What We Do on the Commute

What We Do on the Commute

If you read enough articles and studies on the 130 million or so Americans who commute to work each day, such as Alan Pisarski’s October 2006 Commuting in America III, you’ll see that what people actually do during their commutes is as diverse as America itself.

For example, the News & Observer profiled a woman who, among other things, lifts weights to pump up her biceps during her daily 328-mile round-trip commute. A Wall Street Journal article described a former rock band drummer who sees his short daily commute as the only time he can get back on stage and cranks the radio volume as high as he likes. Even the satirical Onion offered a headline that’s more truth than fiction: “Commuter Playing Some Sort of Alphabet Sudoku.”

Commute Is Seen as Me Time

But whatever they might be doing during the commute, most workers seem to share a common attitude about their commuting time: “It’s mine, not my employer’s.”

My brother Mark, an independent IT consultant who has commuted from North Aurora, Illinois, to downtown Chicago and other Illinois destinations for the last seven years, puts it like this: “Work stuff is down the list of activities, and it’s done not by choice but by necessity and only as long as necessary.”

Like many of his train-riding compatriots, my brother tends to devote the three to four hours he spends on the tracks each day to anything but work. High on the list: Sleeping, both on the way to and from work. “In a train car with 80 people, 60 of them are sleeping, especially on the way in,” Mark says. “Even the little old grandma is wearing an iPod, trying to create some kind of space so she can sleep.”

Reading is also big among public-transit commuters. Case in point: Matt Loggins, facilities manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. During his 100-mile round-trip train-subway-bus commute each day, he reads. And reads. And reads.

“Right now I’m reading The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols,” says Loggins, who lives in Upland, California, and commutes about four hours a day. “My goal for the next two years is to read all of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels -- a goal I could not achieve without the commute. Before I started working in LA, I read maybe six books a year. Now I read six books a month.”

Commute Determines Commuting Activity

Sleeping and reading are great if someone else is driving. But what about the 80 percent to 90 percent (depending on location) of people who drive themselves to work each day and who spend, on average, more than 15 hours a week in their vehicles, according to a 2005 study by Harris Interactive and Auto Expressions?

Eating and talking on the cell phone are both popular activities among the I-drive-myself set, notes the survey. The same goes for listening to talk radio, books on tape and instructional materials. That woman who lifts weights while she drives, for example, is prone to popping a Spanish-language instruction tape into her cassette player.

Then there are the introverts among us who savor the silence their commutes can offer -- something they may not get anywhere else, especially if they go home to a busy family life.

Whatever Americans decide to do during their commutes, one thing is certain: There’s no letup in sight. The Commuting in America III study, sponsored by the Transportation Research Board and based on an analysis of US Census data gathered between 1990 and 2004, shows the average American’s one-way commuting time rose to 25.5 minutes in 2000, up from 22.4 minutes in 1990. And the number of workers with commutes lasting more than an hour one way grew by nearly 50 percent during that same time period.

The bottom line: Most commuters will continue to have plenty of time to think about what they can do with their time.