County drivers spend 31.5 minutes a day on work drive

LAWRENCEVILLE - How do you spend your commute?

Susan Madara listens to books on tape. Stephanie Gray talks on her cell phone. Wanda Teichert vents to her carpool partner, and Lisa Quattro alternates between flipping radio stations and watching the people who, like her, are stuck in standstill traffic.

That is, when she isn't chewing on her fingernails in frustration.

On average, Gwinnett commuters spend 31.5 minutes driving to work each day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And despite almost universal frustration with the hours they spend stuck in traffic each week, on the eve of Labor Day commuters say the annoyance is worth it for the bigger houses and yards they get in exchange for their drives.

Gray, who said she lives in one of 10 homes in Bethlehem that are in Gwinnett County, would not trade either her 4.5-acre farm or her job at the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta.

"I love my job, but I don't like it inside the perimeter," she said. "It's too crowded. People live right on top of each other."

So she wakes up at 5:30 each morning to leave by 6:15, hoping to arrive at the office by 7:30 a.m.

Gray said construction on Interstate 85 and Ga. Highway 316 has made the commute, which usually lasts more than an hour, even more difficult. Coming home isn't any better.

"It's pretty brutal," she said. "I try to leave early or leave late on purpose."

For Madara, the drive home is always worse than the commute to work, whether she leaves the office at 4 p.m. or stays until 6:30, hoping to bypass the worst of the rush hour crush. The Lilburn resident, who works at the Society for Biblical Literature, says moving closer to work isn't a question because her husband - who commutes almost two hours to his job off Interstate 75 North - doesn't like change.

"The commute absolutely drives me ballistic," she said. "It makes me nuts. It's so much better in the summertime, but there's just no win. There are twice as many cars on the road once school's in session."

Teichert, a Lilburn resident who carpools to Emory University with a co-worker from Duluth, coordinates the school's transportation program. She said having someone else to vent to - about work, the traffic, anything - definitely helps ease the stress of a long drive. At times, the passenger even falls asleep on the car ride home, exhausted from a long day.

Teichert said several people commute to the university from Gwinnett, and the school has started to offer park-and-ride options and flex-cars to encourage people to share their drives and ease traffic.

"Everybody's tired of the commute," she said.

According to Census data, Gwinnett's commute is the 52nd-longest in the country. Michael Halicki, the communications director for the Clean Air Campaign, said the fact that metro Atlanta has one of the longest commutes in the nation does not surprise him. As a region, Atlanta ranks fifth in the nation. With 15 counties on the list of the longest commutes, Georgia has more than any other state.

Halicki said many people settle into their long commutes because they are interested in the quality of schools in an area or don't factor the cost of gas and car maintenance into a decision to buy a certain home.

Others, he said, lived near their jobs at one point, but didn't move when they changed jobs.

Halicki suggested teleworking, carpooling and taking public transportation as ways to help ease the effects of commutes on the environment. He said the image of control is what keeps many people driving their own cars to work, but that the image is false.

"Look out there right now at all those people taking their place in line," Halicki said Friday during rush hour. "The bill of goods people are sold is not all it's cracked up to be."

Quattro, who commutes from Lawrenceville to the north side of Buckhead for her job as a business analyst, said the drive has gradually gotten longer for the 19 years she has worked with the company. If it was just she and her husband, Quattro said, they would definitely move. But she doesn't want to uproot their children.

"The further out you get, there's more property, a bigger house," she said. "It's a sacrifice. ... It doesn't mean there's not a lot of stress through the day sitting in traffic, but I'd rather the kids be in school here."

Quattro said she is jealous of friends who are able to telecommute to work, saying she realized listening to the radio the other day that she spends 10 hours a week sitting in her car.

"It smacked me in the face," she said. "The flexibility, to be able to work when it's convenient for you to work. ... I'm kind of jealous."

Whether it's a cup of coffee or a good song on the radio, commuters look for ways to ease the stress that comes with the drive.

For Gray, the best way to do that is by popping into a store two or three days a week. But Madara said whether she leaves at 3 p.m. or 7 p.m., the drive home is the same length.

"There's no window to hit," she said. "In the morning, I usually get out of the house prior to traffic."