For the last leg of their five- and sometimes six-hour, door-to-door commutes, the working moms who call themselves the "Bus Buddies" of the Adirondack Trailways' Red Line run usually talk about one thing: How can I get off this thing? How to end the exhausting odyssey from New York state towns such as New Paltz and Woodstock, waking up at 5, 4, and even 3 a.m. to board a smelly long-hauler to Manhattan, where the salaries are 70% more? On the trip home, the Bus Buddies bring out their neck rolls to avoid "commuter nod" and use their pashminas as blankets, brainstorming exit strategies over the dueling aromas of Chinese food and Kentucky Fried Chicken. When a Bus Buddy does manage to leave behind her seat -- such as Jennifer Pickurel, who traded in a big finance job for one at the local Chamber of Commerce -- the Bus Buddies erupt into applause. "We're jealous," says Terry Rust, a broadcast TV business manager who lives in New Paltz. "But we cheer them on and say: 'Yeah, you made it. You're off the bus."'
The Bus Buddies are part of the fastest-growing group of work travelers in the country, people who rarely see their houses in daylight, leave home when their kids are still asleep, and mainline Red Bull just to stay awake. They're known as extreme commuters. They spend at least a month of their lives each year traveling a minimum of an hour-and-a-half to work and back, vs. the U.S. average of 50 minutes. Their ranks have jumped an astounding 95% since 1990, according to the Census Bureau, accounting for 3.4 million workers.
Experts say the numbers of these supercommuters will continue to swell. In 1990, 24% of all workers left their home counties to get to the office. Since then, 50% of new workers do, according to transportation expert and Commuting in America author Alan Pisarski. Corporate America is already taking note, with many companies attempting to ease the strain on their employees. For many, the megacommute is about the ever-broadening search for affordable housing, with more and more people "driving until they qualify" for cheaper houses and better schools, says Pisarski.
It's one reason the Blue Ridge Mountains have become a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., New Hampshire an exurb of Boston, and Modesto, Calif., an outpost of Silicon Valley. Cleveland Deland crosses three states to get to work everyday. He takes the 4:30 a.m. bus from Stroudsburg, Pa., to his job as a union construction worker in Manhattan. Stephen Hagendorf's daily trek alternately involves some combo of a car, a train, a bus, a ferry boat, and a subway from his home in Rockland County, N.Y., to his job as a Bank of New York Co. (BK ) bond salesman on Wall Street. "It's the biggest regret of my life," says Hagendorf, 62, who says he was seduced into the trip 30 years ago by the prospect of a decent house.
This is what economists call "the commuting paradox." Most people travel long distances with the idea that they'll accept the burden for something better, be it a house, salary, or school. They presume the trade-off is worth the agony. But studies show that commuters are on average much less satisfied with their lives than noncommuters. A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich's Institute for Empirical Research in Economics. People usually overestimate the value of the things they'll obtain by commuting -- more money, more material goods, more prestige -- and underestimate the benefit of what they are losing: social connections, hobbies, and health. "Commuting is a stress that doesn't pay off," says Stutzer.
KEEPING KIDS IN THE PICTURE
Still, the growth in dual-income households is continuing to fuel the trend. Fully 70% of households now have more than one worker. It might be possible to live near one person's job. But typically people can't live near both. The flip side is also true: The 50% divorce rate often leads to long-distance rides so parents can live near their kids even if they are unable to find jobs close by. Sometimes it's a question of keeping kids in their schools. Rick Moses, a single father of two girls, knows every divot and dead cell-phone zone on his three-hour journey from Bakersfield, Calif., to his job in Pleasanton managing national event sponsorships for sports marketing firm Ultimate Lineup. Moving closer is also out of the question, he says, because of Bay Area real estate prices.
Thanks to wireless and broadband, many affluent knowledge workers are converting commute time into work time. Jason Hanold crosses a time zone to get to his job as talent acquisition director at Whirlpool Corp. (WHR ) Waking at 3 a.m., Hanold drives 105 miles from his townhouse on Chicago's West Side to headquarters in Benton Harbor, Mich., so he can live near both his fiancée and his two boys, who live with his ex-wife. But he's able to conduct business during most of his morning ride and part of his evening ride on his cell phone. He started the job with a brand new Range Rover, racking up 62,000 miles in the first year. Now he drives an $84,000 Mercedes sedan. "I knew it was a splurge," says Hanold, "but I spend more time in my car than in my living room."
Corporate job growth in the suburbs is pulling a slew of new low-income, rural workers into the commuting pack. The state with the biggest jump in commute times is West Virginia, where people are taking jobs as far away as Washington, Pittsburgh, and the metro areas of Ohio. These workers often live in second- and third-generation houses that haven't appreciated much, leaving them no choice but to travel for an average of four hours round trip for a living wage. The increasing availability of low-cost cars is also playing a role.
Still, the costs of commuting -- in gas, congestion, pollution, sprawl -- are high. Commuting is also associated with raised blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, increased hostility, lateness, absenteeism, and adverse effects on cognitive performance. Harvard University public policy professor Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, says that for every 10 minutes of commuting time, one's social connections get cut by 10%. Imagine what that means when it's not a matter of minutes but hours.
By Michelle Conlin in New York, with Lauren Gard and Rob Doyle in New York and Michael Arndt in Chicago