Published on: 04/07/05
In the nearly 18 years I've been driving to work between Marietta and downtown Atlanta during a time when the metro area's population went up by 1.5 million people or more the average length of time to make that trip has not changed by more than a minute or two either way.
That's not to say the commute hasn't changed. The jams I used to encounter inside the Perimeter on I-75 have largely abated, but the chance of being stuck in traffic outside of the Perimeter has increased significantly.
It surely didn't take a demographer to notice the change in commuting patterns switched from north/south to east/west in the metro area over the last two decades. Ask anyone who has routinely driven I-75 or I-85 during that time. Nor does that mean there aren't some disastrous days — moisture on the roads, a wreck at Windy Hill or at Brookwood — when it might take an hour to get to or from work.
Still, my 20-mile commute takes an average of 31 minutes — or about 50 seconds longer than the average commute for Cobb Countians noted in a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau. Cobb ranked 26th nationally among the 233 largest counties in the United States for the average time for commuting among its residents. Gwinnett County was 18th, Clayton 39th, DeKalb 47th and Fulton, 92nd. The average time difference between Gwinnett County and Fulton County commuters was six minutes.
Government agencies, universities and advocacy groups love to study such things and assign major significance to every minute of those commutes. It might be nothing more than just another example of how Americans can compartmentalize their lives these days, but I'm convinced that very few of us actually dwell on the time we spend in traffic as much as the media and academics think we do. We may not like it when we are stuck in it, but we put it in the same category as needing to get more sleep or finding more time to read and watch less TV.
That's why wasted-time measurements of traffic gridlock are, well, a waste of time on many of us. So is the constant chest-thumping about public transit. Make mass public transit convenient and affordable and everyone would gladly jump on board. So far that hasn't happened.
The only dynamic that is likely to change commuting habits is the cost of gasoline — and with gas now routinely more than $2 a gallon, we may finally be getting close to a tipping point.
As we get there, we have plenty of options to make the commute easier if commuters and the companies they work for were more willing to be innovative. Among them:
• Staggered work hours and car pools. Let's first stop with the nonsense that the entire workforce needs to be there at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. A workday for some employees that starts at 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. could mean the difference between a 30-minute commute and a 50-minute commute. It does for me. The HOV lanes also offer some time savings. If you can't find someone to drive with every day, try it once or twice a week.
• Decentralize the work force. Rather than one big office on the Perimeter, or downtown, spread the work force around five or six locations and assign jobs closer to where workers live. Technology makes this easier every year. Companies that do this might also find it's closer to where their customers are.
• Mass transit doesn't have to mean public transit. Companies might be able to save money and time by providing their own bus service — alone or in coordination with other employers — by picking up employees at central locations around the area and bringing them back there at the end of their shifts. This would, of course, mean an eight-hour shift would have to be an eight-hour shift. Working late would cost you a ride home.
• Make telecommuting real.Quit talking about it and actually do it. With high-speed Internet access in so many homes these days, there are very few jobs that absolutely have to be performed at desktop computers under fluorescent lights in office buildings. Try doing it with a few interested employees at least one day a week to see how it works.
I'm not expecting to make much of a dent in my 30-minute drives back and forth to work. But at $2.20 a gallon, I'd like to make the commute a little less often.
Mike King is a member of the editorial board. His column runs Thursdays.