Driving Alone–America’s Commuter Society

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the fastest growing group of American commuters are those who travel more than 90 minutes to work, and then another 90 minutes back home. For many Americans, life is increasingly lived behind the driver’s wheel and the interior of the automobile is becoming the most familiar “living” space for many harried Americans.
In its May 1, 2006 edition, Newsweek offers a unique perspective into the lives of what reporter Keith Naughton calls “extreme commuters.” These workers drive from 50 to nearly 200 miles each way, to and from their place of work. Most leave well before the break of dawn and many return well after the sun has set. After the Industrial Revolution itself, this revolution in the way Americans work and spend their time getting to and from work may represent the largest single transformation in the way many Americans live.
Naughton introduces his readers to commuters such as Dr. Bill Small, a Chicago physician who begins his two-hour commute into downtown Chicago at 6:00 a.m. The doctor has his entire commute planned, right down to the smallest detail. “Small’s routine is so finely tuned that he won’t stop for coffee if there are more than three cars in the drive-through. Today there are just two, and he picks up an extra-large. But there’s no time for a bathroom break, so Small, 41, won’t allow himself a single sip for nearly an hour.”
Dr. Small, who lives with his wife and children in St. Charles, Illinois, a town nearly fifty miles west of Chicago, says that he prefers living in St. Charles because, “It’s a nice place to raise kids . . . And it does feel like you’re away.”
Similarly, 34-year-old Web designer Vincent Driscoll gets up at 4:00 a.m. to make his 55-mile commute from Pennington, New Jersey to Jersey City. In order for his system to work, Driscoll must catch a 5:15 a.m. train to Newark and then switch to another train which will deliver him to Jersey City, if everything goes on schedule, by 7:00. “By Friday night, I’m completely wiped out,” Driscoll laments. “My wife says I’ve become an old man.”
The phenomenon of extreme commuting did not emerge out of a cultural vacuum. For some time, economic and social pressures have driving workers further and further from their places of employment. In most cases, the pressure is probably financial. In order to purchase a family home, complete with yard and suburban neighborhood, employees, professionals, and other workers are now driving more than an hour to work. Indeed, almost ten million Americans now drive more than an hour to work, and that represents a jump of 50 percent from just 1990. According to Newsweek, the average commute is now 25 minutes, up 18 percent from 20 years ago.
Interestingly, Newsweek points to the phenomenon of “driving ’til you qualify,” as a primary factor. “New home prices have nearly tripled in the past 20 years,” Newsweek explains, “and now average almost 300,000 dollars, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In places like southern California, each exit along the interstate saves you tens of thousands of dollars.”
As workers live further and further from their places of employment, the departure time in the morning gets earlier and earlier and the complications mount. The fastest-growing time for departure to work is now between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. More Americans are leaving earlier and getting home later than ever before.
“This endless commute is becoming the defining characteristic of the 21st-century working stiff,” Newsweek asserts. “So much of what we worry about today–volatile real-estate prices, sleeplessness, our overstressed lives–all merge together on the road, as we search for the elusive simple life in some suburban Shangri-La.”
Some wonder if the commute is worth it. “How much is it worth to own your own home if you end up spending four hours on the road and not playing with your kids, not sleeping enough, and rotting in traffic?,” asks Joy Mander, a nurse who drives 45 miles to work at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California.
Automobile designers and traffic engineers are scrambling to meet the challenge posed by so many long-distance commuters. Newsweek reports that the automobile’s dashboard “is becoming the nation’s dinner table, and the drive-through its kitchen.” As Harry Balzer of NPD Group, a research firm, explains: “The fastest-growing appliance in America is not the microwave . . . it’s the power window.”
All this points to a tremendous cost in time and absence from home. The impact on family life can be obvious–many fathers (and an increasing number of mothers as well) leave home before their children get up in the morning and return just as their children are getting ready for bed. Dad has simply missed out on the normal rhythm of family life, available only in emergencies or during cherished weekends.
A few years ago, a father involved in his own form of “extreme commuting” told me that his children were perfect angels. As he quickly explained, he saw them as angels because that’s the way they appear while sleeping, and his main opportunity to see his children was as they slept in their beds when he returned home from work, and were still there as he left for work the next morning.
