Americans adapt creatively to long commutes

Drivers spend an average of 38 hours a year in rush-hour delays, according to a new report.

Well over a million commuters rush through Atlanta every day. Driver Lance Helms has catalogued a few tactics for staying alive.

Avoid SUVs and trucks from Clayton County, and definitely from Cobb – they drive as if they own the place. If you have to cut someone off, make sure to target a person driving a Mercedes S-class, who will cede the road. And if the downtown connector bogs down under Spaghetti Junction, pop in a podcast with comedian Bill Maher or catch up on calls to some old friends. In other words, enjoy the mayhem.

"I'm happy with my commute," concludes Mr. Helms, an advertising representative for the Gwinnett Daily Post, who braves Atlanta rush hour for up to 90 minutes a day. "I've settled into the whole thing."

For all the concerns about road rage, environmental costs, and up to $78 billion in lost productivity, it's becoming evident that the American commute -- growing ever longer and more extreme according to a new report -- is a sophisticated personal, even philosophical, journey as well as a testament to the lengths that Americans will go to chase their dreams.

"There's the philosophy that people buy houses on Sunday and discover on Monday that it's a tough commute," says

Alan Pisarski, a travel behavior consultant in Lake Barcroft, Va. Yet "it's really astonishing to me how much people are willing to give up for the perceived benefits that obviously are very real to them."

It's a thickening jungle out there in sprawl city, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's "2007 Urban Mobility Report," released Tuesday. The ranks of Americans with steel coffee cups, photo IDs, and backpacks packed as if on a hike to Mount Katahdin are increasing, while the nation's asphalt rivers sag under the weight of the killer commute.

Despite high gas prices – $2.66 in Atlanta on Tuesday – 9 of 10 Americans still drive to work each day, the vast majority of them alone, according to census figures released in June. What's more, the average commute in America has lengthened by a minute a year since 2000, now topping out at 38 minutes, according to the report.

"The big picture is we see congestion increasing in cities of all sizes," says Tim Lomax, an author of the study.

It's not just cars that have wear and tear, experts say. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, found that every 10 minutes added to a person's commute decreases by 10 percent the time that person dedicates to their family and community.

The killer commute mostly stems from a design problem, having less to do with workers' decisions to drive than by unruly and often nonsensical development patterns that undermine communities, some critics say.

"Everyone says it's their choice to [commute], but, in a way, there's no choice at all," says Dean Terry, creator of "Subdivided," a documentary about suburban disconnectedness. "You're going to live in a suburban sprawl pattern no matter what once you get outside of ... any city from Atlanta to Phoenix."

In 2006, Atlanta alone added 6,684 "extreme commuters" who travel three or more hours daily, pushing up the total to 88,023.

But many commuters accept sprawl. A shift worker at Norfolk-Southern in Atlanta, Rachel Goodhall doesn't want the city life intruding on her cushy existence 45 minutes away in Conyers, Ga. So she bundles up her sleeping 2-year-old and leaves the house no later than 5:10 a.m., heading for work and day care in Atlanta. Gospel music, she says, is her shield against the harried jousting on I-20. "It calms me down," she says.

Drivers are changing habits, choosing flex-time schedules, and encroaching on the early-morning trucking hours, affecting everything from their news consumption to their food consumption, with McDonald's promoting 5 a.m. specials. All their coping measures are spreading out the rush hour, says Mr. Lomax.

Neil Borders, a credit analyst, commutes 60 miles up I-20, across on I-285, then to Georgia 400, leaving at 5:15 a.m. to beat the worst of it. After six years commuting alone, Mr. Borders switched to a carpool, spurred by the Clean Air Campaign's "Cash-For-Commuters" program that gives as much as $180 to participants who agree to leave their car in the garage. Besides cutting his fuel costs by three-quarters, the real benefit is the potential for a bumper-to-bumper nap.

The result? The commute continues. "I'm not waiting to find a job that's closer to home," he says. "The commute is not bothering me."

Unable to pay for megaprojects such as massive lane additions and major new arteries, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is instead altering drivers' commutes by adding $16 million worth of "ramp meters" that spread out rush hour by controlling on-ramp flow. GDOT is also adding a 5-1-1 call-in feature that gives drivers personalized traffic tips. The authors of the Mobility Report say small adjustments like these can yield big dividends for drivers, if only to keep speeds up and overall commuting times steady.

Atlanta had the highest increase in commuter times in the US between 1990 and 2000, according to Mr. Pisarski's "Commuting In America III" report in 2006.

"At some point, employers are going to say, 'It's too crowded, I'm not going to put my people through that,' " says David Spear, spokesman at GDOT. "That has a lot to do with our sense of urgency."

But Mr. Helms, the ad salesman, explains that lone commuters are "conscious of the time they're forced to spend in a car," and try to use it wisely. But when all else fails, he says, people-watching is always enjoyable when traffic slows to a crawl.

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