Long commutes becoming a way of life for some workers

Sarah Condran keeps her mornings simple and fast paced: Up at 6, shower, dress, grab coffee and a granola bar, out the door by 6:30.

She drives 67 miles to her hydrologist job in Sarasota, an 80-minute grind on good days. She expects to spend $8,000 this year to fuel and maintain her 2001 Acura sport utility vehicle.

To move closer, Condran would have to sell her Palm Harbor house, a challenge in a sluggish real estate market. For now, she's stuck with the commute.

"It's kind of like being put in a box," she said. "My neighbor's house has been on the market for a year now. It's frustrating. It creates a lot of stress."

Condran is among a growing number of U.S. workers who make extreme commutes of an hour or more each way to work, some driven by the recession and tight housing market.

About 81,000 workers routinely made those trips in 2007 throughout the Tampa Bay area, driving from Spring Hill to Tampa, Palm Harbor to Sarasota, Brooksville to Bartow, and St. Petersburg to Orlando.

Fewer jobs are available, close to home or elsewhere, and fewer folks are buying houses, making it difficult to simply pick up and move.

The Florida Association of Realtors says home sales increased for May, but prices plunged 29 percent compared to the same month a year ago, a product of too few buyers.

Florida's jobless rate, meanwhile, climbed to 10.2 percent — its highest level in 34 years.

"Everything has slowed down. People are moving less, they're not able to sell their house, buy a house or find a job," said Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant and author of Commuting in America.

His message for folks like Condran: Expect more of the same, at least until the economy and housing market recover.

• • •

Scores of reasons account for why people endure long commutes. Some couldn't afford a house near their job, or they didn't like the school system, congestion or crime rate of a particular community, so they headed farther away from job centers.

"One thing that has happened now is that people aren't moving, they aren't moving to new houses," Pisarski said, "but the jobs are moving, and when people lose their jobs they have to travel even farther to find a job."

In other cases, family dynamics play a role. One parent might agree to work close to home to mind the children while the other commutes into the city or to the next county.

Condran's husband works in Tampa. When she got the job in Sarasota, they decided to split the commute.

"We were going to sell the house and relocate to St. Pete or Bradenton," she said, "but then we got caught in the housing crunch."

She analyzes water-use applications for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud. She likes the job, and there aren't many like it.

"I wouldn't want to quit," she said.

She copes with the commute by plugging in her iPod or popping in a book on tape. She lays out clothes the night before. Lately, her fast-paced mornings haven't allowed for breakfast and only limited face time with her husband, Michael, an engineer.

A fellow Swiftmud employee, Teri Rhodes, 54, lives in Brooksville and drives 80 miles each morning to Bartow. The commute takes 90 to 100 minutes depending on traffic.

"The biggest aggravation is probably the snowbirds going to breakfast in rush-hour traffic," she said.

With two teenage children, Rhodes needs the work. Her husband, injured a few years ago trying to move a 250-pound copy machine, collects Social Security benefits.

"At this point, I just say, 'Thank God I have a job,' " Rhodes said.

Jean Slepecky, 46, lives in Spring Hill and works in Tampa.

Her 2-year-old Toyota Camry already has 90,000 miles on the odometer.

She drives an hour each morning to AAA Auto Club South in the West Shore business district, where she trains travel consultants.

Slepecky, her husband and two daughters moved to Spring Hill eight years ago, shut out of Tampa by high home prices.

They would like to downsize to a condo closer to town but worry they won't get what their house is worth. They paid $120,000 eight years ago and the home, a three-bedroom ranch on three-quarters of an acre, was appraised in 2005 at $280,000.

"I wouldn't even look now or consider it," she said.

Her commute, which can stretch to three hours round-trip depending on traffic and weather, has caused her to miss dinners and other family activities.

"My family believes I live at the office," Slepecky said.

• • •

Long commutes can stress a marriage and family life, says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.

"I've heard cases where couples had to separate, one has to move closer to the city to take a job while the other stays home to try to sell the house or look after the kids," said Coontz. "It can be very disruptive."

The commutes put pressure both on spouses tending kids and the parents racing home to see them.

"One of the problems is young kids need consistent feeding times, play times and bed times," Coontz said.

• • •

Twice a week, 35-year-old veterinarian Martha Keller drives from St. Petersburg to her job outside Orlando at an aquaculture laboratory. Other days, she works at home.

The 220-mile round trip eats up three-quarters of a tank of gas.

She worries about the thick and sometimes deadly fog that descends on Interstate 4 in the spring. Early last year, the fog combined with smoke and triggered a 70-car pileup.

Her family moved to San Diego for a year but returned, in part, because they couldn't sell their St. Petersburg house. Her husband, a software developer, telecommutes to a job in Gainesville.

Their 12-year-old daughter still smarts from the move to San Diego and back. Keller worries about pulling her out of school and away from friends again.

Now her company is talking about relocating to Melbourne.

If that happened, Keller would face a difficult choice: move again, hoping the house will sell this time, give up her job altogether or endure an even more strenuous drive.

"You get to the point where you say, 'five hours sitting in the car rather than being productive,' I don't really see the point," she said.

She isn't sure how things will work out for her family.

"At this point, we're taking it on an as-we-go basis," she said.

The commuting expert, Pisarski, offers little reason for optimism.

He can't say for sure how many extreme commuters were born of the recession.

But he believes their numbers will only increase.

And instead of getting better, he expects the commutes to get worse.

"As long as the economy gets more specialized and jobs get more specialized," he said, "the prospect of having a job near you, the kind of work you do near you, gets less and less.

"Jobs will be farther away. You will have to be willing to travel farther, or move every time you get a job. And with so many multiple-worker households," he said, "that will get harder and harder."

Behind the wheel

Estimated number of workers traveling an hour or more to work:


Nation

Florida
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area
2004 9.5 million 483,775 70,300
2007 10.9 million 567,565 80,821

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Long commutes becoming a way of life for some workers 07/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 13, 2009 2:05pm]

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