Each weekday, Steve Angulo spends nearly three hours getting to and from work. The journey from his Stockton, California, home to his Sunnyvale office takes him through the rural farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley, past the high rises of San Francisco and the suburban hillside homes of the Bay Area, before giving way to the crush of communities that line the highways leading to Silicon Valley and Angulo's ultimate destination.
The 42-year-old executive has been doing the commute nine years. "I leave at 4 o'clock to stay ahead of the game," says Angulo. "Even at 4 a.m., it's bumper to bumper, moving at the limit."
Obviously, Angulo is not alone on the nation's highways in the wee hours. Each day, 100 million Americans settle in their cars for the drive to work, according to 1990 Census Bureau journey-to-work data. Mega-commutes, like Angulo's, are largely limited to the nation's most congested and sprawling metropolitan areas. In 1995, the mean commute to work is a considerably more manageable 20.7 minutes, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's 1997 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey.
Whether commute times in the most congested cities will continue to increase is a complicated issue. A growing population coupled with a static number of roads doesn't necessarily mean longer commutes. The biggest contributing factors are good economic conditions and increasing labor-force participation. People drive more when they have well-paying jobs and spending money.
The U.S. labor force is expected to grow more slowly between 1996 and 2006 than it did in the previous decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It projects growth of 11 percent, to 149 million participants in 2006, compared with the 14 percent increase seen between 1986 and 1996. If these projections hold true, strain on the nation's commuter routes could increase more slowly than in the past.
Even if the journey to work doesn't get markedly worse in the coming decade, millions of commuters are literally stranded in their cars for moderate to long periods, five days a week. Thirteen percent of U.S. commuters spent 45 minutes or more driving to work in 1990. And suburban edge cities continue to be the sites of most new jobs. In many large cities at rush hour, highways are clogged with both city dwellers commuting in from suburbs, and suburban residents returning from work in town.
In the largest metropolitan areas, more people are in cars for longer periods of time. Surviving that daily commute is an ongoing challenge for millions of workers. They're finding ways to make the most of it, often with the help of creative companies who are designing products and services for this captive audience.
People who drive to work are found just about everywhere in the U.S. Yet the truly stressed commuters are concentrated in a few metropolitan areas. Almost half of the nation's total population lives in 39 metro areas. In those areas, nearly 83 percent reported driving to work in 1990, most alone. In 14 of the 39 metro areas, more than 90 percent of workers used a private vehicle to get to work.
More recent data show where traffic conditions are thick enough to have workers stranded in their cars for significant amounts of time each day. An annual study by the Texas Transportation Institute examines roadway congestion in Texas's seven largest metropolitan areas and 43 others across the nation. Researchers use a complex equation to compute a Roadway Congestion Index (RCI) for each metro. An index of 1.0 or greater indicates that congested conditions exist widely across an area. An index of less than 1.0 suggests that average mobility within a metro is uncongested, although the area may experience pockets of congestion.
In 1994, the top-ten most congested urban areas were Los Angeles (RCI 1.52), Washington, D.C. (1.43), San Francisco-Oakland (1.33), Miami (1.32), Chicago (1.28), Seattle-Everett (1.25), Detroit (1.24), San Diego (1.21), San Bernardino-Riverside (1.20), and Atlanta (1.18). Detroit and Miami are also among the metros with the fastest growth in RCI between 1988 and 1994, at 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively.
Most of the other metros with escalating congestion had RCI values at or below 1.0 in 1994. Places such as Salt Lake City, with an RCI of 0.94, probably seem more congested to residents, even though drivers generally experience mobile conditions. Yet fast-growing congestion suggests these metros may be up-and-coming centers for future gridlock.
MAKING THE MOST OF DRIVE TIME When people are in their cars for longer periods of time each day, companies have a greater window of opportunity to reach them through media, sell to them-thanks to cellular phones-and create products and services that make the commute a little more bearable. By the time long-commuting Americans leave work in the afternoon, many are probably thinking about managing the time that remains once they get home. Morning may be the perfect time to communicate with drivers through advertising, or help them handle telephone shopping on the road.
In 1995, 26 percent of U.S. commuters left home between 5 a.m. and 6:59 a.m. Almost 42 percent commuted to work between 7 a.m. and 8:29 a.m., and roughly 11 percent left between 8:30 a.m. and 9:59 a.m. That means companies can catch almost seven in ten commuters between the hours of 5 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., according to the National Personal Transportation Survey.
Long commutes not only cut into the time Americans have to take care of non-work chores; they also feel like a waste of time. At least they did until both commuters and companies found ways to make drive time productive time. The products available to these harried travelers range from the slightly silly to the technologically advanced.
Food falls solidly in the middle of that range. Americans have a long tradition of munching behind the wheel, especially fast food from drive-through windows. Now food developers are coming up with portable food that won't offend the arteries of aging baby boomers, and is less likely to stain their designer neckties.
