Commuting subsided during the pandemic, but many Bluebonnet-area drivers have returned to the weekday trek. Some of them never stopped.
Sharon Jayson l Photos by Laura Skelding
Rick Gaskamp is a Brenham native who loves his hometown so much that rather than move, he's spent the past 21 years as a weekday commuter to Houston. He's got 414,000 miles on his 2013 black pickup, which is just the latest in a series of trucks and vans he's driven to and from work most weekdays.
Every Monday through Friday, the self-employed carpenter hops in his Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD and drives some 80 miles to various job sites in the city, where he works on new and remodeled multimillion-dollar properties for a homebuilder. He earns more than he did when he worked closer to home. Each one-way trip takes an hour and 15 minutes, an endurance stretch Gaskamp knows well from his thousands of hours of experience.
He leaves home at 5 a.m. and returns 12 hours later. "I know what time to leave to get there before the traffic is bad," he said, explaining that he can be at a job site by 6:15 a.m. if he leaves at 5 a.m.
"I've learned a lot of shortcuts," said Gaskamp, a Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative member. "When I get halfway to Houston, I listen to Houston traffic (radio reports). If there's a wreck on the way I normally go, there are multiple ways to go around it."
That is, unless he's already on the road where the collision occurred. "Sometimes you just got to wait," he said.
The commuting culture had a major shakeup during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown and the rise of remote work. No one knows if it will return to pre-pandemic levels. Today, nearly 60% of U.S. workers have the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week, according to a 2022 report by McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm. Of those workers, 35% can work from home five days a week, the report said.
That's all well and good for those who spend a lot of time at a desk and in virtual meetings, but many Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative members have jobs that require them to return to their workplaces. Plus, steady growth and development in the region -- and employers beckoning workers to come back -- means plenty of commuters are returning to Central Texas roads.
Before the pandemic, more than 80% of Texas workers drove to their jobs alone, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. During the height of the pandemic, carpooling was discouraged to contain the virus spread.
Now, along with more workers returning to the office as well as hybrid work schedules, experts say the nature of rush hour has changed, with many doing errands at various hours rather than on the way to, or from, work. The price of gasoline, and the inevitable wear and tear on vehicles, also factors into today's commuting choices.
In 2019, the average one-way travel time to work was at an all-time high of 27.6 minutes, according to the U.S. Census. But experts say the 2020 Census commuting data released this year is skewed by the pandemic, making a pre-COVID comparison unreliable.
"We just don't know what (commuting) is going to look like a year or two or five from now," said David Schrank, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in Bryan. "If you put your 2019 hat on, we had a pretty good idea about what a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday looked like if you were one of those commuters. We spent decades getting to that point. All that got undone in a year or two (by COVID) and now it's going to take a few years for that to settle in and figure out what that's going to look like."
Legions of workers are redesigning their ways of working. Their transportation decisions will depend on employment opportunities, growth in their area, road construction or improvements, the availability of mass transit and carpooling, and, of course, remote-work options. Bluebonnet members across the cooperative's 3,800-square mile service area are making these decisions daily.
For Meredith Brown of Luling, the 45-minute drive to her job at Texas State University in San Marcos means she's on Texas 80 door-to-door -- unless there's a problem.
"The other day, there was a wildfire and they had 80 blocked off," she said. But because she grew up in the area, Brown knew how to use back roads to get to work.
Brown has been assistant to the executive director of housing and residential life at Texas State since 2015, but she has commuted from Luling only for a few months. She and her family moved from family-owned property in another part of Caldwell County in mid-July. Her commute used to be just 20 minutes. Now, with just one lane in each direction on Texas 80 and three traffic lights, she can drive the majority of the 30 miles to the office with a 65 mph speed limit until Martindale, 7 miles east of San Marcos. There, the speed limit drops to 55 mph.
"Commuting doesn't bother me," Brown, a Bluebonnet member, said. "It's not bad for me -- it's not like I-10 or I-35 that have massive traffic. It's not super congested." She makes the drive in her sturdy 2018 silver Ram 1500 pickup.
