Extreme commuters go the extra mile to get to work
At 5:45 every weekday morning, when the sky is still as black as ink, Maria Rojas leaves her house in Hollywood to embark on a 90-minute commute to Little Havana. She takes two buses to her job as a foreign language teacher at a charter school. “It’s wearing me down,” says the 60-year-old.
Daniel Rodriguez, 25, leaves from the opposite end of the county on his equally arduous commute. He drives his new Nissan Rogue 28 miles one way from South Miami-Dade to Brickell Key, where he works as a financial analyst at Sony Pictures Entertainment. It can take him up to two hours in the morning to get to the office. “Traffic is bad enough, but then you mix the crazy people or the rain and the construction, and it’s incredibly frustrating.”
Marsha Tejeda navigates 24 miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, from Aventura to South Miami, where she works in the corporate office of Baptist Health South Florida. The ride is brutal coming and going, but she passes the time listening to radio news and catching up with friends, including another long-distance driver, Debbie Hurwitz, who treks from Kendall to the North Miami office of Jewish Community Services of South Florida. While chatting on their blue tooth devices, the two women warn each other of potential obstacles in the traffic flow. “No way I could’ve done this commute when my children were younger,” Tejeda says. “It eats up too much of my time.”
These are some of South Florida’s extreme commuters, the working folk who clock dozens of hours and hundreds of miles to earn a paycheck. For the most part, a one-way ride runs them between one and two hours — if there are no accidents, if the weather is good, if road repair is finished, if the traffic gods are smiling. In comparison, the average U.S. resident typically spends a bit over 25 minutes in the car each way, or roughly 4 hours and 15 minutes a week, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Extreme commuters add at least 10 hours, or an entire work day, to their work week. Some tote up even more: the equivalent of a 20-hour part-time job.
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” says Tonia Harris, who until recently took two buses and a train to get from her home in Perrine to the Juvenile Justice Center on Northwest 27th Avenue. “It’s a lot of time. I leave my home in the dark and a lot of times I come home in the dark.”
Until early May, when her job moved to downtown Miami, Harris’s husband would drop her off shortly after 6 a.m. to catch the bus that would take her along U.S. 1 to Metrorail. At the Brownsville stop, she’d take another bus to the northwest juvenile center, in time for her 8 a.m. start as a courtroom clerk. No more. The move downtown shaved off minutes from her previous 105-minute one-way commute. But for all its faults — namely buses running late — she believes public transportation is better than driving.
“If I had to drive that, I’d go crazy,” she adds. She should know. She has done time in the car, driving up Florida’s Turnpike to Miami Lakes, sometimes Broward and Palm Beach counties for another job.
Miami has the seventh-worst traffic of any major metro area in the United States, according to an analysis by the makers of TomTom GPS. Though that ranking stayed the same from the previous year, a closer look at the data shows congestion has actually gotten worse. Last year’s rankings, using 2013 data, revealed that the average trip in Miami took 24 percent longer than it would if there was no traffic. This year, based on 2014 data, that had gone up 3 percentage points, to 27 percent. Another study, by Seattle-based firm INRIX, place time-wasted in traffic at 37 hours in 2014, up from 28 hours in 2012.
Much of the travel time depends on where you live, of course. A NerdWallet study based on 2013 data from the U.S. Census found that commuters from Homestead spent an average of 32.5 minutes commuting, those in Key Biscayne only 23 minutes.
Like commuters everywhere, Tonia Harris makes do. She’s befriended fellow commuters along her travel route. “I try to use it like a social hour,” she says. “I also listen to my music and sometimes I do shopping on eBay or play games.”
Maria Rojas reads or organizes her work schedule on the bus. Daniel Rodriguez hums along to music, plans his after-hours outings and catches up with his father on the phone. Debbie Hurwitz calls friends “to commiserate about the traffic” and listens to news radio.
“There are certain givens in life,” Hurwitz says philosophically, “and for me, this commute is one of them. I’m not going to move, I’m not going to change jobs, so it’s just something I’m stuck doing.”
Extreme commuters are experts in the logistics of getting from Point A to Point B. Harris has set up all kinds of traffic and weather alerts on her phone. Rodriguez keeps a timeline of where he’s supposed to be and what time he should be there to arrive at the office on schedule. And if Tejeda has an early morning meeting down south, “when I can’t afford to be late,” she stays overnight at a girlfriend’s house.
