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Recession breeds wave of supercommuters

Image: Joshua Cassidy
"It’s a crazy, crazy situation," Joshua Cassidy says of his eight-hour, 500-mile trek from work in Maryland to home in West Virginia.  Doug Kapustin / for

Every morning, Joshua Cassidy climbs into his 2004 Ford Escape and begins his daily commute: a 90-minute drive from an apartment on the eastern shore of Maryland to his job as an executive team leader at a Target store in Largo, Md.

The three-hour roundtrip drive is arduous, but it’s not nearly as bad as the “real” commute he makes every other weekend: An eight-hour, 500-mile trek from Maryland to West Virginia, where his pregnant wife and their three kids are living in the family home.

“It’s a crazy, crazy situation,” he concedes, “but we’re making the best of it.”

The United States has long been a nation of commuters, with many workers opting to accept a bit of extra time on the road in exchange for a bigger house, better schools or other amenities in suburbs and exurbs.

These days, it is the tight job market that is turning some workers into supercommuters as they accept a job far from home because it’s better than no job at all.

Although it is too early to get hard statistics on how many people are making that trade, there is anecdotal evidence that the nation’s high unemployment rate is forcing people to lengthen the commute time that they consider acceptable, says transportation consultant and commuting expert Alan Pisarksi.

"This is different from people who say 'I want to live near the ocean' ... and are willing to trade the difficult commute because they get that benefit," Pisarski said. "In this case it's simply the necessity to open up and expand the range over which they're willing to look to get a job."

The weak housing market, which has left many Americans owing more to the bank than their house is worth, has likely exacerbated the problem because people can’t simply sell their house and go to where the jobs are.

“People are frozen in place,” Pisarski said.

Long-distance commuters are not alone, but they are in the minority. About 8 percent of Americans had a one-way commute of an hour or more between 2006 and 2008, according to the most recent surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau.  The typical one-way commute was about 25 minutes.

Layoffs on his first day
Cassidy, 29, became a supercommuter last September, when the video retailer he had been working for in West Virginia transferred him to a job overseeing 24 stores in the Baltimore area.

Initially, he expected that his family would join him. But as he was driving to work on his first day in the new position, his regional director called to tell him that his first task would be to close three of his stores.

His next call was to his wife, to tell her they should reconsider selling the house.

Over the next few months, Cassidy was tasked with closing about one store a week, sometimes on very short notice, until his own job was eliminated at the end of January. He went back to West Virginia for a few months, overseeing a few of the video company’s locations, all the while talking with Target about a potential position.

In May, he landed the Target job — and resumed the long hours on the road.

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Gaining weight, losing money
Cassidy said he loves his new job and feels like it was a good career move. Still, the emotional and financial cost of living far from his wife and young children is substantial.

The rent on his one-bedroom apartment in Maryland is one and a half times the mortgage on his 2,100-square-foot West Virginia home, and that is after choosing the affordable place far from work. In addition, he spends hundreds of dollars on gas each month.

One of Cassidy’s new habits is to calculate the exact gas mileage he gets in his SUV depending on the route and time of day he is traveling. On a recent fill-up, he was at 24.461 miles to the gallon.

Cassidy keeps himself occupied on the road talking by phone to his wife, kids and extended family, who all live within about 15 minutes of each other in West Virginia. If it’s past bedtime, he turns to books on tape and National Public Radio.

Still, he suspects the monotonous, autonomous hours are getting to him.

“I’ve developed this crazy, crazy habit of talking to myself when I’m in the car, and I don’t necessarily stop when I get around other people sometimes,” he said.

The commute also has taken a toll on his health. Once an avid exerciser, Cassidy now can only summon the energy for an occasional 15 minutes on the exercise bike. He estimates he has  gained 20 pounds from his habit of eating out, often in his car.

“When I was back home I was a health nut — I was eating turkey and salad all the time,” he said. “Now I’m supersizing and adding cheese.”

To keep awake, he depends on “Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks,” taking full advantage of the employee discount at the coffee shop in his Target store.

Uncertain future
Later this summer, Cassidy’s wife and kids are coming to spend a few weeks in Maryland at the one-bedroom apartment, while they evaluate what to do next.

The family’s already-tight budget is about to get much tighter because Cassidy’s wife is leaving her job as a trainer for a local bank to stay home with their growing family.

After so much upheaval and uncertainty, Cassidy is hesitant to sell his house and move his wife and kids away from their close-knit extended family and closer to his new job. He said Target did initially talk with him about job possibilities closer to his West Virginia home, but nothing was available then and that possibility isn’t a major factor in his decision-making.

“I don’t like to think in the whole ‘what-if’ scenario,” he said. “The only thing I can be sure of is what my situation (is now). Today I am eight hours from my wife and kids, and I’m about to become the sole source of income for my family.”

Silver lining
The weak economy has created a silver lining for people like Cassidy who have been forced into long commutes: Congestion has likely eased, especially in areas with high unemployment rates, because fewer people are going to work, said Tim Lomax, a research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M.

As jobs come back, the congestion will return. But as the economy recovers people should be able to find work closer to home again, Lomax said.

“People don’t love to commute, but they do it because of what they get on one end or the other end of their trip,” he said.

Randy Studyvin, 56, would not likely use the word “love” to describe the five or so hours he spends commuting round-trip between his family home in Greenwood, Ark., and his job managing a metals facility 140 miles away.

But he is grateful to have the job, which he landed last winter after the machine shop he had been managing shut down.

A long commute was nothing new for Studyvin. He had spent eight years making a 200-mile round-trip commute to his previous job. For him and his wife, a stay-at-home mom, the long drive was worth it because it meant they would not have to uproot their two kids, who were then in middle school and are now in college.

When he was offered the new job last year, he felt that adding another 80 miles to his round-trip commute — and accepting a cut in pay — was worth it. He knew other people who had been unemployed for long stretches of time, and the only options closer to home seemed to be minimum-wage retail jobs.

Still, the extra hours in the car have taken their toll.

“It makes you tired. It makes you cranky,” he said. “On Monday, I’m in pretty good shape, but (by) Thursday I’m pretty short with some folks sometimes.”

It’s also costly. Studyvin now has to fill the tank on his Buick LeSabre every day. To save money, he has taken to doing all the maintenance and repair work on his car himself, except changing and aligning his tires.

“I’ve become a much better mechanic than I ever wanted to be,” he said.

Recently, he found a clean and inexpensive hotel to stay at two nights a week, calculating that the lodging cost is actually cheaper than the expense of commuting home. On those days, he said, he is usually so exhausted from the days of driving that he leaves work, heads to the hotel, and goes to sleep.

Although Studyvin has managed to maintain family time despite his long commute, he misses  aspects of life that he suspects are enjoyed by people people who don’t spend five hours a day in the car.

“I don’t have any friends, OK? I don’t have time. If I’m not driving or working or with my family, I’m sleeping,” he said. “I’m pretty solitary, but sometimes it would nice to go out and have a good time, or go out and play a round of golf.”

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