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TALES FROM THE FREEWAY : Going the Distance : To Many, Long Commute a Fair Tradeoff for Quieter Lifestyle

June 14, 1990|ROBIN CRUISE

Phil Spear is behind the wheel of his Mercury Grand Marquis by 7:30 a.m. each weekday. On a good day, he's in his office soon after 9 a.m., 103 miles from his home in Poway.

Spear works at the headquarters of In-N-Out Burgers, in Baldwin Park, east of Los Angeles. He usually heads home at 6 p.m., traversing the route--out of Baldwin Park on Interstate 10 to the Corona Expressway, then onto the Pomona Freeway and south along Interstate 15 to Poway--that has become second nature to him since he signed on last year with the company as vice president for real estate.

Although Interstate 5 is the preferred north-south thoroughfare for many commuters, Spear opts for what he calls the "back way" in and out of suburban L.A.

By his own calculations, he logs 5,000 miles and an oil change every four weeks on the company-leased Marquis. His only companionship comes from the radio, occasional books on tape and the business associates he connects with via his car phone. Still, Spear would rather fight traffic than switch from the relatively bucolic lifestyle Poway has afforded his family--which includes 11- and 13-year-old daughters--for the past seven years.

"I thought about making the move up there (to suburban Los Angeles), but there was no way," Spear said. "The quality of life in Poway makes the commute worth it."

Gary Dunkel made a similar choice 10 years ago when he traded an urban lifestyle in Mission Village for 5 acres in Julian, so his children, then 7 and 8, might benefit from country life.

The move came at a price: Instead of commuting five minutes to work each way (he was employed by Cubic Corp. at the time), Dunkel travels 55 miles to and from his job as production manager of the Advanced Underwater Vehicle Center of Honeywell Inc. in Sorrento Valley.

He awakes at 3:50 a.m. each weekday, and he's behind the wheel of his Subaru-XT Coupe by 5:15 a.m. for the 80-minute trip west along California 78 and 67 to the Poway turnoff and the final stretch south on California 163. Dunkel's route bypasses the congested stretch of 78 between Escondido and Oceanside. (The California Department of Transportation figures that, last year, 105,000 vehicles a day crossed the checkpoint on four-lane 78 just east of I-5, up from 99,000 vehicles daily in 1988.)

Although Dunkel acknowledged that commuting can be wearisome, he hasn't looked back since his family moved to Julian a decade ago.

"I enjoy my weekends in the country," he said. "The downside is that it's dark when I leave in the morning and often dark when I get home at night. That makes for a long day."

Data on traffic trends throughout San Diego County substantiates what Spear and Dunkel know all too well: Forget the notion of that long, lonesome highway; when it comes to lengthy commutes from North County, they are not alone.

An increasing number of people are dividing their work and home lives between Orange and San Diego counties.

Studies by the San Diego Assn. of Governments indicate that traffic congestion has been compounded throughout the county because of the region's growing labor force and an increase in licensed drivers. The average length of time spent commuting has increased, as has the distance covered.

Renata Riedner, relocation director with Century 21 Consultants, said North County has become an attractive home base for people who work in Orange County.

"The general consensus of North County realtors is that people are getting tired of fighting the traffic and the high price of housing in Orange County," Riedner said. "If they can find more affordable housing here, many of them are willing to lengthen their commute."

Mike Zdon, a senior planner for Sandag, shares that view.

"There's a growing commuter population in North County, particularly in terms of people who commute to work in the Santa Ana and Anaheim area," Zdon said.

Sandag figures that about 95,000 vehicles cross the counties' border each day. It estimates that the miles traveled on San Diego's freeway system increased at least 50% since 1980 and predicts that the trend will continue for two decades. Not everyone on the road is a commuter, but the many single-occupant cars suggest that many are.

Although the greatest number of commuters travel by car, other modes of transportation are also used. Amtrak logs about 5,000 passenger trips daily between San Diego and Los Angeles. Air travel accounts for another 5,000 trips a day between the two cities, according to Sandag.

Tom Ruhrup decided to divide in order to conquer his 80-mile commute between his Rancho Bernardo home and his office in Santa Ana.

Ruhrup, general counsel for Continental Lawyers Title Co., leaves home at 6:25 each weekday morning and drives 27 miles to the Amtrak stop in Oceanside, where he parks for free and catches the 7:11 a.m. northbound train. It's a short walk from the Amtrak stop in Santa Ana to his office, and most days Ruhrup is settled in at work by 8:30.

Most evenings, provided Amtrak is running close to schedule, he boards the 5:38 p.m. train in Santa Ana--and is home in Rancho Bernardo soon after 7. Ruhrup pays $71.25 a week for his 10-ride pass.

He says he hasn't shaved any time off the two hours it takes to make the trip by car, but he prefers the train commute.

"You can relax instead of always having to watch what cars are doing in front and behind you," Ruhrup said. "On the way up I can get a jump on planning my day, and the trip back gives me a chance to unwind."

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