McDonald's has long served drivers getting to and from work, says Amy Murray, a company spokeswoman. More than 50 percent of the fast-food company's revenues are collected through drive-through windows. McDonald's products are designed to be easy to hold and eat on the go, she says. For instance, hash browns come in a half-sized paper bag with the top of the product sticking out, so diners can hold the bag in their hand while eating and driving.
"We're adapting our packaging to make it more convenient for our customers wherever they are," Murray says. This includes offering super-sized sodas in cups with tapered ends to fit traditional car cup holders.
Other companies have introduced sandwiches in bread pockets and "wraps," which typically house ingredients in a tortilla-style shell, tightly wrapped in paper to contain spills. Yet hamburgers, fries, and breakfast sandwiches probably still dominate car dining.
To those commuters who are managing stringy lettuce and hash-brown crumbs, Eddie Williams has a pitch to make. Williams, chief executive officer of America's Dream Car, Inc., in Fountain Hills, Arizona, has spent the last three years developing and testing The Traveling Bib. The 20-inch wide and 35-inch-long fabric-and-plastic bib went on sale via the World Wide Web in late 1997. During the first six months, drivers bought 47,000 bibs. Men bought most of the bibs, which retail for $24.95. One company ordered 36 for its sales reps.
Williams concedes the idea of a bib for grownups seems odd, but practicality seems to be winning out over pride. "It's somewhat embarrassing the first time," he says. "You feel self-conscious, but it's something that just becomes routine."
ENRICHING THE MIND Long rides in heavy traffic can be mind-numbing, whether a commuter is half asleep at dawn or worn down from a day's work. Listening to recorded books not only eases boredom, but makes a long commute entertaining.
Wendy Weitzel, of Sacramento, California, uses time in the car to catch up on her reading. Although she has witnessed commuters reading books propped up on the steering wheel, she prefers to listen to books on tape. Weitzel borrows her recorded books from the public library. But the day isn't far off when she will be sending business to a company that rents books to commuters. "I'm getting close to exhausting the library," she says.
One of the biggest rental companies is Recorded Books, Inc., in Prince Frederick, Maryland. The company carries thousands of unabridged titles, says Jane Dupuis, director of consumer sales. Dupuis says most of Recorded Books' customers have an average commute of 45 minutes, and are men aged 45 or older.
Among the most popular titles are To Kill a Mockingbird, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, and Nimitz Class, all novels. While it might seem the work commute would be a good time to catch up on self-help and career titles, Dupuis says there is less demand for non-fiction titles. Biography and history are the non-fiction choices of most commuter listeners, instead of career or self-help titles, she says. "This is your escape," Dupuis says. "Sometimes I rent a kid's book just to cleanse my palate of a bad day."
Books on tape are hot, but many commuters still rely on the radio to fill time on the way to work. Eight in ten adults listen to a car radio every week, according to Interep, a national radio representation firm in New York City. On an average weekday, 83 percent of people who drove 250 miles in the previous week listened to radio. The prime times for tuning in are during morning and evening commutes. Roughly 72 percent of all adults driving 250 or more miles listen to radio from 6 to 10 a.m. and nearly 57 percent listen from 3 to 7 p.m. That compares with 50 percent who listen from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Of all adults who drive, 58 percent listen to radio from 6 to 10 a.m., 63 percent from 3 to 7 p.m., and 54 percent from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The most popular formats for in-car listening are sports, with 37 percent of drivers tuning in each day; news and alternative, with 30 percent each; and adult alternative, country, oldies, and rock formats capturing 29 percent of in-car listeners each day.
CHATTING AND SHOPPING Listening to books or the radio is a solitary, one-sided pursuit. But with the introduction of cellular phones in 1983, commuters were able to interact with the world outside their home on wheels. In 1997, there were 55 million cell-phone subscribers in the U.S., up from 1.2 million ten years earlier. At the current growth rate, by 2000 there may be as many as 80 million users, according to the Cellular Telecommunication Industry Association.
Cellular phones have been so widely adopted that they're not really an upscale product anymore. The distribution of wireless users by age and household income is very similar to the distribution of the adult population as a whole, according to a 1998 survey by the association. However, there are some occupational distinctions. Thirty-six percent of wireless users are professionals or managers, compared with 23 percent of the total adult population. Retirees make up 20 percent of all adults surveyed, but only 11 percent of cellular-phone customers. In 1998, six in ten primarily use their phone for personal reasons, compared with 20 percent who mostly use it for business.
Commuters Angulo and Weitzel both have cell phones in their cars. And both say they use them primarily to talk to family members and for their security on the road. "Communication is the key," says Angulo. "That's the way of life in the Silicon Valley. I don't know too many people who don't have cell phones."
Cell phones are being used for more than checking in with family. Whether stocks or socks, at least some commuters are spending the drive time buying. Dan Hubbard, manager of corporate communications for Charles Schwab and Company, Inc., says the discount brokerage firm is "absolutely aware," of the commuting customer. "It's a big part of our strategy because we are such a time-sensitive business," he says.
