Tales of Commuter Terror

Tech professionals are restless spirits. Always in search of new life in new jobs, they are haunting our highways in growing numbers. They are truly a driven lot.

Unfortunately, many information technology professionals are a bit too driven of late. Many are spending a terrifying amount of time in their cars, on trains and in subways. Like the undead, these commuters are suspended in a state that's not quite that of the living.

This is definitely not what human resources professionals refer to as work/life balance.

And IT professionals searching for new haunting grounds should beware: Some cities and their commutes could positively chill your blood.

According to data from the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) in College Station and the American Automobile Association (AAA) in Heathrow, Fla., six U.S. cities - Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington - offer unusual levels of pain for commuters.

If you work in one of these areas, read on and you'll discover that others share your traffic headaches. And if you don't, feel grateful - at least, until you get back on the road.

Horror Stories

An example of just how bad commuting can get is Cezanne Huq's trip each day into New York. Non-New Yorkers might consider any trip to the Big Apple terrifying. And it's true that the 20-mile drive is tough on even a good day, but Huq says the worst was a two-and-a-half-hour crawl, one way.

"We had a flood," says Huq, director of information systems at Connors Communications in New York. Major highways were covered in water, reducing movement to a standstill and making drivers wish they had oars. He still shudders thinking about it.

Obviously, this was a freak occurrence. But when you tally all the once-in-a-blue-moon events that haunt IT professionals on their way to and from work, the result is regular mayhem.

"Some truck carrying hazardous material will tip over, and then, of course, the road's got to be closed or rerouted until the cleanup is done," says Marie Handschiegel, an on-site IT staffing manager for Chicago-based Manpower Inc. who works at GE Capital IT Solutions' Bensenville, Ill., office.

"You're not even safe on public transportation. And God forbid it snows or rains," Handschiegel says. "Most of the people out here have lived out here all their lives, but for some strange reason, everyone panics."

And then there are creatures - great and small - to contend with. "There was a case when a truck carrying cattle overturned, leaving the cattle roaming around," says Handschiegel.

But things don't flow smoothly even in between those little disasters. Huq regularly drives an hour and a half from his home in Bronxville, N.Y., to Midtown Manhattan. Only half of that time, though, is spent moving.

"The rest is inner-city traffic that bogs you down," says Huq. "We're talking, like, 20 blocks."

Huq travels the last two miles at 2.7 mph. He could walk that distance in less time.

Regular delays are just that: regular. According to TTI, in very large metropolitan regions like the six listed above (those with populations of 3 million or more), the average driver waits in traffic 54 hours per year.

Smaller cities don't beat the trend, either. In medium metropolitan regions (those with 500,000 to 1 million people) such as Tacoma, Wash., and Omaha, the average annual delay per driver is still 31 hours, says TTI.

Many IT professionals are already selling their souls to their companies, logging 50 to 60 hours per week. The thought of adding another 10 to 15 hours per week sitting in a car is just ghoulish. IT professionals also pay in more ways than simply experiencing aggravations from these delays. On the average, according to TTI, commuters in very large metropolitan regions lose $700 per year in wasted gas and time. Those in medium metropolitan regions get off at a relatively easy $392.

Will this terror ever end? Not on your life. According to recent national figures from TTI, traffic congestion is growing far faster than potential relief. In 1997, the country's largest metropolitan areas were behind in the amount of roadways they needed by an average of 38 miles of freeway lanes and 69 miles of major streets.

Working stiffs want new roads in their backyards like they want graveyards there. And the environmental impact of new construction is heavy, as are the monetary costs. High-tech solutions like light-rail might sound appealing, but they're more expensive than roads, according to The Road Information Program in Washington.

Like a Jekyll and Hyde, though, American drivers are themselves the obvious biggest contributors to congestion. They are willing to drive greater distances, for longer times, and in bigger vehicles.

"In suburban America, which is most of America, the transportation requirements are being met by cars or minivans or SUVs," says Paul Haaland, assistant director of research and communications at The Road Information Program. "[People are] choosing to live in a certain area with a certain size home and certain amenities."

In metropolitan areas like Washington and New York, that can mean living far outside the city to find affordable housing.

Then there's the way we run our errands.

"In the olden days, we used to make a trip in to take care of some shopping," says David Schrank, a researcher at TTI. We would buy shoes and some clothing, he notes, and make stops at the dry cleaners and the grocery store in one extended trip. Today, we tend to make several smaller trips, he says.

Staggering the flow of traffic could help, but drivers would need to change their habits. "We don't want to do our grocery shopping at 3 a.m.," Schrank notes. But for many IT professionals, the long hours of the average day are turning them into nocturnal creatures.

As if the traffic weren't frightening enough, some commuters seem to be tempting fate.

"You drive down the road and see people reading newspapers, putting lipstick on, drinking coffee," says Gerard Kane, senior vice president of business development at BusinessHere.com LLC in Dayton, Ohio. Kane, who moved to the Midwest from Washington last year, says some terrifying techies even send and receive e-mail in the car in traffic, Kane says.

"You have to concentrate when you're typing, right?" asks an incredulous Kane. He acknowledges that he uses technology on his commute. But he limits himself to doing business by cellular phone while driving. And he has lots of time to kill.

"If you look at the airtime alone, I was spending anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 minutes a month - up to 2,000 and even more in some months - on the phone," Kane says of his days spent commuting in Washington. "Out here, I'm spending roughly eight hours a month on the phone, as opposed to 25 hours a month. That's a lot of time."

Some IT professionals spend their time trying to keep from winding tighter than a watch spring. Others say the long commute can be the most relaxing time they'll get all day.

"You come up with all these creative things in your car," says Handschiegel. "I had a soothing tape. It was kind of crazy, but I have this John Denver tape that whenever I got stressed about the traffic, I'd put it in and it would comfort me."

Less Time on the Road

Every IT professional develops his own strategy to avoid being driven crazy. Handschiegel set a game plan for her former commute. "When you get to the toll plaza, there is a lane of traffic that merges into [Interstate] 355," she says. "You cut all the way across and start using the entrance lane. When that ends, you go to the shoulder, which is perfectly legal. You take the furthest of the toll plaza lanes when you do this and cut through half the traffic."

How much time did she save? "Probably about five minutes," acknowledges Handschiegel. "But you feel better because you got past five or 10 people. But if you don't time it right, you'll be stuck trying to merge into a solid wall of traffic."

Some IT professionals are unearthing better ways to slash the commute. Betsy Davis, a software engineer, lives on the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Her employer, Conjoin Inc., is in Bedford, Mass., and her trip includes about 20 miles along Route 3, a notorious horror show of a commute.

"It's backed up easily from 6 in the morning up to 9:30 or 10 in the morning," says Davis. "In the evening, the window is probably 3:30 in the afternoon to 6:30 or 7."

On first taking her job, Davis negotiated with Conjoin to have a workstation set up in her home. "I work at home for an hour or so and then come in, missing the traffic in the morning, or the worst of it," she says.

What's your worst commuting nightmare? Enter our Driving You Crazy contest for a chance to win a $250 Sharper Image gift certificate.

Sherman is a freelance writer in Marshfield, Mass.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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