Brown's youngest child attends preschool in Martindale, so they leave their house about 6:15 a.m. She drops off her son about 15 minutes later, then works on campus from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. She picks up her son and they typically arrive home by 5:45 p.m. Independent transportation research consultant Alan Pisarski, of Falls Church, Virginia, has spent 35 years analyzing commuting. Workers whose jobs involve ideas and information -- a rapidly growing portion of the workforce -- can more readily work remotely, he said. Also, many urban dwellers moved to the suburbs during the height of the pandemic and are "much less interested in coming back," he said.
"It will be 2023 before I can say it's comparable to 2019," he said. Today, even the definition of a commute is unclear, Schrank, the A&M research scientist, said. "The question is 'Are you a commuter if you drive in one day a week?' Commuters used to be five-day-a-week travelers," he said.
Roads in parts of Bluebonnet's service area are congested now, in part, because of the jump in population over the past two years, said William Frey, a census and demographics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. In particular, he noted growth in Bastrop and Caldwell counties.
That is no surprise to Jason Giulietti. He's president of the Greater San Marcos Partnership, an economic development nonprofit that serves the City of San Marcos, as well as Hays and Caldwell counties, which he said are experiencing "exponential and record-setting growth."
Giulietti is a transplant, having moved to Texas from Connecticut in early 2019.
"I live in New Braunfels," he said. "When I look at my neighbors, every person on my street is from another state."
Besides residential development, fiscal 2021 set a record for his organization, completing 14 new development project deals on the heels of six the previous year. Six of the 14 projects are within the city of San Marcos. A 1.1 million-square-foot Amazon facility opened in November 2021, adding to already existing Amazon sites and cementing Amazon as the largest employer in the San Marcos region.
"What we measure that drives the jobs and residents here is they don't have to commute to an Austin or to a San Antonio for those jobs," Giulietti said. "The more we bring the jobs locally, the less they have to commute."
That's not the case for Laura Fohn, a Bluebonnet member who lives in The Woodlands neighborhood of Bastrop near Texas 21 and Texas 71. She commutes 26.4 miles each way to Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas near downtown Austin.
"If I leave before 7 a.m., I (miss) the rush at Del Valle. Once you cross over into Travis County, it gets kind of rough," she said. For her return home, she leaves work around 6 p.m.
Trouble spots on her route are mostly on Texas 71, at intersections where traffic lights and construction are still clogging the road. For her in-office hours as director of operations, Fohn said she leaves home as early as she can to spend more time with her family later. Although she said she works more than the 8-to-5 day, her aim
is not to waste time driving. Her morning commute takes about 45 minutes, and her drive home takes about an hour.
Traveling between 7-9 a.m. or 4-6 p.m. would take her an hour each way, she said. "It depends on the day," she said, "but I want to get in early and not leave time sitting on the road."
Although Fohn's commute is the same distance as when she lived in South Austin 10 years ago, Fohn said her travel time from Bastrop is quicker. During the pandemic lockdown, she still had to be at her office at the medical center every day.
"That's when I knew what (a quicker commute) could be. I could get home in 25 minutes."
Two years ago, Fohn traded in her Toyota Sequoia SUV for a smaller, four-door Lexus SUV. During her time in traffic, she "makes a lot of phone calls" and listens to podcasts and books by popular researcher and lecturer Brené Brown.
"I make it a positive since I know I can't control the situation," she said. "I don't let it get me down, although it does sometimes." Margaret Gómez, the Travis County Commissioner for Precinct 4, has been in Del Valle for many years, and watched its growth and development for decades.
"There is quite bit of commuting between Travis County and Bastrop County and Caldwell County," she said. "Most of it is families who have left Austin to get away from the high taxes and high cost of living."
She calls Del Valle "the last of the rural areas of Travis County." Gómez said major projects in Del Valle, including the Circuit of the Americas motor racing track and facilities -- as well as Tesla's global headquarters and Gigafactory Texas -- have fueled even more development.
Manor in eastern Travis County has become a more affordable option than Austin, said Scott Dunlop, Manor's development services director. The city "is still a better value," he said. "A majority of respondents (to a 2016 survey by the City of Manor, conducted by GrantWorks Inc.) said they moved here because of housing costs." More than half of respondents had lived in Manor five years or less, and almost 70% said they commuted to Austin for work. Just 14% reported working in Manor.
An online City of Manor survey also conducted by GrantWorks in summer 2021 for city planning into 2050 asked about the length of residents' one-way commutes. Almost 41% said it took 30 to 45 minutes to get to work; almost 28% said 15 to 30 minutes and 24% said more than 45 minutes. Just 7% said less than 15 minutes.
