The Long Haul to the Office

Most weekday mornings David Herbert, 44, is out the door by 4:15 a.m., hoping to get a jump on the 74-mile slog from his home southwest of Olympia, Wash. to downtown Seattle.

Rather than fight traffic the entire way, the information technology manager drives 45 miles to Tacoma, boards the 5:35 a.m. train for the one-hour ride to King Street Station then takes a bus for the final 20 minutes of his commute to the office.

At his desk by 7:00 a.m., Mr. Herbert works a full eight-hour day before leaving to catch the 3:15 p.m. train to Tacoma. By the time he pulls back in his driveway around 6 p.m. he’ll have been in transit more than five hours – and that’s on a good day.

More than 3.2 million workers in the U.S., or about 2.4% of the nation’s workforce, travel more than 90 minutes to work each way, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (According to the Bureau, any commute over one hour is considered extreme.)

Although the average commute hasn’t changed much in the past five years, in certain pockets, such as parts of Southern California and the New York metro area, the number of people with extreme commutes has increased, says Kate Lister, of the San Diego-based Telework Research Network.

“It used to be when you looked at Census data and saw that someone lived in Los Angeles and worked in San Francisco you assumed it was a mistake,” says Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America. “These days you cannot be sure.”

The economy, no doubt, is a big factor behind increased commutes: In many instances workers will go just about anywhere for a job, especially when selling the house and relocating isn’t an option for homeowners hamstrung by underwater mortgages.

Another factor is lifestyle. Employees who are working longer or returning to the workforce after retirement, suffer long commutes for the sake of kids who are well-established in schools or the desire to stay put in the family home.

Take James Walbridge. With his family firmly established in Lincoln, Neb., he flies across two times zones at least twice a month to get from his home to his office in San Francisco’s trendy South of Market district.

The president of Tekton Architecture and Artisan Builders Corporation moved to Lincoln in 2003 after meeting his future wife at a conference and “showing up on her doorstep.” The plan was to go back to San Francisco, but Lincoln grew on Mr. Walbridge. Eight years later the office is still six hours and a world away.

“When I’m in San Fran, I’m type A and in Nebraska I’m type B,” says Mr. Walbridge, who stays in a small studio in his San Francisco office and works 16-hour days for two weeks at a stretch. He’s often in good company. The firm’s other two architects commute to the office from Oregon and Washington about every two weeks. “We’re a very tightly run organization, but we’re flexible about how we’ve accommodated employees’ life choices,” he says.

Lifestyle choices aside, long commutes take their toll emotionally and physically. According to a 2010 Gallup Poll, long commutes are associated with health problems, such as high cholesterol, and recurring neck and back pain, as well as higher stress levels. What’s more, a study out earlier this year from Sweden’s Umeå University, showed that long commutes – 45 minutes or more – take their toll on marriage too, increasing the risk of divorce by a full 40%.

“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Jill Pollack, who flies 3,000 miles between her home in West Hartford, Conn. and Vancouver about three times a month, eight months out of the year for her role as host of HGTV Canada’s makeover show “Consumed.”

While the time spent away from her husband and 3-year-old son takes the biggest toll, Ms. Pollack also doesn’t like to fly. “It dries your hair and your skin, and you’re surrounded by a bunch of sick people.”

Still, many road warriors argue that the benefits of living where they do outweigh the toll of the commute.

Mr. Herbert has no plans to change jobs or his address. “I live on two acres across the street from a federal wildlife reserve and the schools here are good,” says the father of four. “No matter where I work, I’ll always live here.”