Dilemma of the Long-Distance Commuter Links East and West


Housing tracts are blowing away the sagebrush out here in the Mojave Desert near Victorville, Calif., and the legends of the Old West are being supplanted by new ones.

Meet the new riders of the purple sage:

* The motorcyclist who commutes 170 miles across the Los Angeles Basin each day.

* The highway patrolman who drives 90 minutes each morning to East Los Angeles, where he spends the day riding around in a cruiser.

* The defense plant worker who, exhausted by the four-hour daily odyssey between home and job, spends the night in his car in the company parking lot.

A long, harrowing trip to and from work is no longer remarkable in California or in many other suburban metropolises across the country; it is merely the price that must be paid for a single-family house. And the price is always going up.

As traffic bogs down more and homes pop up ever farther from jobs, the logistics of suburban travel are breaking down. In Greater Los Angeles, for example, an estimated 84,000 hours a day are lost in traffic jams.

Some of those hours belong to Mary McKeon, 31, whose desire for a new three-bedroom, two-bath house on a half-acre brought her to Victorville, in the high desert northeast of Los Angeles.

The stars are still blinking at 5 a.m., when she begins the two-hour morning drive across the desert, through the mountain pass and down to her office in the city. In the winter, she leaves at 4. "You never know if there'll be snow in the pass," she explained.

McKeon works four 10-hour days a week managing a law office. "On Monday I feel great," she said. "On Thursday I feel like hell."

Wherever times are good, traffic is bad, from Route 1 near Princeton, N.J., to Route 101 in the Silicon Valley. Residents of Orange County must cope with "Orange Crush"--the impromptu parking lot that forms every rush hour at the confluence of three freeways.

The problem is the car and the lack of alternatives to it.

A fifth of all walks to work and a third of all public transit trips occur in Greater New York. Elsewhere, especially in the Sun Belt metropolises, suburbia is so spread out that most people cannot walk to most destinations. Even when distances are walkable, there often is no sidewalk.

The suburban motorist's view of mass transit--useful only insofar as it gets other drivers off the road--is not irrational.

As many as half of today's suburban drivers once took mass transit. They know rail and bus routes are not flexible enough for low-rise, decentralized areas, such as suburban Houston, where secretary Nancy Keeler's trip home from work might also include stops at her son's day-care center, the supermarket, post office and video store.

When she lived in Chicago, she used to ride the bus to work and walk almost everywhere else. Asked if she could do that now, she just laughed.

Nor can the subway or train replace the car. A study of office workers near the Walnut Creek station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in Northern California found that only a handful used mass transit. BART ran to the office, but not to their widely dispersed homes.

In New Jersey, the most suburban state, most mass transit lines still run into New York City or Philadelphia, even though a majority of residents now work in-state.

For 28 years, William Wright took the train from his home in Cranford, N.J., to his office in Manhattan, a 40-minute ride. Then his company moved to Ft. Lee, N.J., two years ago, finally uniting his home and job on the same side of the Hudson River.

But Wright, a mass transit buff, did not want to start driving. So he commuted through Manhattan via train, subway and bus--a two-hour trip each way. After nine months of that, he quit his job.

Wright's case illustrates not only the limits of mass transit, but the tendency for jobs and homes to spread out as the suburban metropolis expands.

Those who can afford to live in job-rich suburbs such as Orange County or Fairfield County, Conn., can enjoy relatively short drives. But since these areas may have six or seven times more jobs than residents, many workers must commute from far-flung bedroom suburbs.

Average one-way commuting times--which held remarkably steady from 1950 to 1980--are increasing. Exact figures must await the 1990 census, but between 1980 and 1985 the number of automobiles in metropolitan areas increased between 10% and 15%, while road capacity increased only 1% to 2%.

As a result, the rush hour has expanded to include vast swaths of the day, trapping commuters in their cars and curbing the sense of spaciousness and freedom on which suburbia is based.

By one estimate, each suburban car requires six parking spaces: at home, work and church, as well as the club, store and the park.

But the greatest space consumer is the home-building industry, which each year covers thousands of acres of farmland or other open space with single-family homes and yards.

Developers in northern New Jersey are buying up Boy Scout camps and neighborhood swimming holes; in south Florida, they have reached the edge of the Everglades.

During the last few years, Neal Alper has seen the drive between his business in Miami Beach and his suburban Dade County home stretch from 45 minutes to more than an hour. Usually, he misses half of his son's Little League game.

Jane Minelli is an elementary-school teacher by training. But these days, as she shuttles her two children to various schools, lessons and appointments on the outskirts of Phoenix, she feels more like a chauffeur. "All I need is the uniform," she said.

In Victorville, Mary McKeon treasures her memory of a six-minute commute and misses the time she can no longer spend at home. "My daughters are having to learn to cook without me--and my husband and I have to eat it," she said, laughing. "But you have to give something to get something."

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