Travel

6 ways to survive a hellishly long commute

February 25, 2013: 12:11 PM ET

Here are a few ways extreme commuters make good use of the time during long commutes.

By Laura Vanderkam

traffic-jam-highway

FORTUNE -- Jeannine Torres used to spend five hours a day in the car.

She moved to Orange County, Calif. because her husband landed a tenure-track faculty position at an area university. She tried to find a job close to home, "but a great opportunity came up at a company in Beverly Hills -- which was roughly 55 miles away," she says. "Being new to the area and completely naive to the amount of traffic here, I figured that it would take me about an hour and a half to get there every day -- not a great commute -- but I figured it was doable."

In practice, however, the commute took her 2.5 hours. She rarely saw her husband. "I would come home exhausted, eat dinner, maybe work out, and then fall asleep -- just do it all over again the next day."

Ultimately, she quit her job, and "the long commute was the primary reason I decided to leave."

While few people face such epic journeys, long commutes aren't rare. The average daily commute in the U.S. is about 25 minutes, a figure that's held steady for years. But according to 2009 figures from Alan Pisarski, a transportation expert and author of the Transportation Research Board's Commuting in America series, 7.8% of U.S. workers commute more than 60 minutes, and that proportion of people with extreme commutes has risen more than 25% since 1990. In some cities, particularly in moderate-income suburbs like Washington D.C.-area's Prince William county, more than a quarter of commuters face trips of an hour or more. In tight times, "people are more and more willing to travel longer in order to find a job or find the job they want," Pisarski says.

MORE: 10 worst cities for driving

Others are locked into houses they can't sell, and some two-income families, like Torres's, make a decision to concentrate the commute on one party, rather than split it. Some extreme commuters want to live in certain places for good schools, cheap housing, or to be close to the extended family. While shooting her 2008 documentary Extreme Commuting, filmmaker Andrea Bloom followed several D.C.-area commuters, including one man who really wanted horses. "In rural Virginia, people want the big house and the farm, and there's a lot of that kind of land out there," she says. But with a two-hour trip each way, "How often does he get to ride the horses? Never," she says. One study of people's experienced moods through the day published in Science in 2004 found that commuting landed at the absolute bottom of the scale.

With that said, some people don't mind their long commutes. Carolyn Scissons works as an internal audit manager in the oil and gas industry in Calgary, Canada. Her commute involves a 17-minute drive to the train plus a half-hour train ride. She listens to audio books in the car, and on the train, she reads. "My husband says I have an addiction to books," she says, and the commute guarantees her time for this passion. "At least I feel like I'm doing something productive."

Here are a few other ways extreme commuters make travel time more pleasant:

Go for a data-driven ride

Google maps (GOOG), your car's GPS, and other transit apps (like Waze) tell drivers, in advance, exactly how long traffic will delay a trip. That way you can plan an alternate route or at least prepare for the additional commute time. "It's reality versus expectations," says Pisarski. "It's when that 35-minute nominal trip takes 45 minutes that people really get mad." He cites a friend whose biggest complaint about Los Angeles traffic was how often he showed up 30 minutes early for meetings. Not knowing if traffic would be bad, he built in a buffer, then had to sit in parking lots.  To be sure, radio traffic reports have always helped on this front, but they're less available outside major cities and clearly can't calculate your total travel time for you. Now drivers can plan ahead.

MORE: The auto industry's best-kept secret

Take the scenic route

Rebecca Tatum White's commute takes two hours each workday, but she enjoys it. Why? She's driving on Highway 1, which hugs the Pacific coast. "It takes my breath away every morning when the sky starts to lighten, and I can see the waves crashing several hundred sheer feet below," she says. She waves at the surfers ("I'm glad someone has the day off.") Once, she even saw a whale. After catching a train, she ends the commute with a brisk walk through downtown San Francisco. "The first thing I see when I get off the train is the golden dome of S.F. City Hall, huge and iridescent in the rising sun." The plaza has been cleaned. Vendors ready their stalls for the farmers market. "It's actually pretty magical on a pretty regular basis," she says. You may not be whale-watching, but if you've got multiple options, an attractive route beats a slightly quicker trip past strip malls.

Pack your iPod

Sixty minutes is a long time to sit through the antics of shock jocks. Instead, an hour-long commute could get you through Wagner's Ring Cycle in a little over a week. You could become an expert on all the works of Mozart, or a connoisseur of Shakespeare's plays. Torres reports that she created upbeat music playlists "in order to stay sane."

Find a friend

While sharing rides is a great way to save on gas, "carpooling is simply dying," says Pisarski, with people valuing their freedom more than the foregone cash. What is hot? "Fam-pools," or family car-pools, when couples drive together on occasion, squeezing a version of date night into busy lives.

Embrace transit

Buses and trains can take longer than driving, but the upside is that you can watch videos on your computer or tablet, work, or safely take a phone call. Or celebrate. One of Andrea Bloom's most offbeat discoveries in Extreme Commuting was the "party train" -- the second car from the end on the 5:20 p.m. MARC rail line from D.C. to Baltimore. A group of commuters got to know each other and started bringing six-packs to share during the trip. Note: this only works if someone else is picking you up at the station or you live close enough to walk.

Skip it (sometimes)

Peter Walker, who used to work for a tech company in San Francisco, chose to live in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento to live in a larger house near better schools. He made the 100-mile drive (which could take two to four hours) more tolerable by telecommuting on Mondays and Fridays, and staying with friends and family in the Bay area a night or two every week. "It was a little crazy," he admits. "But I liked my company, so I decided to make this work."

Granted, some companies are not as open to telecommuting than others (witness the furor over Yahoo's (YHOO) decision to nix it). But if yours is willing to give it a whirl, a day or two at the home office can turn a hellish commute on other days into an occasional -- and perhaps fun -- road trip.

  • Road Warrior: Tumi CEO Jerome Griffith

    How Jerome Griffith, CEO of Tumi, packs his own luggage

    By Alex Konrad, contributor

    FORTUNE -- As CEO of a travel-bag company, Jerome Griffith field-tests his products all the time. He's been loyal to the Tumi (TUMI) brand since 1991 -- long before he joined the company, in 2009 -- when he fell in love with a bag made of ballistic nylon, the same material Tumi employs, and began using it MORE

    Feb 5, 2013 5:00 AM ET
  • Kayak takes on the big dogs

    Founder Paul English battles the likes of Expedia and Priceline by recruiting great talent and making the customer king.

    By Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large

    FORTUNE -- A successful July IPO drew attention to the surprising story of Kayak (KYAK), an online travel site that's succeeding where you'd least expect it. Launched in 2005, it faced established competitors like Expedia (EXPE), Orbitz (OWW), Travelocity, and Priceline (PCLN), and Google (GOOG) and Microsoft MORE

    Sep 27, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • A globetrotter's place to retire: North Africa

    Traveling for work can be enriching, educational, and a real pleasure. Why stop when it's time to retire?

    By Erin Burnett, contributor

    FORTUNE – My most prized possession is my passport -- its bulging, brown-edged pages a result of time spent in dusty places and of many hands touching it. Hands like those of the young Iranian customs official who paged through it, reviewing every country I'd visited. "Our friends!" he MORE

    Jul 3, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • Traveling for business, safely

    The single most important step in protecting yourself on a business trip: Plan ahead. So writes Fortune's Anne Fisher in her December 4 Ask Annie column. Have you ever found yourself in a risky situation on a business trip, in the U.S. or abroad? How did you handle it? Got any specific advice for foreign travelers? Do you enjoy or dread traveling for work?

    - Dec 3, 2008 5:55 PM ET
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.