This separation of parents from children is now alarming public safety officials. John Brooks, an economic analyst in Palmdale, California, warns of the possibility of a real-life disaster. “We’re really worried about what happens in an earthquake. All the parents are down below, and we’ve got tens of thousands of their kids up here to take care of.” The “down below” means Los Angeles and the “up here” means the exploding suburbs north of the L.A. basin.
The cost of the society is evident in the fact that so many parents are separated from the lives of their children, at school and in other activities, as well as at home. “With everyone stuck in traffic, it turns out there’s no one around to coach Little League or volunteer for the PTA, not to mention get dinner on the table,” Naughton observes.
The impact of the commuting culture was noted by Robert D. Putnam in his much-respected book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, published in 2000. “Suburbanization of the last thirty years has increased not only our financial investment in the automobile, but also our investment of time,” Putnam noted. “Between 1969 and 1995, according to government surveys of vehicle usage, the length of the average trip to work increased by 26 percent, while the average shopping trip increased by 29 percent.”
Not only are Americans spending more time in their automobiles, they’re spending most of this time alone. Two-third of all automobile trips are made alone–a figure that continues to rise.
“One inevitable consequence of how we have come to organize our lives spatially is that we spend measurably more of every day shuttling alone in metal boxes along the vertices of our private triangles,” Putnam observes. In his analysis, the car and the commute are “demonstrably bad for community life.”
For many workers, the picture is getting even worse. Over the last thirty years, college-educated professionals have been working longer and longer workdays, even as their commuting time takes up even more precious hours. Maintaining their families in a suburban lifestyle means that many professionals are simply away from the family for almost all of the waking day, connecting only by telephone and precious weekends or days off.
Robert D. Putnam’s concern is the contribution of the commuting culture to the breakdown of community. As citizens are spending more and more time driving automobiles to and from work, they have much less time to contribute to civic involvement.
Pastors are recognizing the same phenomenon. Hard-pressed families find themselves pulled in many directions, and connections to the vibrant life of the faithful local congregation are often interrupted or broken by the same stresses and strains that tear at family life. Workers who spend more and more hours behind the wheel have fewer hours to contribute to church activities and other Christian involvements.
The most immediate toll of all this is found inside those suburban homes workers are trying with such fervor to maintain, even if they spend most of their waking hours far away. The stresses on family life are obvious–many wives feel almost abandoned by their husbands as they maintain domestic life and take care of the children while dad is away. “I feel like a single parent,” said Laura Neelley, whose husband, Chris, commutes 120 minutes to and from his job in Los Angeles. As the couple told Newsweek, Chris leaves home just after 7:00 a.m. and returns after 8:00 p.m., when dinner is over and the children are in their pajamas.
The Newsweek article acknowledges the pressures and patterns that have contributed to this phenomenon. The emergence of vast metropolitan areas, with far-flung suburbs existing as oases of affordable housing, has produced a context in which “extreme commuting” begins to make sense to many workers and their families.
Are there limits to further growth in commuting distance and the time involved in getting to and from work? The prospects do not look hopeful. Indeed, a different group of commuters is pushing daily travel to the extreme–catching airline shuttles and trading daily time in the car for time on an airplane.
Christians must ask some basic questions about “extreme commuting” and what it means for family life. This is true even for those whose commute takes much less than 90 minutes each way. Have we reached the point that we have simply accepted cultural assumptions about the importance of work and the value of home ownership to the point that we are putting our own families and spiritual lives at risk?
There are no easy answers to this question. Those who call for a fundamental restructuring of the American economy are fighting patterns that have now been building for more than half a century and show no signs of abating. In any cultural or economic context, Christians must struggle to understand what faithfulness would demand in terms of family, home, church, and professional responsibilities. Anyone who suggests that navigating these waters in postmodern times is easy is simply denying reality.
Nevertheless, we must admit that it is all too easy to buy into the prevailing model of the American dream, and to trade family time and involvement for a vision of a larger home, a larger lawn, and a larger mortgage. Christians had better make some fundamental decisions about how much time we are willing to spend behind the wheel, in our cars, away from our families, churches, and communities. Otherwise, the automobile will soon represent, not only our dining rooms, but our bedrooms, living rooms, and sanctuaries as well.