Misadventures of a (Former) Megacommuter

When I first moved back to Phoenix as an “adult” (and I put that in quotes because the other day I definitely ate Hot Cheetos for dinner without remorse), I moved to Mesa. Now I learned to love some things about Mesa. I lived next to the orange groves and seeing things that aren’t cacti growing out of the ground is a welcome respite. There’s an amazing Latin American restaurant that sells empanadas that are to die for.

But there was one thing that became the tipping point for Mesa: the commute.

I had originally moved to Mesa because I had a tech writing and communications gig in Chandler. It was less than 10 miles between my apartment and my job. No sweat. I resigned my lease in Mesa at the beginning of April 2014. I interviewed for the job I have now two weeks later.

And thus, the commute began.

On a good day, an hour and forty-five minutes, on a bad day (or a 100-year flood day), two and a half hours driving 75 miles roundtrip from Mesa to North Phoenix. This is not my idea of a good time. In fact, most of the time I’d rather walk or bike than drive.

That’s how I became one of the 8% of Americans that commute at least an hour each way a day. That percentage is more like 10 when you move into big metro areas like Phoenix, as reported by USA Today. I just counted myself lucky that it was only a couples days a month where I’d join 600,000 fellow megacommuters and spend 90 minutes one way in the car. There are only so many segments of NPR Morning Edition to learn from, only so many songs on the soft rock station you can get nostalgic about, and only so many audiobooks you can really afford (I mean come on Audible, really!) to fill up the time.

But when did people start to, as the Atlantic reported in 2013, waste an average of 38 hours and $818 of gas stuck in traffic each year?

Before you all go blaming Henry Ford first, the term commuting traces its roots back to the early days of traveling by rail, where suburban workers would travel by train and then pay a reduced or “commuted” fare to get into the city, according to a 2009 New Yorker article on commuting. Before the mid-1800s, people usually lived walking distance from jobs, but the advent of railways allowed for these “commuted” tickets, which functioned like a modern train or bus pass, allowing workers to repeat certain journeys over and over during their period of validity. Henry Ford’s revolutionary ideas that made cars accessible to the average family then fueled the suburban flames, flames which spread like wildfire with the expansion of the Federal Housing Administration’s insurance of mortgages in the 1930s and the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

So maybe you can blame Henry Ford for the scourge of the modern commuter.

But the interesting part of today is that the tides are turning on the impulse to hop in the car and drive an hour each way to work.

The Census found that American commutes, after a sharp uptick in the 1990s, aren’t getting any worse. Part of that is because people are flocking toward urban life in droves. (In fact, I moved into downtown Phoenix, where my 20-25 minute commute matches the national average of 25.4 minutes almost spot on.) Part of that is also because, like we do here, more people have the opportunity to telecommute into work, whether that be all the time or some of the time.

Now my waistline would love if I hopped on the latest trend in commuting with 800,000 other workers: biking. But until the distance to work is less 20 miles and more 2, I’ll stick with the car.

Because if I’m being honest, when I think of my commute time in the morning now, the name of my current audiobook favorite and my mood about the journey converge brilliantly: Yes, Please.

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