Commuter Idyll Winner Jake Williams Tells His Dramatic Story of Salvation

Jake’s girlfriend and her co-worker at Sam Schwartz Engineering were so excited that he won Streetsblog’s “Commuter Idyll” challenge that they created this “infographic” of his commutes.

When we saw that Washington’s news-traffic-weather radio station, WTOP, was holding a “Commuter Idle” contest for the worst commute in the DC area — and rewarding it with $1,000 in gas money — we couldn’t resist. We went looking for the best “Commuter Idyll” — the trips to work that made people happy, got them fresh air, helped them fit exercise into their day, gave them some extra time to sleep or read, and brought them to work more clear-headed and ready to tackle the day. And Streetsblog readers had lots of great stories to share of ditching long car commutes for transit, biking, or walking. We shared some of them yesterday.

Meanwhile, check out the painful stories of soul-sucking commutes of WTOP’s 10 finalists. Some are out of the house by 4:00 a.m., drive 80 miles each way, are stuck in their car for six hours a day. Imagine all the better ways they could use that time and money!

Our “Commuter Idyll” winner — Jake Williams of Chicago — had a hellish commute too. He made big changes to get control over his time, his health, and his happiness. Here’s Jake’s story.

Upon graduating from college at UCLA, I moved back home to Chicago to start my working career as an engineer. I had commuted to internships before, one in Kenosha, WI and one in Melrose Park, IL, so I was already exposed and accustomed to the solo commute by automobile. I was looking for work anywhere in the metro area, and when I was offered a job in Lincolnshire, a suburb of Chicago 26 miles from my apartment, I was not fazed. Little did I know that the next four years would at times literally “drive” me crazy.

The guts of Jake’s old ride. 

The commute affected my whole life and actually made me dread going to and from work. I tried waking up early in the morning, and while it was nice seeing the sunrise, it was not a sustainable schedule. I worked longer hours, and although the morning commute was somewhat more tolerable, the commute home was about as awful. I tried breaking up the afternoon commute by heading straight to the gym and then going home. The result was that I was gone 14 hours a day and exhausted, constantly.

I would become angry and irritable. I needed a “cool-off” period when I got home. I stalked the roads religiously on traffic sites and on the various radio stations, but knowing never changed what was coming. I realized that the commute had completely conquered me when I left work one snowy winter day and got so frustrated with the stagnation on the road that I turned around and went back to work, for hours.

So, when times got rough and I was laid off from work, the strange, overwhelming feeling was of relief. Ironically, I was supposed to be laid off a day earlier, but I had to call off work because my car had broken down. I was disenchanted with my career choice and lifestyle choice, and I realized after a couple of months that I had the power to change all of that. I decided that I had one of many new goals: to walk to work.

After a lot of exploration and searching, I found THE job, and it was only three miles from my apartment in a nice, residential neighborhood of Chicago where I used to live. This was a commute that I could handle: 11 minutes door-to-door by car or 25-30 minutes by walking and bus. It was a start, but given that I still had a car, and there was not a direct bus or train route, I found myself driving more frequently than taking public transportation. It was only three miles, but I still dreaded it a little. It is as if there is a cumulative frustration when solo commuting by car that once amounted to a certain level, it takes only the slightest road block to conjure an awful irritability.

Jake’s new ride. 

I got a road bike to replace my old, beat-up mountain bike, which made riding into work much more enticing. This was one of the best decisions I could have made. The city all of a sudden shrank in scale. What was once a recreational pastime for me became my preferred mode of transportation. I replaced many of 4.5-mile car trips from the office to my girlfriend’s place with bike trips, and I did not lose any time! I was on the right path.

When my lease came to term last September, I only considered places within a mile radius of my workplace, and I landed a spot a half mile down the road. That first walk to and from work was a blissful experience. I could walk home for lunch; I could wake up minutes before my work day was slated to begin; and I could plan for anything after work without worrying about hour-long delays. I could focus on the important things in life, including work.

But there was a problem: I still owned a car.

As proof that the “convenience” of an automobile is addictive, I actually on occasion drove the half-mile to work. Insanity. It had to end. And so I sold it. For $300 — anything to get it off my hands. Goodbye insurance payments, city stickers, license plate renewals, snow removal, parking fees, gas pumping, and trips to the mechanic. Hello sanity.