Such short commutes are but a dream for Gaskamp, the carpenter who drives to Houston five days a week. If he doesn't end his workday by 3:30 p.m. and get on the road within 10 minutes, he faces a two-hour minimum commute home.
Each weekday morning, he tunes into Brenham radio for news and music until he crosses the Brazos River, where he loses that station and switches to radio news with Houston's weather and traffic. He knows if he left his home at 6 a.m., his journey would take two hours rather than only 75 minutes when he leaves at 5 a.m.
It may sound like an extremely long commute to some folks, but Gaskamp's system is finely tuned.
"The alarm goes off at 4 and I hit snooze once or twice and get a cup of coffee and pack my lunch," Gaskamp said. "I'm so used to my routine."
The U.S. Census Bureau's most recent data is a five-year estimate (2016-2020) of the number of workers commuting daily. The 2020 data skewed lower than normal because of the pandemic's impact on commuting. County totals include areas outside Bluebonnet's service area. Travel is mean time, rounded.*
Travel time: 28 minutes
Travel time: 35 minutes
Travel time: 28 minutes
Travel time: 34 minutes
Travel time: 24 minutes
Travel time: 31 minutes
Travel time: 30 minutes
78653 ZIP code, includes Manor area Commuters: 14,598
Travel Time: 30 minutes
78617 ZIP code, includes Del Valle area
Travel time: 32 minutes
78621 and 78747 ZIP codes, includes parts of Bluebonnet service area
Travel time: 32 minutes, 34 minutes
Travel time: 21 minutes
* Mean travel time is obtained by dividing the total number of minutes by the number of workers 16 and older who did not work at home. Most times are rounded.
By Denise Gamino
The grind of a daily commute to work can leave you frazzled and a bit breathless.
Knowing how to calmly breathe through the stress can be the best fix.
Slowing your breathing by making your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations, for example, can reduce commuting stress, according to health research.
"Slow breathing practices could transform the automobile commute from a depleting, mindless activity into a calming, mindful experience," according to a 2018 study by Stanford University researchers and others.
The study, "Just Breathe: In-Car Interventions for Guided Slow Breathing," used voice-guided prompts and vibrating seat and back cushions to remind drivers to achieve slow, rhythmic breathing. But drivers really don't need electronic prompts. Any driver at any time can work to slow down their breathing just by lengthening exhalations, such as inhaling to a count of 5, holding briefly, and then exhaling to a count of 10.
And, working to keep your breath slow and steady in traffic is a free exercise with big stress-management benefits.
Here are other ways to stay safe and alert during long commutes:
- Concentrate on watching the road and keeping your hands on the wheel. Never text or email while driving, even if you can use voice commands only. Use the time to stop working.
- Do isometric exercises. Contract your abdominal muscles by pulling the belly button inward toward your spine and hold for 10 to 60 seconds. Or contract and release thigh or calf muscles -- don't forget to breathe.
- Change the angle or position of the driver's seat regularly so your spine isn't in the same position every time you drive.
- Expect unexpected road delays and eliminate worries about being late to work by leaving 15 minutes early.
- Try the occasional different route to or from work, if an option is available, to relieve boredom. Knowing the back roads and alternate routes can also be handy in case of gridlock.
- Listen to podcasts, and try ones about topics you know little about. Change up what you listen to: Try practicing a foreign language or exploring audiobooks.
- Bring your own coffee or water, protein bars and fruit for emergencies, and have backup power supplies for your phone or flashlight.
- Use a lumbar or seat cushion that provides support and helps absorb road vibrations.
Sources: Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Healthline, National Institutes of Health, Robert Half human resources company, Self magazine
The U.S. Census Bureau tracks commuting on roads across America. It has designations for three types of long-distance commuters. With the decrease in long-distance work drives starting in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's likely the numbers of these long-haul commuters has dropped. Still, Central Texas drivers may find themselves in one of these categories of far-distance trekking to work.
This is someone who travels 90 minutes or longer to work, one way (that's 3 hours a day of driving!)
A worker who travels 50 miles or farther to work, one way, for a total of 100 miles driven every workday.
Let's hope you're not in this category. This is a commuter who drives for 90 minutes or longer and 50 miles or farther to work, each way, each workday.