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Super-Commuters Travel Farther and Faster for Work

Americans are spending more and more time getting to work, and they're traveling farther to those jobs than ever before. And many are sitting in gridlock… spending the equivalent of 2 days stuck in traffic over the course of a year. According to a first-time study by the Department of Transportation, 3.3 million Americans are now "Super Commuters": traveling each day more than 80 kilometers to work -- by car, bus, rail, and even plane.

One of the toughest commuting routes stretches 145 kilometers, from the California state capital, Sacramento, to the biotech, engineering, and advertising jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the early morning hours just after sunrise, a cadre of bleary-eyed Sacramento commuters stumble their way onto Train #527, as the conductor's voice blares out through the station: "Capitol Corridor Service to Oakland's Jack London Square. This train has remaining station stops of Davis, Suissun City…"

The cars are filled with people reading the newspaper, staring blankly out the window, or fighting for that last bit of extra sleep. But mechanical engineer Chuck Smith, 32, is already hard at work, sketching diagrams as he downs the first of 5 daily diet colas. The routine, he says, has led to a couple of interesting incidents. "I kind of cease to know who I am, just because the exhaustion and caffeine are just having a war inside my bloodstream."

For the last couple of years, Mr. Smith has been making this train to subway to bus commute. On a good day, it takes 2½ hours… each direction. He moved to Sacramento from the city of Oakland, near San Francisco, because his wife took a job up here. And he says deciding who would have the longer commute wasn't hard … once they looked at their real estate options. "You know," he marvels, "for the same amount of money that we paid for a tiny 1-bedroom studio in Oakland, we got a very large 2-bedroom… nice hardwood floors, the whole bit."

But along with lower housing costs in the Sacramento area come lower salaries, so - for the extra money - some 20,000 residents of California's capital put up with the long commute to and from the Bay Area each day.

However, those higher paying jobs are no longer just in the big city. Across the country, corporations are re-locating to the suburbs, and those suburban jobs are more attractive to rural workers, says Alan Pisarski, author of the book series Commuting in America. "People in rural areas," he explains, "can then commute pretty long distances and long times, but still rather fast, because they're not in the tight metropolitan congestion." In fact, Mr. Pisarksi says the biggest increase in commute times is in the mid-Atlantic states where people from West Virginia are driving as far as 200 kilometers to jobs in Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For all this, technology is the ultimate enabler. Better trains and highways in parts of the country mean farther commutes, faster. And in the future, who knows? Pat Mokhtarian imagines, "(what) if instead of cars we end up with personalized little flying machines? That will up the ante by another order of magnitude, so I wouldn't rule out any limit…" The engineering professor studies travel behavior at the University of California, Davis. She says long commutes can take a toll psychologically and socially. People have different tolerances for how much commuting they can handle, but, generally, says Professor Mokhtarian, people tend to be fairly adept at adjusting. "They either, again, sort of reconcile themselves to that being what they have to do, and just live with it. And/or they do all kinds of other things to make the commute more palatable." She points to commuters who invest in a really good auto stereo system to listen to in the car, or those who use public transportation so they can get work done or get a little more sleep.

Back on the 527 morning train, Chuck Smith is busy getting work done -- multi-tasking on his laptop and cell phone. He says he's managed to convince his boss that train time is almost as good as office time. He even has a schedule. "I know that my cell phone works between Sacramento to Suissun, but I know from Suissun to Martinez it's spotty, so I have my little periods. This is my cell phone part of my commute and this is my laptop part…" The engineer jokingly refers to himself as the purgatory commuter extraordinaire, stuck between his good job in the Bay Area and his affordable home in Sacramento.