America's commutes start earlier and last longer

By Franz Strasser
BBC News, Maryland

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Media caption,

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.

"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.

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.