The Ever-Growing American Commute

Traffic flows across the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County into San Francisco, Monday, April 30, 2007. Bay area residents began potentially their worst commute in almost two decades Monday, a day after one of the region's most traveled sections of freeway melted and collapsed following a fiery crash.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Carmen Delgado begins her work day when the rest of us are sound asleep — at 3:00 a.m. sharp. Even at that hour, every minute is critical.

"I'm looking at the clock all the time," she told CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Nancy Cordes. "Okay, I have another 15 minutes for breakfast, then exactly at four o'clock I leave through the door, hop in my car and drive to the bus stop. It's very important that we be first in line."

And why is it so important for her to get the first spot on the bus?

"Because I'm able to dash out when it pulls into Port Authority," she said, laughing. "That's what makes it good for me."

Like 140 million other Americans, delgado is commuting to work. Every day, she takes a bus from Matamoras, Penn., to New York City.

That's nearly 100 miles each way — more than four hours a day in commuting.

If you think Carmen Delgado is unusual, think again. In fact, so many people now commute more than an hour-and-a-half to work, the Census Bureau has given them a new name: Extreme commuters.

"It's amazing the number of people who are commuting those distances today," said Alan Pisarski, author of a government report. "It's growing five times as fast as the general growth in commuting — about three million, 3½ million [commute] more than 90 minutes a day, about ten million more than 60 minutes."

Evan Slaughenhaupt's trip from Dunkirk, Md., to Chantilly, Va., runs 60 miles each way. And even though his journey will take him nowhere near downtown Washington, D.C., it's often stop-and-go the whole way.

On a "good" day, Slaughenhaupt said he can be in work at about eight o'clock — that's having left his house at 6:00 or 6:30 a.m.

He showed us what he described as a typical morning's traffic: bogged down. "And we're gonna stay like this, bogged down for the most part, until we get to Interstate 66 west," he said. "This bog down will pretty much continue — pretty sure up into Maryland. And this to me demonstrates what you get when growth is out of control."

"Do you enjoy the commute or do you endure the commute?" Cordes asked.

"I adapted to the commute," Slaughenhoupt said. "By that I mean I've got satellite radio here, got a police/fire scanner, and I've got good friends in Metro Traffic like Lisa Baden, and I call in if I hear of traffic accidents and such. So instead of just being the victim of traffic, I'm actively participating with the traffic."

Lisa Baden is a Washington area traffic reporter. Extreme commuters like Evan are her eyes and ears.

"People want to be helpful," she told Cordes. "I average about 300 phone calls a shift."

Evan called into Lisa's traffic hotline, letting her know of a fender bender on the Beltway and a closed lane on I-66 West, contributing to a backup all the way to Robinson's Terminal.

"All right," she said. "You rock, man."

Evan says his traffic-watching hobby helps beat the boredom of a solo commute. He's got plenty of company: 9 out of 10 drivers now make the trip to work alone.

These long-distance commutes seem necessarily a very solitary endeavor. Pisarski says they have almost killed car pooling.

"What are the odds that there's somebody where you are going, when you're going?" he said. "We work in smaller facilities these days. We don't have, you know, somebody blowing the whistle at the factory and 5,000 people show up."

Which may help explain why today one in ten Americans car-pool. A quarter of a century ago, that figure was one in five.

"The old, traditional commute — the Ozzie and Harriet, "Leave It to Beaver" commute, [where you] live in the suburbs, work downtown, that's not where the growth is," Pisarski said. "The growth is in living in the suburbs and working in some other suburb."

In fact, half of all American workers now both live in the suburbs and work in the suburbs.

"The high cost of housing is pushing people out toward the edges of the metropolitan areas in search of some kind of housing that they'd like to have," said Pisarksi. "And as jobs move out to the suburbs to be closer to the workers, the workers leapfrog and go farther out."

Of course, for drivers like Evan Slaughenhaupt, that just means more potential traffic jams. Statistics show that the average commuter loses 47 hours a year to traffic congestion.

The worst average commute can be found in New York. But other cities are almost as bad: Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston top the list. And these longer commutes can have consequences large and small.