America's commutes start earlier and last longer


Catherine Fortney describes her commuting experience from rural Maryland to Washington, DC

Working in the city and living on one's own land far out in the countryside has always been a goal for many Americans. The recession has turned hours of commuting to and from work into a reality that's hard to escape.

Every morning, Catherine Fortney's alarm rings at 03:30 and by the time the clock strikes 06:00, she must be at the nearby bus stop.

Her commute to a law practice in downtown Washington DC will take 90 minutes to two hours each way.

Ms Fortney is far from alone on the road at that time. Almost every third working person in Southern Maryland commutes over an hour. In the last 10 years no other state grew faster in this category, according to US Census data.

As a single mother, Ms Fortney jumped on the chance to double her salary as a legal assistant when her former boss opened an office in Washington. The bus she takes is often cold and crowded, she says, and it broke down entirely not too long ago.

But the $10 (£6.48) round-trip bus ticket is cheaper than the $20 for gasoline per trip and the $13 for parking her car in the city, she says.

Recession impact

America has always liked its wide-open spaces and has had a preference for big homes on large plots with no neighbour in sight.

In the 1990s, ex-urban areas in the US grew twice as fast as their respective metropolitan areas overall, according to the Belgian Science Policy Office.

Between 1982 and 1997, the US converted more than 24m acres (10m ha) of natural habitat into developed land.

In the past, people were willing to accept a long commute for a taste of residential freedom, and cities built the infrastructure to assist them.

Most commuters showed a remarkable ability to accommodate the long distances to their work place, says Patricia Mokhtarian, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis.

But the tide has turned on many who sought comfort in the distance.

Cost of congestion

US highway
  • Based on wasted time and fuel, congestion cost about $115bn (£74.5bn) in 2010
  • 1.9 billion gallons of fuel were wasted while standing idle, which would fill 38 super-tankers

Source: Texas Transportation Institute

"A reasonable choice a few years ago is now hard to escape and has become the albatross around the neck," says Ms Mokhtarian.

The limited amount of good-paying work has forced many job seekers to look further away from home. The housing market collapse has left home owners stranded in the countryside.

"Historically in this country people have been able to get up and go, but that has been impeded, and it has really hurt us in this recession," says Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America.

The houses on the fringe of cities and their suburbs were the ones most likely to be subjected to bad loans and risky financing, Mr Pisarski says.

"Many people are stuck. Their houses are under water [in negative equity], they can't sell and they can't get out."

Psychological toll

A big chunk of the population still leaves home between 06:30 and 08:00, but that number has fallen from 43.2 to 38.1% over the past two decades.

At the same time the share of people leaving before 06:00 has grown from 8.9% to 12.6%, according to Census data.


More cars on US streets for a longer period of time have resulted in a yearly delay of 34 hours per average commuter in 2010, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. That number is expected to rise to almost two full days by 2020.

All those hours in congested traffic is less time spent relaxing and more time spend worrying, psychologists say, and the effects from stress spill over into workplace and home.

"Stuck in traffic we often ruminate over how awful traffic is. We worry about an upcoming meeting, we go over stressful things in our heads, and that's not ideal," says Dr Jonathan Kaplan, a New York psychologist and author of Urban Mindfulness.

Most commutes are out of one's control and unpredictable, which make them hard to handle psychologically, Dr Kaplan adds.

Commuter voices

Bus passenger

"If the commute is over two hours then I take a deep breath and shut the car door." - Chris Platt

"It's fatiguing, trying to get somewhere at a certain time, trying to be at school events at a certain time." - Jen Smith

"It is a long day and I just want to come in, have a drink, have nobody talk to me and decompress." - Beth Clifton

Studies have shown that the most stressed commuters were women with children at home, says Richard Wener, a professor of environmental psychology at New York University.

"There is a deadline getting to work and there's a deadline getting home."

Traditionally people have switched jobs more often when they showed greater dissatisfaction with their commute, explains Mr Wener. Now those people are afraid to change the job.

"You're not only in a bad commute, but you're stuck in the commute, and you resent it because you don't want this job anyway."

Community involvement

With a third of the population spending large amounts of time travelling to and from work, the counties in Southern Maryland have long ago stopped having community meetings before 18:00.

They now start later in the night to give the community a chance to get home and have dinner, or very early in the morning, which carries its own risks.

"Throughout the meeting they stare at their watches and Blackberrys, worried if they should get on the road," says Jessica Andritz, the district chair of the local Boys Scouts, which meets in Charles County.

"People have less time and are less psychologically willing," Mr Wener adds.

Even if Catherine Fortney was willing, she'd already be on her way to work.

At 06:02 she boards the 902 commuter bus at the car park of a nearby church.

The bus usually stays very quiet on the 50-mile trip (80km) alongside gas stations and strip malls, giving Ms Fortney enough time to sleep or text message her friends.

Are there any hidden advantages in being on the go this early?

"I get to see a lot of pretty sunrises," Ms Fortney says.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    I have a 40 minute commute, it is very relaxing time that I use to decompress from getting my three boys off to school ( a 3-block walk for them) and from dealing with "kids" at the university after work.

