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  • Not All Commuters Are Driven Crazy

    Keith Brown, TWP
    Keith Brown prefers "an hour-plus commute [to] a five-minute commute."
    (By James A. Parcell The Washington Post)
    By Alan Sipress
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, October 18, 1999; Page A1

    Keith Brown likes to sit in traffic. On a typically bad day along the Beltway, it takes him an hour each way to trek between Temple Hills and his job in Reston. It's an hour and a half on a worse day. He's done it for eight years, and he's not ready to give it up.

    "As strange as it sounds, I'd rather have an hour-plus commute than a five-minute commute," said Brown, 42, a seemingly sensible computer programmer. "In the morning, it gives me a chance to work through what I'm going to do for the day. And it's my decompression time."

    Some road warriors may question his sanity. Yet others immediately understand Brown's affection for the peace and solitude offered by the journey between a job crammed with deadlines and a home where his 4-year-old son often lies in wait with his own computer frustrations.

    Indeed, research indicates that a significant portion of commuters actually welcome the time they spend sitting in their cars. The time offers many drivers a rare space over which they have total control, a breather amid the breathless pace of work and home, phones and the Internet.

    In a survey of drivers across the country for American Demographics magazine, 45 percent agreed that "driving is my time to think and enjoy being alone."

    Steve Barnett, an advertising executive who has tracked the behavior of commuters, calls it "Road Zen."

    Sandwiched between escalating job pressures and the demands of domestic life, commuters often exploit their drive time to settle into a relaxed mental state, according to Barnett, a senior partner at OgilvyOne. "It centers them. It's just the opposite of road rage."

    Some experts say this attitude helps explain why many motorists would be unwilling to pay tolls that could relieve congestion and shorten their hours on the road.

    No doubt many commuters in congested metropolitan areas like Washington see only exasperation, grief from the boss and late fees at day care when they get caught in traffic. But even in this region, a considerable number of drivers cherish "the chance to be quiet and meditative" provided by their daily trips, said Brad Edmondson, a former editor of American Demographics.

    "A lot of people enjoy driving alone, particularly those who live in households with at least two people and work in offices with a fairly large number of people. It's only between two hectic situations that you find some breathing space," said Edmondson, who introduced the survey results during his keynote address at a recent conference of the Transportation Research Board, an arm of the National Research Council.

    The findings showed that equal proportions of men and women enjoy their time alone in the car but that distaste for driving increases with age. Although more than half the respondents ages 18 to 34 said they enjoyed the solitude of their drive time, only one-third of those older than 55 did.

    When the workday ends for Julie Koontz, 33, she is grateful for the drive home from Reston to Warrenton, though it takes an hour. "At the end of the day," she said, "I'm pretty stressed, and it gives me a chance to leave work behind."

    Bryan George, 38, an electrical engineer, has a similar fondness for his 20-minute commute between Sterling and Reston: "It's a transition. In the morning, it gives me a chance to give some thought to problems I have when I get to work. After work, I'm able to center myself and think about what we'll be doing at home."

    The proposition that commuting is not universally reviled has won further support from economists Clifford Winston, of the Brookings Institution, and John Calfee, of the American Enterprise Institute. In a study to determine how much drivers would pay in tolls to alleviate traffic and thus reduce their commute, the researchers concluded that motorists are far less negative about the time they spend in the car than experts had previously believed.

    The analysis, published in the Journal of Public Economics, found that drivers who commute more than a half-hour each way felt on average that the time they would save through higher tolls was worth only one-fifth of their wage rate. In other words, someone making $25 an hour was willing to pay a toll of only 83 cents to shave the commute by 10 minutes.

    What this suggests is that although some motorists with long commutes may detest them as wasted time, others do not mind so much or may even relish the time behind the wheel. "We found that it's a buffer between work and home," Winston said.

    Barnett said studies conducted for American and foreign automobile manufacturers found that the most popular commute is 30 minutes to an hour. Less than that, he said, and "it's not enough to change your emotional and mental state." More than that, and the drive becomes a burden.

    He added that it does not matter to the driver whether the traffic is free-flowing or bumper-to-bumper. "People get into an internal state. What they're listening to and what they're thinking about is more important than the drive itself. They go on automatic pilot," Barnett said.

    Although some transportation experts insist that no one enjoys stop-and-go traffic, Mike Reese, 39, who battles the afternoon rush hour for 45 minutes from Herndon to his Springfield home, agreed with Barnett. "You know it's going to be jammed up, so it's not a surprise," Reese said. What matters to Reese is that he is alone, listening to the Don and Mike shock talk radio show.

    It is not only the solitude and the respite from stress, however, that make the commute time so precious to some drivers. It is a matter of control.

    "The only time to focus on what concerns me is when I'm in the car," said Brown, who added that he often discovers the solutions to nettlesome workplace problems on the road between Temple Hills and his Reston office. "In both places, there's always something that's going to come up and take me out of my game plan. I know I'm not going to be interrupted when I'm in the car."

    In a society where many people feel they have lost their mastery over both work and home, the inside of a car has become "the one environment in which they are in total control," according to Michael T. Marsden, a vice president of Eastern Kentucky University whose academic specialty is American automotive culture.

    Marsden said this is reflected in how drivers personalize the interior of their cars, spending large sums on the sound systems and climate control, even coverting the dashboard to what he called "the modern mantelpiece," adorned with trinkets and keepsakes. From rearview mirrors dangle graduation tassels, prayer beads, rabbit's feet and garters.

    "People are turning their cars into living rooms and parlors," Edmondson said. "Full-time employed people are adapting to a world where they have to spend large chunks of time alone in their cars and are learning to like it."

    Books on tape have become a blockbuster business catering to solo motorists, and Internet access may be readily available in cars in a matter of years. Cup holders are already practically standard equipment. Some vehicles feature refrigerators in the glove box. And Samsung has been testing a microwave oven for the car.

    Now, for those drinking and dining while they drive an estimated 20 percent of fast-food meals and 10 percent of all restaurant meals are now eaten in the car there's the snap-on, denim commuter Coffee Bib. "It keeps your expensive clothes and tie stain-free," said California entrepreneur Carolyn Nakamoto, who invented the bib with her adult daughter and began marketing it three years ago. "Ten or 15 years ago, everyone sat down at the dinner table to eat dinner. Now everyone eats in the car."

    And of course, the now-ubiquitous cell phone means the solitary driver really isn't anymore.

    For Bob Koch, 42, the cell phone has converted his 25-minute morning commute from Leesburg to Herndon into a "slow, easy way" to start work. After packing his children off to school, he settles in behind the wheel and attends to his office voice mail. "It's a sort of soft approach to getting into your day," said Koch, director of communications for Northrop Grumman Corp. And on the way home, with homework and soccer practice and cheerleading practice looming, commuting is a way to wind down.

    Scott Watkins, 32, doesn't have it nearly as good. Watkins is cursed with a three-minute drive to his job as a patent lawyer in Reston six minutes on a bad day and he remembers fondly the longer commute he had when he lived in New York.

    "It was a transition period to leave work and be able to walk in the door without the same grumpy disposition," Watkins said. "Now, I don't have time to detox, and I bring it right in the front door."

    He added wistfully: "I wouldn't mind it being a little bit longer."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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