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Economics

Extreme Commuting

More workers are willing to travel three hours a day. But what is the long-term cost?

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.