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Have we become a nation of commuting wimps?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 28, 2010 06:44 AM

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I recently got back a rash of complaints from hassled commuters.

I suggested that Rhode Island might be an alternative for buyers looking to beat Boston area home prices while still staying within commuting distance.

I was told very directly that driving in from Rhode Island is no picnic.

OK, point taken. But it did get me thinking about changing attitudes on commuting, and whether it's not just the mounting traffic that has soured attitudes, but a fundamental shift in expectations.

It's a debate that has played out in my own family. My wife, who grew up in small-town Ohio, is a big advocate of the short commute. She argues, quite reasonably, that for families with young children, it is worth paying more for a house in exchange for the convenience of a shorter drive to and from work.

As they say, location, location, location.

But I grew up in a family that took commuting into the big city for work as a given. My father spent years making a 20 minute drive to the Walpole train station for a 45 minute train ride into South Station. He then spent another 15 minutes walking to his job. That's an hour and twenty minutes - a considerable commute but I can't recall a single discussion on it.

His father commuted into New York from a New Jersey suburb - Montclair. He took the train - back in the 30s and 40s driving into work wasn't as common in large metro areas and you were lucky to have a car during the war years. My mother's family, who hailed from the same town, didn't have a car and either walked, or took a bus to points around town and the train into New York.

Now I could rightfully be accused right now of not walking the walk, so to speak, on this issue. After all, since launching my freelance writing business two years ago, my commute consists of heading downstairs to brew coffee at 5 a.m. and then shuffling back upstairs to my home office.

That said, I paid my dues, commuting to Boston to work at various papers, including the Boston Herald, for 13 years before jumping out on my own.

My most extreme commute: Gardner to Boston. First there was the 25 minute drive from my apartment to the Fitchburg train station. Then came the hour and twenty minute train ride into Porter Square. From there, I took the subway to South Station and then walked over to work at Banker & Tradesman on Summer Street - another half hour.

Total time in my car, on trains and walking - two hours and fifteen minutes each way.

I was 26, liked living in the sticks and thought it all to be a grand adventure. I also managed to catch up on my reading, including a pretty good book on the French Revolution.

That lasted six months - then I moved to Quincy.

Still, if you are housing hunting or thinking about buying a house, the commuting question is key here in Greater Boston.

Other than trying to outsmart other buyers, the other way of getting a better deal is trading distance for price.

Given that, a commute from Rhode Island to Boston seems as reasonable, if not more, than hauling it in from Southern New Hampshire or Central Massachusetts.

But taking the train is crucial - an hour catching up on the newspaper or prepping for work sure beats fighting traffic in your car.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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