Long-distance commuting a choice, not a chore for some
Every weekday morning, Julia Battle gets into her Ford Escape, brings coffee and breakfast along and begins a commute to Baton Rouge that she knows will take more than an hour. The return trip offers the same guarantee.
Even if there is no traffic.
For many area workers, the sheer number of fellow commuters navigating the limited roadway options makes the twice-a-day drive something to dread — even when chemical trucks don’t get into Interstate-closing wrecks. For a growing number, however, such commutes are something they choose.
Long-distance commuting — one-way drives of 50 miles or more — isn’t the norm around Baton Rouge, but the numbers are growing. Based on figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, thousands of people live that far from their workplaces. And, as unpleasant as that might sound to some, many such commuters have made peace with — or even enjoy — the experience.
“Every now and then, somebody will find out and say, ‘Oh, my God! You do what?’” Battle said. “It’s funny, people’s reaction — really sort of what I would have said before I did this.”
Justin Bourgeois has been commuting 62 miles to New Orleans since moving to Prairieville in December 2010.
“I really don’t mind it,” Bourgeois said on his cellphone during an afternoon trip home. “That was one of the concerns my wife had when we moved, the long commute. I really don’t mind it. I’ve lived in New Orleans most of my life, and if we lived in Kenner right now and worked in the CBD (Central Business District), it would take me 45 minutes to get to work anyway.
“Right now, I’m coasting at 70, 75 miles an hour and no one’s in front of me. I can relax a little bit instead of being in bumper-to-bumper traffic. … Once I get on the spillway, I just coast the whole way home.”
The number of workers who make similar trips down Interstate 10 exploded between 2006 and 2010. According to the Census Bureau, commuters who live in East Baton Rouge Parish and work in Orleans Parish grew from 597 to 2,350 (294 percent) in that four-year span. The number commuting between EBR and Jefferson Parish increased from 585 to 890 (52.1 percent).
Those going in the opposite direction went up, too. Between 2006 and 2010, commuters to East Baton Rouge from Jefferson Parish increased from 599 to 900 (50.3 percent); from Orleans Parish, 469 to 660 (40.7 percent); from St. Tammany Parish, 433 to 805 (85.9 percent); from Tangipahoa Parish, 2,059 to 2,310 (12.2 percent).
In 2010, more than 26,000 workers commuted from the nine-parish Baton Rouge metro area to the seven-parish New Orleans metro area, while 22,000 workers commuted in the opposite direction, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
Why are more people making this choice? The reasons vary.
Bourgeois and Joe Johnson both settled in Prairieville to split the commuting distance for themselves, working in the New Orleans area, and their wives, who work in Baton Rouge.
Battle took her job as a geologist and engineer at Coastal Environments in downtown Baton Rouge after her husband, Joseph, died in 2005.
For Battle, who grew up in Baton Rouge and lives 68 miles away on a 10-acre farm outside of Sunset, north of Lafayette, it was a matter of choosing peace and quiet over city life.
“If moving made sense, I would,” Battle said. “If the commute got to be too awful, either I would work harder at trying to find another job or I would move, but at this point I feel like there’s enough balance that I don’t need to do that.”
Battle’s sanguine attitude toward the drive is far different from what she felt when she took the job.
“It’s like a lot of things: Once you start doing them, the reality is not what you thought it would be,” Battle said. “The worst part is the loss of time. Essentially, I lose almost three hours a day. When I say lose, you spend three hours a day in a car. That’s a lot of your day. That, I mind. I do talk on the phone, try to do a little bit of business, little bit of pleasure, whatever. You get some relax time, some listening-to-music time, whatever, which is OK, too. I try to put it to good use.
“The actual drive itself, I can kind of put myself in neutral and I really don’t mind it. Part of it is real pretty. I get to go over the Atchafalaya Basin, and I make sure that I enjoy that every day. I take my breakfast and my coffee with me in the morning. There are definitely pleasures in it. I don’t have much traffic.”
Not all long-distance commuters can say that.
Lynn Grow comes to her job as a software programmer at Starmount Life Insurance in Baton Rouge on Interstate 12, a major commuting thoroughfare from Livingston Parish. Grow, however, starts her morning drive in Covington.
