Take Control of the Details; Women Travel Differently
Amid the millions of commuters crowding trains and clogging highways each workday is a rare creature: the contented commuter.
How to create the perfect commute? Track down a few happy travelers, and they’ll tell you it’s not just about length. People can enjoy commutes as long as 45 minutes, studies show—and men are less frustrated by long commutes than women. But a happy commute is predictable. It is productive—often enlivened by mobile devices and satellite radio. And it offers clear rewards for the hassle. A person who commutes an hour each way has to make 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as a person who lives near the office, according to research co-authored by Alois Stutzer, an economics professor at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
Mike Venerable plans his 30- to 45-minute car commute from Mason, Ohio, to his job in Cincinnati to gain efficiency and control. If he doesn’t have an early meeting at work, he avoids traffic by waiting to hit the road and starts his workday at Starbucks over a grande half-caf with cream. He heeds traffic reports and varies his route to avoid congestion—taking back streets if necessary. Mr. Venerable, a managing director of CincyTech, a Cincinnati investment group, uses his hands-free phone to stream country music and “make a ton of calls,” scheduling talks with West Coast clients for the drive home.
He sometimes keeps talking after he pulls into his driveway, even when his three children, ages 11 through 13, peer through the car window. “The ultimate commuter—a person who really likes the amenities of commuting—is somebody like me, who will pull into the driveway and have a conversation going on for 20 minutes without getting out of the car,” Mr. Venerable says.
Some of his friends think his commute is long—and it is by the standards of Cincinnati, where commutes average about 24 minutes. But Mr. Venerable, 51, purposely chose the calm suburb of Mason, which has made Money magazine’s best-small-towns list, when he quit his job in northern Virginia several years ago. Congestion in Cincinnati is predictable. His drive takes half as long as the hour to 1 1/2 hours it took back in Virginia, where “you can hit a traffic jam at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. or 8 p.m.,” he says.
A growing number of Americans have very long commutes, new national data show. While the average commute has remained unchanged at 25.5 minutes in recent years, those traveling more than an hour each way rose to 11.1 million in 2012, up 300,000 from 2011, says Alan Pisarski, a Falls Church, Va., transportation consultant and author of a series of national commuting studies.
More women are making long commutes than in the past, and a growing percentage drive alone rather than car-pooling or taking mass transit, Mr. Pisarski says. Women tend to be unhappier about long commutes than men, even after controlling for any improvement in income, job satisfaction or housing quality—perhaps because women tend to shoulder more housework at home, says a 2011 study in the Journal of Health Economics.
While a growing number of people bike to work, it is small. More than 75% of commuters travel alone by car, Census data show. Driving is usually faster than mass transit. But it can add stress. In big cities, car commuters waste 52 hours a year stuck in traffic, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, College Station, Texas. Mr. Pisarski adds, “A commuter who says, ‘This trip should take 20 minutes and it’s taking 30’ can get very frustrated.” The desire for predictability drives many commuters to switch to mass transit, says a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
Holland Sullivan of Bronxville, N.Y., a close-in suburb of New York City, has what he considers the perfect commute. When he and his wife moved from the city last year, Mr. Griffin swapped a subway ride for a 27-minute train ride, followed by a 10- to 15-minute subway trip, to his job in the city as a managing director at Griffin Securities, an investment-banking firm. But he’s happy with the trade-off, having gained 2,000 additional square feet of space in their home, two more bedrooms and a yard, he says.
Holland Sullivan of Bronxville, N.Y., makes the most of his train time.
Mr. Sullivan, 35, downloads several newspapers and magazines onto his smartphone each night to get all his reading done on the train. He gets exercise walking to the station—0.91 mile, according to his Nike app. He boards the first car, in order to be among the first in line for the subway when he gets off, then stakes out a position on the platform to get closer to a subway-car door. When he carries an umbrella, he makes sure it can hang on his briefcase, so he can keep one hand free for reading while strap-hanging.
“Even when I’m standing in the subway jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, I’m getting something done,” he says.
Nicole Engelbert, 41, could save time most days by driving from Bronxville to her job in Manhattan as a research-team leader at Ovum, a technology-research company. But she opts for a one-hour commute by train and subway instead.
Nicole Engelbert drops off her 2-year-old, Nicholas, at preschool on the way to the train station.
She walks to and from the station every day, taking her 2-year-old son to preschool in the morning and doing errands in the evening. She avoids chatting with other passengers, using the ride as “an in-between space” to read or think. Sketching on a note pad during a recent ride, she came up with a new idea for analyzing technology markets. “Driving could take half as much time, but I could be cursing at the driver in front of me and not getting a chance to read my book or relax,” she says.
Predictability is worth a lot to Bobby Brancazio when he commutes—$174 a month, to be exact. Mr. Brancazio became so frustrated by long lines and delays on his bus commute from Hoboken, N.J., to New York City that he switched a year ago to the ferry. The cost is $272 a month, compared with $98 for the bus, says Mr. Brancazio, 29, a civil engineer. But his new route takes 30 to 45 minutes, compared with 1 1/2 to 2 hours on the bus. He loves standing on the ferry’s top deck, taking photos of the skyline. “It’s like an eight-minute vacation every day, a mini-cruise in the middle of the concrete jungle,” he says.
There are signs that more people are enjoying their commute. “I’m amazed at how often people say the commute is pleasurable,” Mr. Pisarski says. Many regard it as “a positive bridge” between work and home, he says. For others, cellphones and social media ease the frustrations of the past, such as feeling cut off or surprised by traffic jams.
A six-year study of 27,556 British rail passengers, published earlier this year, found 37% fewer commuters felt their travel time was wasted in 2010, compared with 2004. One reason, researchers hypothesized, was a doubling of passengers listening to music, radio or podcasts on mobile devices in the six-year period and an 83% rise in commuters browsing the Internet or checking email during the ride.
Janice Berlik, a 34-year-old ski-apparel buyer, drives 35 minutes from her home in Eagle, Colo., to her job in Vail. Traveling rugged terrain, she packs water, a blanket, boots, jumper cables and flares. But she looks forward to the journey, she says, because she can tune in to the Howard Stern show on Sirius satellite radio. Listening to interviews and music, she says, “gets me through the morning drive.”