Perils of the long-haul commute

By Jeff Outhit
The Kitchener-Waterloo Record

KITCHENER - Don Bourgeois missed being roadkill by a split second and a few metres of asphalt.

As the transport jackknifed in front of him, he cranked the wheel and slid his car around it.

Behind him, the sliding truck sprawled across all lanes, shutting down Highway 401.

Breakfast Before Dawn


''Had I been a millisecond later, he would have fishtailed into me,'' Bourgeois recalls. ``That would have just wiped me out. I wouldn't have survived that.''

Bourgeois is a road warrior from Waterloo Region.

He's one of almost 8,000 commuters who travel 200 kilometres a day or more between the region and Greater Toronto.

Why do they do it?

Cheaper housing. The lure of the small town. The draw of the big city. The love of a cherished job.

Commuters cite many reasons to support their daily grind, but they agree on one thing.

Life on the road takes its toll.

DRIVING LIFE: Before sunrise, Don Bourgeois is having breakfast in his Kitchener home. He is one of about 8,000 Waterloo Region commuters whose jobs in Greater Toronto mean driving 200 kilometres or more daily.

Commuter sunrise

Three doors slam, followed by the click, click, click of seatbelts snapping into place.

Sometimes it sounds to Sharon Clarke like she's settling into a space shuttle.

Clarke, her daughter Michelle, and Kim Warren are carpool veterans. They live in Waterloo Region but work for Hewlett-Packard in Mississauga, an hour away.

Every day they meet at 6:30 a.m. at a Highway 401 parking lot in Cambridge. With luck, they're back in Cambridge by 5:30 p.m.

On the road, they chat about girl stuff. They share costs by rotating vehicles. But the lifestyle is starting to grate on Sharon Clarke.

``Personally, I hate commuting. You know that, you guys,'' she says.

Clarke gets up by 5 a.m. and is often not home until 6 p.m., with no energy left for errands.

She has to get to bed by 9 p.m. for a full night's sleep.

``I'm tired. I find it's more stressful now than when I started.''

Clarke used to live in Toronto, but moved to Kitchener in 1991 to settle with her husband-to-be. She's thought about looking for work closer to home, but she loves her job of 14 years.

Co-worker Kim Warren moved to Cambridge two years ago from Mississauga. She figures her family has saved $40,000 on their house.

Warren enjoys the small-city lifestyle. The weekends are easier, the pace slower. The commute is still worth it.

``Your down time is just much more pleasant,'' Warren says. ``I don't think it's something you'd want to do your entire life.''

Census data reveal that Toronto and Peel Region lure 6,505 commuters from Waterloo Region.

Toronto and Peel send 1,485 commuters to Waterloo Region.

Glen Welch is among them.

Welch drives 250 kilometres a day from his home in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood to his job as a professional fundraiser in Waterloo.

It puts him in his car for three hours a day, fiddling with his radio and dreading bottlenecks.

``Not a day goes by when you don't have to dig your brakes pretty hard,'' he says.

As a bachelor, Welch has no one to share the pain of his long days.

``I find by the end of the week, come Friday afternoon, you're pretty wiped,'' he says.

Why does he do it?

In part because it's good work and it's not forever.

Normally, Welch works in downtown Toronto. He expects to return there by June next year.

One second, you're speeding along the highway. Suddenly, you're praying to stop in time.

``There are times when the traffic on the 401 will come almost instantly to a dead stop. It's unbelievable how quickly that can happen,'' says commuter Keith Allen.

Commuters say Highway 401 slowdowns are often inexplicable. There's no construction, no accidents, nothing to blame for the surprise.

All you can do is stay alert and keep your distance.

Bourgeois forgot these rules once and paid the price.

He came over the crest of a hill. He discovered a wall of stopped cars. He was distracted. ``I sneezed at the wrong time,'' he says.

He did not get to his brakes fast enough.

Nobody was injured in the slow-speed mishap. It caused only minor damage to the car in front.

But his aging Buick was a write-off with a badly crumpled hood.

Did this scare him off commuting, after his earlier near-miss with a fishtailing transport?


Two days after his old car was demolished, Bourgeois won a luxury Lexus in a fundraising draw.

He's still driving to his cherished Toronto job as an Ontario government lawyer.

Bourgeois chooses to live in Kitchener because it's his home town. He's got a better house than he could ever get in the bigger city.

He downplays highway frights.

``These are not daily events. They're not weekly events. They happen two or three times a year,'' he says.

David Barkley used to commute more than four hours a day, Stratford to Toronto and back.

``I probably never realized how tired I was till I stopped doing it,'' he says.

A lifestyle choice placed his young family in his home town. Career desires placed his banking job in downtown Toronto.

For six years, Barkley commuted more than 300 kilometres a day. He turned down an employer-paid relocation to Toronto.

People thought he was nuts.

Some days he did not see his kids. He slept maybe five hours a day. He was never on hand for family emergencies.

The commute ended when his marriage failed in 1994.

``Was that a factor? Probably, I suppose so, but I certainly don't think it was by any means the only one, or certainly the main one,'' he says.

Commuting allowed Barkley to pursue his career while keeping his family in a city they loved.

It gave him hours of contemplative time, and he says it made time with his wife more cherished.

``You don't take time for granted when you're commuting,'' he says.

When his marriage failed he moved to Toronto and started walking to work in 15 minutes.

``Suddenly you have four to five hours given back to you every day,'' he says. He filled it with music. He visited with friends. And he slept.

Commuting takes its toll on the wallet and the environment.

Driving between Waterloo Region and Toronto will cost you between $4,900 and $17,800 a year.

The lower estimate is for gas, parking and maintenance. The upper estimate includes financing, insurance and depreciation.

There are also the social costs of land-munching highways, the productive time lost to traffic congestion, and the health costs of pollution.

Every year, a car commuting to Toronto from Waterloo Region spews out 17 tonnes of global-warming carbon dioxide.

Driving is not the only way to get from here to there.

Via Rail offers a Kitchener-Toronto link for as little as $20 a day. But many commuters prefer to drive, or to link up with GO Transit at Milton.

``Taking the GO train is probably a preferable alternative. Even though it's a little bit longer time, it's certainly more relaxing,'' says Keith Allen.

Allen is a Waterloo Region business consultant who commutes to clients in downtown Toronto.

He likes living in Waterloo Region. His home costs less. And he's not convinced he'd save time commuting from a Toronto suburb.

Still, ``by the time the weekend rolls around you get kind of tired,'' he says.

Allen figures the province should consider a better rail link to Waterloo Region.

``It's kind of surprising to me that the GO train hasn't been extended further west,'' he says.

Don Bourgeois fears a better rail link would do more damage than good. What he doesn't want is to turn Waterloo Region into a Toronto suburb with a branch-plant economy.

``I think we'd lose something,'' he says. ``We don't want this area to be a commuter village.''