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Balance

Do you pay the steep price of commuting? Add to ...

It’s 5 p.m., and Will Crichton is stuck in traffic. He left work early, planning to combine some phone calls with the drive home. All he can see is traffic, British Columbia’s Highway 1 plugged, cars inching forward.

It’s a scene that repeats itself twice a day in cities across the country as consumers endure their commute. In a recent questionnaire for online Careers readers about work-life balance and stress, commuting emerged as a major frustration, eating up too much of the day for too many people, be it in cars, buses, streetcars, Skytrains, subways, or ferries. Today, let’s sample the complications of the commute, why people get trapped, and how one family liberated themselves with a bold change.

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Mr. Crichton lives in Abbotsford, close to his wife’s parents, which provides affordable housing and a support network as they raise two young daughters. But he works as a middle manager for Telus, and while hoping for a placement close to home, he couldn’t resist a year ago when offered a challenging post in a client’s office in Burnaby. That gives him a 57-kilometre drive, which doesn’t sound too far, but because of congestion leaves him in the car for three to four hours each day. He’s out of the house at 6:30 in the morning and usually only back in time to put the kids to bed.

He schedules phone calls with colleagues and clients when he can – Telus promotes flexibility for employees, including mobile time, so he was able to leave early today, working on the phone while edging home in traffic. One day a week, as he drives to work he talks with a client in London, England, who is driving home from work – you might consider that an amusing absurdity, or an example of commuting creativity in the smartphone age. “I try to make it as productive as possible. I try to schedule conversations. Seventy per cent of it might be productive some days. If I didn’t, I’d go stir crazy. There’s only so many books on tape or radio you can listen to,” he says.

Today, as he surveys the landscape of cars, he’s both philosophical and frustrated. He knows the new bridge being built and highway improvements will eventually lead to a shorter commute. And he is able to work out of an office close to home one day a week, again under the company’s flexibility policies. Still, the frustration rises: “This is not normal – it’s definitely not a normal way to live. But I do it because I love my job. If I’m doing it in five years, however – even in two years – I will have a different view.”

Adam McDonald has an even longer commute, two hours each way, from his home on the waterfront in Brantford to his Ontario government job in the heart of downtown Toronto. He chooses not to do it completely by car – that would take even more time – and instead drives to Burlington, a half hour from home, where he takes the GO train.

He was living in Alberta, when he fell in love with a Brantford woman, who didn’t want to uproot her daughter from friends in that city. The best job he could find was in Toronto, and although he looked closer to home, nothing was comparable in salary and benefits.

He leaves the house at 5:55 a.m. and arrives back home at about 6:45 p.m., the family having already eaten, a dinner set aside for him. He doesn’t use the commute for work: It’s his time, and he chooses to read – biographies, fiction, recent bestsellers, often downloaded from the library on his e-reader – or if tired, will nap. It’s not relaxing – cramming four people in a tight seating space, invading each other’s personal space, is stressful – but driving all the way would be more stressful. At least this allows transition time between work and home. “It’s four hours of dead time each day. But that’s the choice I have made.”

And that won’t change. The daughter is 18, and will move on. “But the trap is this: I live in a good house on the river in Brantford. If I were to sell it, the condo I would buy in Toronto would be the size of my coffee table,” he notes. “I see this as a long-term thing. This is how I will spend my work life.”

He couldn’t do it, he stresses, without a supportive family. They get a couple of hours together each evening, but recognize that the weekends are when they can share together. Down the road, he can envisage taking advantage of being in Toronto during the day by having his wife joining him there in the evening for theatre or other events, before returning home together.

Each commute involves a trap. One aspect of work-life pulls in one direction and another pulls in the opposite direction. The other tension can often be cost: The quickest way to work may be the most expensive.

Boni and John Wagner-Stafford no longer suck it up. When the couple, both now in their fifties, got together four years ago, they moved to a 2,400-square-foot home in Maple, Ont., which they found in a lovely, quiet community. But it was an hour each way to work in downtown Toronto – both work for the Ontario government – and although they usually travelled together and could talk, listen to CBC, and occasionally even do home finances, the constant travelling ate away at them. “It was exhausting. We were always rushing to get out of the door in the morning and to get back home,” she says.

On vacation in Mexico, they calculated the cost in time of commuting. Two hours a day added up to 500 hours a year. That’s about three weeks of a year, but they figured if an average day has eight hours of productive work time, they were wasting 62.5 productive days a year commuting, which was more than eight, seven-day weeks. “Eight weeks a year! I still can’t believe it. Life’s too short,” she says.

So they sold the home (and 80 per cent of their accumulated stuff) and squished into a 750-square-foot rented condo downtown on May 1. “The first day we came home, cleaned up, ate dinner, and then looked at each other somewhat shocked. It was 6:30 p.m. My God, we had a whole night ahead of us,” she recalls.

She now takes a short bus ride to work and walks home. Her husband has a seven-minute walk to the office.

It was hard selling off some old family treasures. And with three children between them from another marriage, they are lucky none live permanently with them – although a daughter will visit this summer and will spend six weeks on a couch in their small space. But that’s a mild discomfort, they feel, compared with their daily, deadening commutes. “It’s only six weeks. We used to waste eight weeks a year on the commute,” she says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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