The Long and Grinding Road

At 5:40 a.m., the alarm blares news-talk radio and Bill Small rolls out of bed. With a two-hour commute ahead of him, the Chicago doctor wastes little time. He showers, dresses and is out the door by 6. At this hour, his car is the only one navigating the winding streets of his upscale neighborhood in St. Charles, Ill., a quaint community nearly 50 miles west of the Chicago hospital where he works. Small's routine is so finely tuned that he won't stop for coffee if there are more than three cars in the drive-thru. Today there are just two, and he picks up an extra-large. But there's no time for a bathroom break, so Small, 41, won't allow himself a single sip for nearly an hour. At the halfway mark, he takes his first swig as he hits gridlock on the Eisenhower Expressway. With the sun rising over the Chicago skyline, he crawls along, placidly listening to sports radio. Finally, he arrives at exactly 8 a.m. Though he won't return home for 12 and a half hours, Small still says the killer commute to and from exurbia is worth it. "It's a nice place to raise kids," he says. "And it does feel like you're away."

The drive to get away from it all is turning us into a nation of nomads. As we're pushed to the edge of civilization by runaway home prices and a longing for wide-open spaces, the daily rat race is turning into a marathon. "Extreme commuters" who travel more than 90 minutes to work, one way, are the fastest-growing group of commuters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 3.4 million commuters take that long road to work every day, double the rate of extreme commuters in 1990. And the fastest-growing departure time is now between 5 and 6 a.m. Even $3-a-gallon gas and growing gridlock aren't slowing the rise of this group, which is changing the way we live as we spend more time in our cars and less time in our communities. This endless commute is becoming the defining characteristic of the 21st-century working stiff. So much of what we worry about today--volatile real-estate prices, sleeplessness, our overstressed lives--all merge together on the road, as we search for the elusive simple life in some suburban Shangri-La. "We're obsessed with the commute," says Joy Mander, 42, a nurse who drives 45 miles to work the over-night shift at Children's Hospital in Oakland, Calif. "How much is it worth to own your own home if you end up spending four hours on the road and not playing with your kids, not sleeping enough and rotting in traffic?"

It's apparently worth plenty, because more people than ever are willing to trade time in their car for the American Dream: big house, big yard. Nearly 10 million people now drive more than an hour to work, up 50 percent from 1990. The average commute today is 25 minutes, up 18 percent from two decades ago. What drives us to drive so far? Many are doing what California real-estate agents call "driving 'til you qualify." New- home prices have nearly tripled in the past 20 years and now average almost $300,000, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In places like southern California, each exit along the interstate saves you tens of thousands of dollars. That's why Chris Neelley, 43, lives in Lancaster, Calif., and drives 80 miles to L.A. every day. For $400,000 last year, he moved his family of five into a 3,000-square-foot home, twice the size of the place they used to have closer to the city. The trade-off: he now spends three to six hours a day on the road. "I love being out in the middle of nowhere," he says, "and seeing no people around."

But for many people, the long and winding road isn't leading to the exurban bliss. With everyone stuck in traffic, it turns out there's no one around to coach Little League or volunteer for the PTA, not to mention get dinner on the table. Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," found that every 10 minutes added to your commute decreases by 10 percent the time you dedicate to your family and community. And having parents so far from home creates logistical challenges for local officials. "We're really worried about what happens in an earthquake," says John Brooks, an economic analyst in Palmdale, Calif., a booming bedroom community 65 miles north of L.A. "All the parents are down below, and we've got tens of thousands of their kids up here to take care of."

Mom and Dad are stuck in traffic because as commutes become more extreme, so does the gridlock. Nine out of 10 of us commute to work by car, with three quarters of us driving alone. And there are now more than 226 million cars and trucks clogging America's arteries, up from 59 million a half century ago. Federal traffic authorities are working to ease the congestion with a new 511 hot line, which drivers can dial to get up-to-the-minute info on traffic jams. Another possible solution: charging tolls to drive in the fast lane. Some states already allow lone drivers to pay a fee to travel in the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, previously reserved for cars carrying three or more. The government calls them HOT lanes (high-occupancy toll). But critics call them "Lexus lanes," because they say they discriminate against drivers who can't afford them.

The government might also want to overhaul the quaint term "commuter." Today's road warrior is more like a multi-tasking motorist. "Last week I saw a guy going down the highway eating a bowl of cereal, reading the paper and steering with his knees," says Dave Givens, 46, who just won Midas's "America's longest commute" contest for his 186-mile drive to his engineering job at Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif. (Givens drinks only coffee--five cups.) The result of all these drivers behaving badly: more crashes. A federal study released last week found that 80 percent of crashes are caused by "driver inattention," up from a previous estimate of 25 percent. The most common distraction is cell phones. But the yearlong Virginia Tech study also warned that reading or applying makeup increases your chances of crashing threefold.

