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Commuter Idyll Winner Jake Williams Tells His Dramatic Story of Salvation

12:54 PM CDT on May 10, 2013

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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.

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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.

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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.

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