    It is a 9 mile (13k) bicycle ride -- okay, so I am not a fast bicyclist! LOL! But I live in No. California and only have to deal with rain, not snow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    This is a perfect example of Americans being taken for a ride by their own class-ism and capitalism. Middle class Americans tend to avoid sending their children to ethnically diverse public schools around DC, yet cannot afford private schools. Developers lure them with a promise of MacMansions in ethnically homogeneous ex-urban schools districts where they get stuck.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    Kids want parents to be there for them. I don't agree with her decision to make her work a priority over her kids. She poorly justifies this using excuses the kids probably don't understand. I'm sure if her kids were given a choice between a less expensive lifestyle and seeing their mom, they would pick the later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    Who's complaining? I am very, very grateful for my kids, house and job, and was raised by parents who taught me that you work for what you want and you get what you work for. A pretty simple concept really. And if I'm getting up early in the morning to run laundry or do dishes, or whatever, at least MY kids know that I love them enough to do it. Too bad some of you never had that. Tragically sad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    its called buy a 50cc yamaha zuma scooter or whatever you want then you wouldnt have this problem-and if it rains then rain outfits are 7$ at an army surplus store-if your handicapped well then your gonna have to deal with that commute

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    Why not just cycle to work, if you live within 6 to 8 miles of your workplace, and are reasonably fit and able bodied. I cycle to work in Sheffield whenever possible. I get to work around 10 minutes faster and feel a million times better than when I drive to work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    Being very familiar with the DC area and its surrounding rural communities I can certainly sympathize for her. The part that many don't understand about this area is that the choice she faces if more than just economics. Many people choose a longer commute because the rural areas are a FAR BETTER place to raise a family. The surrounding suburbs of DC that are affordable are HORRIBLE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    This sort of super-commute might be common in Maryland and NY where huge numbers of people need to get into DC or NY City and can't all live there due to price and limited space, but this certainly isn't the norm and you don't need to live downtown to have a decent commute. I live in a suburb and manage to get my kids to school and make it work downtown in under an hour every morning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    So this living in the middle of nowhere, commuting for hours and hours in your massive car guzzling fuel - what freedom that must be. As George Carlin said, the great American dream - you have to be asleep to believe it...

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    The writers make it seem like this commute is typical in the US. It isn't. I used to live in the UK, my commute here in Boston is much less. Why? Because I decided it was far more sense to buy a smaller place close to the city. Another bonus - home values in the outer burbs have collapsed. Here they are back at their peak. I learnt that lesson from the late 80's collapse in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    I also commute 9 blocks from home in SF, and I have to say that the only drawback is noisiness (darn cable cars!). People forget that time is money and the costs of having a bigger house for less money usually means added expenses of fuel, wear and tear on cars and those add up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    "Every morning, Catherine Fortney's alarm rings at 03:30 and by the time the clock strikes 06:00, she must be at the nearby bus stop" Getting up a 0330 to catch the the 0600 local bus seems a bit crazy. I reckon 0530 should do it. Saved you 2 whole hours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    I moved to california 2 months ago and I chose to live Downtown San Fran and commute out into the country where my work is. Coming from London i see value in being around people during my private time not stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Please think i'm mad but i love my 1 hour 'reverse' commute

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    I wish my morning only consisted of getting up and getting myself ready for work! Before I leave the house in the morning I have usually unloaded the laundry (from the overnight timed wash) and put another load on, part tidyed the house, cooked breakfast (sorry cereal doesn't cut it in our house) and I have a very helpful husband & kids who pull their weight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    TELECOMMUTE - increase work output, avoid stress, reduce pollution, save time, save wear and tear on vehicles...there are many ways to stop the commute and still make a living. We live over 40 miles from the center of a major city out west with a mountainous commute. I will only work from my home office. With HS internet, phones and Skype, what more do you need to be 'present' for work?

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    I was baffled by the extreme commutes of my coworkers when I moved to the east coast from rural america. When people buy cheap houses in the countryside, it can be easy to forget the cost of transportation and the value of their time spent in commute. I'd rather pay more for housing and live close to work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    @206 beammeup
    It's current affairs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    P.S. What they don't tell you about the buses is that it makes many stops to pick up more passengers, and then once downtown, it makes many stops to unload passengers. This process takes time, and if you are the first on, and last off, it makes for a longer commute! That said, that is why I do not ride the bus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    I live in Southern Maryland. I car pool and leave my home @ 5:20 a.m. and arrive at my building in Washington, DC S.E. by 5:50 a.m. I don't think 30 min. sharing a ride is all that bad. If I lived any further away, I'd find a new job closer to home!

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Well, you do what you have to, to survive. My primary mode of transport to work was recently unavalible and I ended up having to walk a mile and a half to catch a bus to work and then another mile from the bus stop to my work place, work a twelve hour night shift and then do the journey in reverse when I finished work in the morining. Like I said you do what you have to.


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