My motivations for this change were of course not only to save time. I do something I love now, and even though I am earning less based on my career change from engineering to non-profit work, I can save money. It’s a healthier choice, both physically and mentally. It’s better for the environment, which as a member of the Chicago Conservation Corps, I am extremely conscious of. And it’s fun!

So, in summary, my commute was two to three horrible hours minimum each day by car; then, it was 11 tolerable minutes each way by car; then it was occasionally 15 minutes by bike; and now it is 12 glorious minutes each way by my own two feet (or three minutes by bike!). I drove enough miles to go around the world three times over and only went as far as Michigan, and now I walk, bike, train, or bus everywhere I can. When I do drive for work purposes, I use a local, non-profit car sharing service called I-GO.

To cap it off, my girlfriend and I are moving in together in June to a new apartment. She will continue to take the train or bike downtown for work, and I will continue to walk or bike, even a little less (0.4 miles!)

Congratulations, Jake — on moving in with your girlfriend (who is obviously extremely talented — see the illustration above!) and on winning Streetsblog’s first-ever “Commuter Idyll” contest! We’ll be sending Jake a complimentary copy of the anthology, “On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life,” which includes a chapter by Streetsblog Chicago Editor John Greenfield.

17 thoughts on Commuter Idyll Winner Jake Williams Tells His Dramatic Story of Salvation

  1. I didn’t enter this contest, but I have to say that having a 15 minute bike ride to my school teaching job is lovely and makes me never want to switch jobs.

  2. One thing I would not like to do is take long-headway (long wait) public transit or have to walk to/from the school. Too much chance for payback from disgruntled students. Bicyling would be OK.

  3. It’s weird that none of the WTOP winners tried to explain or justify living so far from work. Many of them stated that they love their job (I think you’d have to to do those commutes every day) but there seems to be a simple solution to the problem that is being overlooked. I’m sure a few have spouses that work near home, or some other valid reason, but I wonder if some just want a big house that they couldn’t afford if they lived closer to the city.

  4. I love walking to work. Even subway commutes can be hellish if they are very long. When I lived in NYC my subway commute was two transfers and a daily total of two hours. I read a lot, but it was very demoralizing. Not wanting that again does constrain where I live even in the city. I love Andersonville for example, but can’t imagine living there because it’s so far from where most jobs are in the city.

  5. I love walking to work. Even subway commutes can be hellish if they are very long. When I lived in NYC my subway commute was two transfers and a daily total of two hours. I read a lot, but it was very demoralizing. Not wanting that again does constrain where I live even in the city. I love Andersonville for example, but can’t imagine living there because it’s so far from where most jobs are in the city.

  6. Sometimes it is the reverse. When I lived in Michigan, my job was in a distant suburb and it would have felt soul-crushing to live anywhere near there. I lived 7 miles from the core city’s downtown in an old streetcar suburb that was extremely walkable and human-scaled, and for which I did not particularly need to drive to anything. The only thing I really had to drive to was my job.

  7. This is inspiring. From Car to Bike to Walk , a journey toward total freedom and self reliance..

  8. You can’t beat walking to work. Jealous. Living in NYC sucks. I work in Manhattan and there is no way i could afford living anywhere near my work. So I guess i should be happy with my 45 minute bike ride from Queens.

  9. What this story shows is the importance of location, both of one’s job and of one’s residence. For the past 50 years Americans have been in the business of maximizing income and house square footage by inputting huge amounts of cheap energy and time. Though I can’t see how a large house justifies spending two (or even four!) hours a day in traffic, I think our identity as Americans is so tied up in our house and the kind of car we drive, we are unable to even imagine that these two possessions diminish our quality of life rather than enhance it. (It is equally difficult to discard a job one dislikes but pays well.)

    As available cheap energy declines, both for transportation and for heating, cooling and lighting living space, this calculus will change. Living in less square footage near goods and services and jobs will be increasingly attractive. Millennials already seem more resistant than previous generations to basing their identity on house and car. For this reason we’ll continue to see flight from isolated suburbs to more urban, transit-rich, walkable urban cores. (Small cities connected to larger ones by rail will also make a comeback.) Eventually, a short commute will be more of a status symbol than a McMansion.

  10. Hi,

    I think this is buried lead, unfortunately. Jake didn’t enjoy his job, so getting a different job he enjoyed more made a big difference in his life. It also eliminated some miserable hours of commuting. But it would be insane to quit a job you enjoy for a job you don’t (which may be seven or eight hours of your day) to save a few hours of commuting. Particularly as long commutes by car can be much less stressful if you are able to construct your split between work and home around them – although this does impose that you don’t mind whether you are at work or at home, i.e, once again we come back to liking your job.

