billions of gallons of extra fuel, polluting skies, cutting into corporate productivity, and perhaps most worrisome, spending more time with their Lexuses than at their kids' Little League games.

A 1998 Texas Transportation Institute study found that traffic delays in 70 major cities cost $74 billion in wasted time and gasoline. The California Air Resources Board estimates that congestion produces 250 percent more pollution than during free-flowing times. Nationwide, studies show the average commute now tops 35 minutes one way.

But nowhere is the travel to work more an ingrained part of the culture than in Los Angeles, where residents don't just drive from surrounding suburbs into the downtown area. They travel in a cobweb from suburb to suburb, exurb to exurb, through glens, over mountain passes, and past mini-malls in an endless landscape of stucco and palm.

"I like my job," says Dockstader, shifting in her seat as she eyes a tailgater in her rearview mirror. "But the commute is the thorn in my side."

Nearly half of commuters in southern California clock 30 minutes or more in the car one way. Thirteen percent spend an hour or more driving to the office. The area also probably has more "supercommuters" - people who drive 150 miles a day to and from work - than any other city.

Dockstader, a native southern Californian, has been making her 300-mile-a-week drive for only five months. But it feels more like five years. She knows every mile of her route - the fastest lanes, the speed traps, even which bridge drips water when it rains.

"You get so you can sense when people are coming over," she says, waving a driver over.

She's tested the traffic in 15-minute increments, leaving as early as 7 a.m. and as late 8 a.m. It doesn't make a difference.

On this particular Monday morning, all is going as planned.

Dockstader inches up a ramp toward the 110. Above, cars sit BMW bumper to BMW bumper. "I know where I need to go," she says, craning to see out a side window. "I need to immediately get out of the first two lanes."

After careful negotiating, she moves her minivan into the far left lane. "This is pretty good," she says, tapping the accelerator.

For Dockstader, an hour in the car leaves plenty of time to think and contemplate her day. "I use my drive as a time for reflection," she says. "It's just me and my own thoughts."

Her evening commute is reserved for her CDs - sounds of the ocean, birds, and nature.

For many commuters, however, time on the road means time on the job. Cars have become electronic playpens - equipped with phones, faxes, laptops.

It's easier to count the drivers without cell phones than those who have them. Kevin Kelly, area director of human resources for Ernst & Young in Los Angeles, lives in Granada Hills and can spend as many as three hours commuting.

"What I end up doing is tons of voice mail and phone calls," he says.

"I've seen people reading the newspaper, even shaving," says Gary Arnett, who leaves his house in Redlands at 5:45 each morning to drive 62 miles to his office in Mission Viejo. "I've even seen someone with a TV in their car," adds Mr. Arnett, a wireless business consultant. "I like to concentrate on the road."

"The worst is putting on makeup," Dockstader says disapprovingly - "and hanging out the window to do it."

Others opt to catch up on books via tape, or even learn a foreign language. "We had one customer who was in a panic because he hadn't received his tape yet," says Frankye Emch, who manages Audio Express, a books-on-tape rental service.

One commuter wanted her to track down the longest mysteries on tape she could find.

Plenty of commuters adopt an early-morning strategy - very early - to beat the traffic. Bob Calverley of Thousand Oaks rises at 4:30 a.m. to be on the freeway by 5:15. This ensures a 45-minute drive to his public-relations job at the University of Southern California next to downtown L.A. "The freeways are wide open at that hour," he says.

Arriving on campus at 6 a.m., he dons his swimsuit and puts in an hour-plus workout at a pool. He's usually at his desk by 8 a.m.

Others, like Mark Lubash, would rather have someone else fight the traffic for them. The investment banker, who works for a Boston-based firm out of his home in Calabasas, often hires a driver to take him to meetings more than 30 minutes away.

"I'm kind of impatient," he confesses, "and sitting in traffic is a waste of time. When I have available time, I always want to be accomplishing something, which is why having a driver is great."

Not everyone has that luxury. At 8:02 a.m., Dockstader is still behind the wheel, and hits another patch of stop-and-go traffic as the freeway starts to wend around downtown L.A.

At 8:09 a.m., she's back up to 65 miles an hour and heading toward the 5 freeway.

At 8:18 a.m., she exits the 5 into downtown Glendale.

At 8:21, she pulls out her key card and enters the office garage. It will take four more minutes to arrive at her space on the fourth floor. She grabs her briefcase, locks the car, and heads for the elevator. "I keep trying to think why work seems so long," she says. "It's the commute."

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