She moved there 12 years ago from Chicago, initially living there with her sister and brother-in-law. She never found a house she liked in Baton Rouge, but she did in Covington.
Living in Chicago prepared Grow for commuting, but not for the bottlenecks that can occur on I-12. On a normal day, it takes her an hour and 15 minutes in the morning, and 11/2 hours to two hours in the afternoon.
“It does give you time to get yourself together or to unwind from the day,” Love said. “The only thing that really kills me is when there’s an accident on (Interstate) 12. My hours are usually 7 to 4. When you’re still sitting on the Interstate or 190 at 10 in the morning, that’s pretty sad. Those are the days that kill you.
“When I first started, I thought it was a wonderful ride. Then, of course, we had (Hurricane) Katrina (in 2005), and Katrina changed it completely. The population increased. You could see a vast difference after Katrina. Of course, then they created all the construction. Now that they’ve finished up (in Denham Springs), it’s much, much better. I would get stuck in Walker in the morning, putzing down the Interstate. Now you can feel you can move.”
For much of Kathy Talbot Williams’ commute, traffic isn’t an issue. For the past 17 years, she has driven 65 miles from her home in Pierre Part to her job at Louisiana Nursery on Perkins Road. For her, delays are as likely to be caused by fog, railroad crossings or bridges stopped to allow boats to pass than other cars.
More exotic reasons have caused long detours: contraflow that made it impossible to cross La. 1 during the evacuation of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, closures of part of La. 70 this year because of a gas pipeline problem and in 2009 when a well started spewing oil near Paincourtville, and a propane tank filled with chemicals often used to make methamphetamines that exploded inside a car on I-10 in 2008. Williams crosses the Mississippi River on I-10 in the mornings, but she uses the Sunshine Bridge near Donaldsonville going home.
“I get weird, weird delays,” Williams said. “The meth lab has got to be the one that stands out the most. … Getting caught behind a cane truck is horrible. You get mud on you. You’re dodging cane. None of them really have brake lights. It’s really dangerous.”
Why does Williams do it? She loves working surrounded by flowers, and living on the water in a tranquil town.
“Going home and watching the river go by I swear is making me live five years longer,” she said.
Long-distance commuters face significantly higher gasoline costs, especially since prices have nearly doubled in the past four years.
Ashley Maddox commuted from Prairieville to New Orleans for eight months before moving closer to her job. Before the move, she filled up twice a week, burning $100 to $110 in gasoline. Now, she said, it’s $50 every two weeks.
In June, Bourgeois replaced his 2008 Honda Civic with a Toyota Prius. His old car averaged 35 miles per gallon. Bourgeois said the Prius gets 57 mpg on the highway. Given how much he drives, Bourgeois figures the difference will be about $1,200 a year in gasoline.
“It definitely made my car choice easier,” Bourgeois said.
His is an understandable choice, but not universally embraced.
“I could get a car with better gas mileage, but I want something that has a little bit of presence on the road,” Battle said. “I like an SUV. It’s up a little higher. I feel like I can see better, and people can see me. It’s bright red. … I want people to see me.”
Whatever they drive, long-distance commuters have time on their hands twice a day, and find ways to use it. Bourgeois makes cellphone calls and listens to talk radio and books on tape. On the morning commute, Grow tries to get mentally organized, then unwinds by listening to the radio going home. Johnson’s work at Entech Systems in Kenner also requires him to take longer drives to other cities.
“These days with satellite radio and books on tape and books on CD, a long drive, I guess over the years I’ve been so used to it anyway from my work that an hour in the car in the morning and in the afternoon doesn’t really seem to bother me at all,” he said. “I guess it would be nice if I lived a few minutes from the office, but I use it to the best. … I’m never bored.”
“Utopia is you could have a job down the street,” Grow said “But I enjoy my job. It’s a challenge, so when you get to working and it keeps you busy, it kind of makes up for it, I guess.
“Sometimes I miss my grandson’s T-ball games, or I’m the last one showing up for my other grandson’s football games, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”