The company provides toll-free phone service for checking accounts, getting stock quotes, and ordering information on the company's products and services. It also has an automated telephone brokerage service that allows callers to use the touch-tone keys on phones for stock transactions.
But one of Schwab's newest services may be its best bet for catching commuters. VoiceBroker is a voice recognition system that provides stock quotes. Later this year, technology should be in place to allow callers to place orders. The system is ideal for commuters, says Hubbard, because customers can manage stocks with minimal button pushing.
Eddie Bauer, the Seattle mail-order company, is also taking calls from drivers, although only a small share of its phone traffic is from mobile units, says Susan Marshall, director of catalog sales. Catalog-sales representatives report being able to identify drivers because of background noise and static, but the company has no way of knowing exactly how many of its nearly 10 million annual calls originate from cellular phones.
"You can't drive and read a catalog at the same time," says Marshall. "A lot of people have to pull over to the side of the road to finish their order." It's more common for commuters to call and check on the status of orders. While the company is not working specifically to create buying opportunities for commuters, Marshall says the company's Internet site and other automated processes could make it easier for drivers stuck in traffic to spend the drive time.
TEMPTING TECHNOLOGY Commuters can communicate, shop, dine, and improve their minds in the car already. Computer makers want to help them do much more, from checking e-mail to negotiating strange streets with satellite navigation systems. Companies like Microsoft hope in-car computers will catch on with commuters as cell phones have. "Data are what's going to drive adoption of auto PCs," says Perry Lee, auto PC product manager for the Redmond, Washington, company.
Microsoft has developed a platform and operating system for in-car computers. It's working with other firms to get complete auto PCs into both auto manufacturer's plants and retailer's stores by the end of summer 1998. These aftermarket computers should retail for $1,299, says Lee. He doesn't expect factory-installed computers to be available in new cars until 2000 or 2001.
Just as cell phones were first marketed to professionals and tradesmen whose jobs require them to be accessible all the time, auto computers will probably be targeted to real estate professionals, sales representatives, and other executives. Early adopters of new technology and audiophiles who want high-end music devices may also be niche markets for the computers.
The computers resemble a car radio and can be installed in the dashboard. They may even unseat cell phones in some cars. The computers typically come with a phone, as well as compact-disc player, e-mail capability, paging, and a global positioning satellite navigation system.
Microsoft's system features a voice synthesizer so drivers can listen to e-mail and other information off the Internet while driving. This means they can do everything from checking stock prices to buying airline tickets.
Voice activation may make the computers both practical and acceptable to commuters and safety advocates. In theory, drivers should be able to use the system while keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel, says Terry Prestel, supervisor of the human factors division for Visteon Automotive Systems. Visteon is using the Microsoft platform in its ICES in-car computer. The ICES enhances safety with a driving mode and stationary mode, so drivers won't be able to perform distracting tasks while in motion, Prestel says.
That may not quiet critics, though. "It's not dialing the phone that's getting people into trouble; it's talking on the cell phone that's the trouble," says Mike Goodman, a human factors researcher with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "People get distracted and lose situational awareness."
It's unclear if questions about the safety of using computers and cell phones in cars may lead to legal restrictions on drivers. Some states already have inattentive-driver laws that are being used to curb the distractions of technology use. While the laws don't explicitly prohibit cellular-phone use while driving, law-enforcement officials can stop drivers who are talking if the drivers appear to be posing a hazard.
In-car computers will certainly expand the markets for everything associated with their use. Yet no one really knows how long a commute must be before people feel pressured to be more productive while driving, says Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America. Drivers who view their commutes as down time aren't as good a market for productivity tools as those who want to get out of their cars with a list of tasks accomplished.
Regardless of how people perceive their journey to work, commuting appears to be here to stay. And so does the problem of long commutes in certain metropolitan areas. "The American commuter is rather a resilient beast and is always coming up with creative ways to solve the problem," says Pisarski. "It is very hard to see any scenario in which people will abandon their cars."
TAKING IT FURTHER For more information on traffic conditions in selected metropolitan areas, see Urban Roadway Congestion-1982 to 1994 (Research Report 1131-9), published by the Texas Transportation Institute, Texas A&M University, and the Texas Department of Transportation. The report is available from the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, VA 22161; Web site http://www.ntis.gov/home.htm. The latest detailed journey-to-work data are from the 1990 Census and are published in Journey to Work Trends in the United States and Its Major Metropolitan Areas, 1960-1990 (Publication No. FHWA-PL-94-012 HPM-40/12-93). The report is also available from the NTIS. Data from the 1995 National Personal Transportation Survey are posted on Web site http://www.
cta.ornl.gov/npts. The survey is conducted on an irregular basis by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Data on cellular-phone use are available from the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, 1250 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036; telephone (202) 785-0081.