    Thus the critical feature isn’t distance but rather density. What is the chance that a job you’ll love – and ideally more than one, in case the job disappears – is within a walkable or cycleable distance or on a frequent transit grid from your home?



  11. The vast majority of people by far HATE their jobs with a purple passion. All other things being equal then, a shorter commute is always better. The usual reason people give for commuting longer distances is because the job pays more, not because they like it more. I had an uncle who decided to drive all the way into Manhattan from Babylon, NY (easily 2 hours each way) because the job paid $20 a week more than jobs much closer. OK, this was in the early 1970s when $20 was probably equivalent to $100 now, but figure a third of that is taxes anyway. I’ll bet most of the rest was eaten up in additional commuting costs. Lots of people come to similar decisions, even when once everything is accounted for they end up coming home with less, or just a slight amount more.

  12. One thing not mentioned which could have a major influence on how long someone is willing to commute is the number of days they need to work each week. A conventional five or six day work week with no flexibility benefits far more from shorter commutes than a work week with three longer days. It’s a pity the business world has adopted the latter as it would be highly beneficial to employees, would reduce congestion, and would reduce commuting expenses. Yes, many businesses are open 5 or 6 or 7 days a week, but this is no problem is employees have different days off. You can still fully staff a business if the employees have three day work weeks. This would also benefit those with children. By not having the same days off there are no issues of child care. The only downside is the three days you’re working you don’t really have time for anything else but to come home, eat, wash, and sleep. Then again, after a regular 8 or 9 hour work day, often with a long commute, how much free time do people really have anyway, a few hours to kill watching TV? I’d rather skip them in exchange for two extra days off each week.

  13. I never understood the calculus behind exchanging a larger house for a ridiculously long commute. After all, if you work 8 to 10 hours a day, then commute another 2 to 4, all you’re doing at your large house five days out of seven is sleeping there. The other two you may well be too exhausted from your grueling schedule to do much beyond just loaf around watching TV. None of these things require a large house.

    There’s also the long term health issue. I’ve no doubt many people doing long commutes for a larger home will fully agree with what I wrote above, but justify it either for their family, or perhaps because they feel at least they’ll have time to enjoy the home after retiring. The problem is long commutes burn you out. After doing them for 30 years, you may not have the health for a quality retirement. I certainly wouldn’t do something where I’m knowingly sacrificing my health in exchange for a benefit which may or may not materialize in 20-30 years. I could easily die of cancer or heart disease due to the long commute way before. A short commute has immediate health benefits. If it means a smaller place to live it’s well worth it. Remember years ago people raised families in apartments often no bigger than one room in a McMansion. Somehow they made it, often raising happy children in the process. In the end the space for lots of superfluous material things just isn’t worth the sacrifice it entails. In the future your describe, most people will not even have the choice of trading a larger house for a longer commute. In the end, they’ll be thankful they didn’t when they see the poor health of those who did.

  14. The vast majority of people by far HATE their jobs with a purple passion…? Man, where do you work, it sounds miserable. This does not match my experience at all. I would say most people like their jobs.

  15. Put it this way-I don’t know anybody who would continue to work their job if they didn’t need the money. Read this if you don’t believe me:

    Fully 2/3rds of Americans are either somewhat unsatisfied or unsatisfied. Maybe you hang around in circles of professionals who aren’t underemployed. That’s the group who generally likes their jobs.

    I’ve done freelance electronics work at home since 1991. I actually don’t mind it, except when I have to do assembly work. Before being in business for myself, I hated every job I ever had. I hated the hours even more. Being a night person, having to wake at the crack of dawn I was constantly tired, regardless of how much sleep I got. And the jobs which were available didn’t make use of much of my abilities. To make things worse, the repetitive motions gave me pretty severe carpal tunnel syndrome, which I have to this day. I can control it now by limiting the amount of work I do (and my income), but it’s yet another byproduct of doing jobs I hated.

  16. Read “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, by the Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. He points out that most things we think of as making a difference to our well-being (winning the lottery, getting married, having a big house, losing a limb in an accident) are things that we get used to after just a few months. However, commuting is one of the few things that we never habituate to. Thus, people make bad decisions and trade off a worse commute for a better house, when the latter will make no difference to them after a few months, while the former will keep making their life miserable.

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