Americans Battle Commuter Hell

April 18, 2005 — -- Every weekday morning, Joe Cook rises at 6 a.m. in his suburban Chicago apartment, wipes the sleep from his eyes and sits down to breakfast with his wife, Erin, before she leaves for work at 7. Though he doesn't have to be at his job until 2:30 in the afternoon, he's become an early riser out of necessity -- it's often the only opportunity he has to see Erin during the week.

Cook, 24, averages an hour commute to his job as a production assistant at a television station in Rockville, Ill., a 55-mile drive that often gets snarled at one of three toll booths on the way. With another 60-minute drive at the end of his shift, he doesn't return home until almost midnight, usually long after Erin has gone to bed. After 14 months on the job, driving 110 miles every day has become a time and money suck that has led Cook to seek employment closer to home.

"I still enjoy what I do for the most part, but it's getting to the point where it's just not worth it. The commute is just crushing me," he said.

The Cooks are one of thousands of American families spending more time traveling to and from work than they ever imagined. The U.S. Census Department recently released a survey that determined American workers spend more than 100 hours commuting to work each year, and for some the number of hours lost to commuting dwarfs vacation time and puts a squeeze on family and leisure activity.

The survey, which evaluated 2003 commuting times in all 50 states as well as 68 U.S. cities and 231 counties with populations of 250,000 or more, determined the average daily commute to work lasted 24.3 minutes, and was often much longer in larger cities.

New York logged in with the country's longest commute, at 38.3 minutes each way. Chicago was second at 33.2 minutes, and other cities in the Top 10 included Riverside, Calif.; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Los Angeles and Miami.

For Cook's salary of $8.25 an hour, the long hours and hectic drives hardly seem worth the effort. He estimated it costs him $70 per week in tolls and gas, about the equivalent of one day's pay. But just quitting is not an option.

Erin Cook is six months pregnant with the couple's first child, and although she is also employed and makes nearly twice as much money as her husband, she is covered under the medical insurance offered by Joe's employer.

"I'm actively looking for other employment, but I've only got so much time during the day to do job searches," he said.

Weighing Work/Life Balance

As American cities expand into far-away suburbs, career counselors say external issues like long commutes have become major factors in job searches. Most counselors advise clients to weigh the balance between life and work before committing to a new job.

"I advise people not to do something that they know might make them miserable, and a long commute is certainly one thing that can make people miserable," said Brad Karsh, a Chicago-based career consultant and president of the job preparation firm JobBound.

Counselors say it's important to think of how a potential job will affect your entire life, not just how it will pad a bank account or advance a career. If a job requires a person to sacrifice too many other lifestyle components, they say, it's probably not a good fit, no matter how big the paycheck.

"The whole work/life balance is really about what's most important to you -- do you have a life? And what do you value? Is it time with family or a spouse, or hobbies, or something else?" said New York-based career counselor Ruth Shapiro. "It's important to look at the whole personality of a person and their value system along with their skills and experience level."

Some counselors suggest that people like Cook, whose work options may be limited, should explore giving up perks like vacation days in return for the chance to work more flexible hours. Karsh said he often suggests clients offer to give up a week of vacation in exchange for working at home one day per week or shifting office hours to avoid rush hour traffic. Not all businesses are open to such suggestions, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

"It really depends on the company. It's best to get there, work for six months and establish yourself as a valuable contributor, and then negotiate for a more flexible schedule," Karsh said.

Flexible Hours Not a Fix-All

Jeanne Hillock, a 42-year-old software analyst, has been commuting from her Edgewater, Md., home into Washington, D.C., for years. After the birth of 20-month-old Arielle, she cut down her hours and now takes either Monday or Friday off every week.

She uses the extra hours at home to spend time with her daughter and to take care of household chores like laundry. She even manages the occasional home-cooked meal.

But the Hillocks still struggle with work-week commuting. Both Hillock and her husband, Kevin, leave home before 7 a.m. and average an hour drive each day into Washington. Kevin drops Arielle off at daycare, and Jeanne picks her up.

"I'd rather her spend an hour in the car with us than 10 hours at daycare," Jeanne said.

The plan to avoid hefty commutes is particularly difficult for workers who can't afford to live in the large cities where they work. Many bear lengthy commutes from suburban neighborhoods so they can afford a home or apartment.

"We talk about moving all the time, but we couldn't afford to move into D.C. because the housing market is so crazy," Hillock said.

Some Can Handle It, Some Can't

Even for established professionals, the lure of bigger paychecks and the chance to advance are usually the dominant factors in career decisions. JobBound's Karsh notes that before making a final decision on a new position far from home, a job seeker should evaluate whether his or her personality and lifestyle is suitable to a long commute.

"I really think there are two types of people -- some people can grin and bear it, and some really can't," Karsh said.

The key, counselors say, is to go into the situation with open eyes. People should work hard to determine how big a factor a long commute might be. While some people use their time in the car or on a bus or train to unwind or plan their day, the strain of limited personal time coupled with the often stressful commuter traffic is not always a good idea.

"You have to be happy in your work and everything involved in the job. That includes the work itself, the people, the commute time -- all of it is important. If there's one component that makes you miserable, no matter what that component is, it can really become a big problem," Karsh said.