Living in our cars also is taking a toll on our minds and bodies. Half the couples whom Stockton, Calif., psychologist Timothy Miller counsels suffer from commuter stress. "I get frantic phone calls from couples asking to see me before 5 a.m. or after 8 p.m.," he says. The longer the commute, the more likely the commuter will suffer bouts of road rage, which can lead to heart attacks, strokes and ulcers, says Dr. John H. Casada, a specialist in road stress. And Georgia Tech researchers found that every 30 minutes spent driving increases your risk of becoming obese by 3 percent.

No wonder, given all that people are eating in their cars. The dashboard is becoming the nation's dinner table, and the drive-thru its kitchen. Drivers today eat an average of 32 meals a year in their car, according to the researcher NPD Group. And one in four restaurant meals is now ordered from the car. "The fastest-growing appliance in America is not the microwave," says NPD's Harry Balzer. "It's the power window."

This may seem like no way to live, but never underestimate the powers of rationalization. Half the number who took NEWSWEEK's online commuting poll said they don't mind or they even enjoy the ride. One in five said they like their "alone time." Just don't try selling that to their spouses. "My wife hates my commute," says Sam Wyant, 27, who drives 60 miles to his job, "but I value that Zen time."

To take you to a better place in your car, companies are rushing to cash in on our commuting culture. Fast-food joints are rolling out products that fit in your cup holder, like McDonald's Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait. And convenience stores are cooking up new ways to fill your tummy while you fill your tank. The Sheetz convenience-store chain bolted touch-screen menus onto its gas pumps. The idea is that by the time you're done filling up, your sandwich is ready at the drive-thru. Says Louie Sheetz, an exec at his family's chain: "You're just trying to reduce the amount of time you spend in that pit stop." Coming next: private potties at the pump.

Carmakers have the most to gain by capitalizing on commuting. Sure, they're rolling out more hybrids than ever to help with pain at the pump. But the real action is inside the cockpit. Cup holders, first introduced in 1982, now outnumber seats in many cars. The new Nissan Altima has three cup holders just for the driver: one for bottled water, one for coffee and one for juice. There are even slots for bottle caps. The new Dodge Caliber offers an optional refrigerated glove box, and its front passenger seat transforms into a dining table when you fold it flat. Acura offers real-time traffic on its satellite navigation system, a $2,000 option on some models. When you start the car, a street map blinks on an eight-inch dashboard screen, with gridlocked roads shaded red and crawling roads highlighted in yellow. The nav screen also can find you the nearest gas station, ATM and four-star restaurant.

The next battleground for carmakers: seats that can go the distance. "These longer commutes will change how we evaluate seats," says Toyota marketing VP Jim Farley. "We may see people willing to pay big money for really comfortable seats." General Motors now has a "lead seat-comfort engineer," Mark Grajek, a.k.a. "Golden Buns." He took NEWSWEEK on a test drive last week on country roads around GM's Milford, Mich., proving grounds. Handed a PDA questionnaire, I evaluated everything from backside slippage to the seat-belt click. GM began testing seats only in 1990, but now gives each seat 7,000 hours of, ahem, bottom-line analysis.

A cushy seat may be cold comfort when you're stuck in traffic. But there's no turning back now. No other country commutes like we do--lone wolves racing each other to get one car length ahead in the pack. Since World War II, we've been slouching toward suburbia, and demographers see no reversal in our outward migration. The number of big cities with more than a fifth of their households living 20 miles or more from the urban center has tripled since 1970, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. And even as jobs move to the suburbs, commuters continue to drive away from them. "It's a game of leapfrog," says commuting expert Alan Pisarski. "Jobs are moving out to the suburbs to be near skilled workers, which enables people to move even farther out."

Vincent Driscoll is one of them. He rises at 4 to make the 55-mile trek from Pennington, N.J., to Jersey City, just outside New York City. For three years, the 34-year-old Web designer has caught the 5:15 a.m. train to Newark and switched to the 6:10 train to Jersey City to get to work by 7. "By Friday night, I'm completely wiped out," he says. "My wife says I've become an old man." Though he loves where he lives, he admits: "You question your choices at 4 a.m. But then I get to the train station at 5:10 and see all the people doing the same thing. It's very humbling to know I'm not alone." Indeed, the road to the American Dream just keeps getting longer.

Copyright 2006 Newsweek: not for distribution outside of Newsweek Inc.

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