Americans make 51.3 billion trips to and from work in their own vehicles every year, accompanied by fleets of helicopters scrutinizing the traffic, scores of meteorologists watching the weather and the cheerful sounds of drive-time radio, offering the latest news and entertainment. The daily ride has given rise to audio books, the travel mug and a 7-Eleven Inc. trademark, Dashboard Dining. The national motto has become grab and go, and legions of businesses work feverishly to fill a near-sacred space: the cup holder.
Love the commute or hate it, once we settle back into the seats of our cars, trucks and SUVs, we expect some catering. Each time we get in the car and head off to work, we're starting the engine that drives billions and billions of dollars of business in this country, and that's not even counting the gas in our tanks.
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"If you're going to spend a couple of hours behind the wheel, you have to prepare for it," says Mahlon G. "Lon" Anderson, director of public affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic Inc. "We're like the old forty-niners who loaded up the mule for the day when they went off mining. We have to load up our own pack animals."
When the modern driver hits the trail, he's traveling past a familiar landscape of convenience stores and drive-throughs.
Sometimes he hears voices, telling him to stop. These are coming from the ads on his car radio. Or he sees signs.
These are the billboards, repeating the message. You need to stop, and it will take only a minute. Before you know it, cash registers are adding up another purchase, and an industry is booming. Last year, the National Association of Convenience Stores, which is based in Alexandria, reported record revenue of $394.7 billion.
Because more Americans are on the road and are driving farther to work, there are more temptations to stop to fortify against the travails of the trip ahead. In 1969, for example, commuters made 27.8 billion trips to and from work, according to the National Household Travel Survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation. By 2001, those trips numbered 51.3 billion. The average length of time spent on the trip has been steadily increasing as well, going from an average of 17.6 minutes in 1983 to an average of 24.3 minutes today.
There are many reasons for the change in commuting patterns, but for some people the desire to live in a less-expensive house prompts them to strike a bargain. They'll drive longer distances and in return get a bigger house and a smaller mortgage. About 3.3 million Americans travel 50 miles or more to work one way, according to the Travel Survey. But, as Anderson points out, spending more time in the car is not necessarily the result of traveling farther.
Drivers in the Washington area, for instance, spent 67 hours stuck in traffic in 2002, two days longer than in 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Despite it all, commuters stick to their cars, refusing to get out from behind the wheel: Ninety-one percent prefer to drive their own vehicles rather than use public transportation. Perhaps the time has come for the Maryland commuter trains to join the fray and acquire trays and cup holders.
Some commuters simply resent that time on the road; others lean back and turn on a recording of "War and Peace." Then, flying along at 9,500 words an hour, they take another bite of their breakfast sandwich, their eyes on the road, one hand on the wheel.