But all that tedious travel can, and does, turn costly. Gas adds up to hundreds of dollars a month. So can tolls. Drivers are forced to adjust. Both Tejeda and Hurwitz, for example, drive hybrids. And Rodriguez says he traded in his less efficient Kia Sportage for his 2015 Rogue, saving him about half a tank a week.
For those taking public transportation, expenses are also high. Rojas spends $95 a month for the express bus and another $15 for transfers. Harris forks out about the same. Both women console themselves with the thought that using public transit tends to be cheaper than driving. Still, according to a study from the Miami Foundation, transportation eats up 22.2 percent of the median income in Miami-Dade — higher than in other major metros.
Cost, however, isn’t the only hellish part of a long commute. Not by a long shot. It’s the lost time, the frustration, the soul-sucking stress that whittle away at the psyche. The worst thing you’ll face all day, according to a Texas study, is your morning commute. The third worst is your evening commute. A decade-long study of married people in Sweden also found that couples with long commutes — more than 45 minutes by car — were 40 percent more likely to divorce. And the more time spent commuting is less time spent exercising and becoming politically active.
“When I’m sitting in traffic, I think of all the things I’d rather be doing,” Rodriguez says. “You waste so many hours.”
From Hurwitz: “If I’m on the road, there are things I just can’t do, like my Zumba class at night.”
Adds Tejeda, “I have to run all my errands on the weekends and do my cooking on Sunday. It’s the only time I have.”
To improve their quality of life, some extreme commuters end up moving closer to their jobs. For about a month Judith Perkel drove 40 miles each way from Kendall to Davie, where she was recently hired as assistant director of admissions for Nova Southeastern University. But the daily trip was too much for her and she gave up on the idea of staying close to friends. She found an apartment five miles from her office.
“I couldn’t continue doing that drive,” Perkel explains. “It was exhausting.”
With that extra hour, she plans to “sleep later and work on my side business” designing greeting cards.
Ada Figueroa moved, too, as soon as she found a room to rent about a month ago. She has cut her former two-hour commute in half. She used to ride public transit, from Homestead to downtown Miami, for her part-time job cleaning offices. Though relatives live in south Miami-Dade, moving was her only solution.
“I don’t have a degree or higher education, so I don’t have many choices for work,” Figueroa says. “I have to take what I can get and move to where it’s convenient.”
Moving closer to a job may not always be possible, however. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs within the typical commute distance for residents in major metro areas fell by 7 percent, according to the Brookings Institution. Residents of high-poverty and majority-minority neighborhoods were particularly affected.
Rojas, the teacher, tried looking for a place in Miami but found rents beyond her budget. Finding a full-time job closer to where she now lives has been difficult. “I was only managing part-time work until this came along.”
For others, an onerous commute is the price they pay to stay close to friends and family. Harris, for example, has lived in the same house for 30 years, so she has no plans to move. Changing jobs is also out of the question. “I like my job and it has really good benefits.”
Daniel Rodriguez, on the other hand, can’t wait to move. He’s living with his family so he can save enough money to strike out on his own — in a year or two. He plans to look for something east of the Palmetto Expressway.
“That’s my number one condition: it has to be closer to work,” he adds with a rueful laugh. “I can’t wait to have that time back. I want to enjoy the things I enjoy and not be sitting in traffic for hours.”
This report includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.
PUBLIC TRANSIT COSTS
- One-way fare on Miami-Dade Metro system: $2.25. One-day parking: $4.50.
- Miami-Dade monthly metro pass, covering bus, Metrorail and Metromover: $112.50. (With monthly parking pass, $123.75.) Some discounts available. Senior passes are free but require advance application.
- Broward one-way bus fare: $1.75.
- Broward 31-day adult bus pass: $65. Premium one-month pass (with I-95 express service): $95. Discounts for students and seniors require proof.
- Monthly regional pass, including Miami-Dade transit and TriRail: $145. (Seniors pay $22.50; some other discounts available.)
STUCK IN TRAFFIC
An ongoing series on South Florida’s traffic and commuting woes
For more stories, see MiamiHerald.com/traffic/