Back to Work: America's Commuting Nightmare

To say that Scott Harper spends a lot of time in his car would be a gross understatement.

The Northern California resident drives two hours -- each way -- to work. And that's on a good day. Traffic delays can easily make the journey three hours or even four.

Harper bought a house for $220,000 in Rio Vista, a suburb northeast of San Francisco and Oakland. He took a job as a retail zone manager in the Santa Cruz area, southwest of the Bay Area. The idea was to eventually move closer to work. But he still owes $200,000 on a house that is now worth $130,000. So each day he hops in his car for the 112-mile commute.

"I spend hours going less than 20 mph on congested freeways," Harper said. "This is a daily ordeal. But, at least I have a job."

Sometimes to avoid the traffic, he will drive 60 miles out of the way.

"It's further, but at least I'm moving," Harper said.

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Harper's commute might be a bit extreme, but he's not alone.

For decades, Americans have been seeking larger homes with nice big lawns and good school systems. In order to afford such space, families have had push further and further away from city centers – or even suburban office parks -- where they work. For most, the only feasible way to work is the car. And that means a lot of traffic, delays and all too often frustration.

But some people are finding new ways to travel, becoming the first in a generation to abandon the car … or at least try to.

The total number of miles traveled by Americans actually fell in 2007, the first drop in nearly 30 years. When the size of a still-growing population is taken into account, the fall was the largest since World War II, according to the Brookings Institute.

Teri Bruna is one of those few lucky Americans who actually enjoys her commute to work. Most days she bikes 13 miles down a river-front trail to her job at a golf club near Aspen, Colo.

Biking to Work

And at the end of the day, she gets back on the bike and travels another 13 miles home.

"I don't have to deal with traffic. I look across and see the highway and say: suckers," Bruna said. "I discovered recently that I'm less stressed when I commute this way because I don't tune into NPR in the mornings and the reports that used to stress me out and make me mad are now replaced by the raging river and the chirping birds."

This is now her third summer biking to work. Bruna said she loses weight, feels healthier and only adds about 24 minutes to her commute.

"Some of my co-workers look at me crazy when I walk in sweaty and hot," she said.

But the golf club has an employee locker room where she can shower. She's also lucky that her job and home are both near a 44-mile bike trail cutting through the mountains.

"I do have some advantages that others might not have," she said.

Bruna is part of a small -- but growing -- group of people who are reducing their dependence on the car. It doesn't mean that they are selling the family sedan, but they are actively choosing to use it less often.

Growth in the number of miles Americans drive started to slow in 2004 but really declined with last summer's high gas prices and then with the onset of the recession. From October 2007 to September 2008, Americans drove 90 billion fewer miles than the same time period the year before, according to Brookings.

More Mass Transit Riders

Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings, said that today "we are witnessing the largest sustained drop in driving ever seen."

"For years and years the dominant trend in driving, was yearly increases. Americans drove more and more and more. And drove further and further," Puentes said. "These drops in driving are historic. It is certainly related to the economic downturn, but we do think these are part of larger, most systemic changes in how Americans travel."

Mass transit ridership is up and some families are trading in the house in the suburbs and returning to city centers that were abandoned for decades. For years there was the mentality of "drive out until you qualify" when choosing housing. Today, location – not square footage -- is starting to tip the scales back.

"It's not that Americans haven't stopped travel, but many of them have changed how they are traveling," Puentes said. "When gas hit $4 a gallon last summer, Americans started to pay attention to the role that transportation costs play in their household budgets."

One example of this can be found in Naperville, Ill., a suburb 35 miles west of Chicago. There a private developer is planning to build a condominium-style parking garage for commuters who can't get a parking spot in the neighboring train station lot. Commuters would buy a parking spot for about $9,000 and then pay taxes and fees for maintenance and snow removal just like they would on a house.

The station is on the busiest line of the commuter rail to Chicago, with about 5,800 passengers a day boarding there. Municipal parking lots at the station have thousands of spots but not enough to meet demand. The waiting list for spots currently runs five years.

Speed vs. Traffic

Daniel G. Chatman, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said there are very few places in the country where there is actually a speed advantage to transit. But people will choose it because of cost, stress or environmental reasons.

"As traffic conditions get worse for people, the more likely they are to explore other options," Chatman said.

In the past few years things like more comfortable cars, cell phones and iPods have made long drives more bearable. But Chatman said what really drives people to commute so far are higher-paying jobs.

"That's why they are willing to drive as far," he said.

And for now, those jobs are scarce.