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ON THE ROAD AGAIN ... AND AGAIN ... AND AGAIN ... FROM CIGARETTES TO CDS, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA'S COMMUTERS ARE FUELING THE ECONOMY FROM THE DRIVER'S SEAT.

Byline: Barbara Correa Staff Writer

Lilly Klein swings through the drive-through Starbucks on Willow Street in Long Beach every weekday morning for a venti nonfat latte ($3.35) to get her through the drive to work in downtown Los Angeles.

Twice a week, she has to stop at the Chevron station to fill up her Volkswagen Passat ($30) and buy a pack of Marlboro Lights 100s ($4.50), one of which she lights up before getting on the 110 freeway for her one-hour morning commute.

Talk about driving the economy: Southern Californians' willingness to commute long distances from home to work - in the nation's worst traffic - is fueling a multitude of industries that cater to people on the go.

Once on the road, Klein bumps up the A/C (``I even use it in the winter'') smokes two more cigarettes (``If I didn't commute I'd smoke half as much as I do'') and pops in a CD ($17) to reduce the stress of morning drive time.

On the way into the downtown insurance office where she is a client service representative, Klein drops off clothes at a convenient but expensive dry cleaner ($4 per item). At this point, her expenses are pushing $60. And that's only for the morning commute.

``I read this book about smart women and investing and there was a whole chapter on 'the latte effect,''' said Klein, admitting she'd save money making coffee at home if she wasn't traveling to work. ``That chapter really hit home.''

Commuting in the vast and congested greater Los Angeles area is expensive - $2,500 a year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Commuters in the San Bernardino-Riverside area fare better, with an annual cost of $1,250.

These ``congestion costs'' take into account many factors, including the value of time, delays caused by traffic, and fuel expenses.

But the real-world costs of commuting are far greater.

Emily Cabral, a mother of three in Rancho Cucamonga, ended up quitting her job in downtown Los Angeles several years ago for one five minutes from home because the commute was just taking too much of a toll - not only on her pocketbook, but on her family life. ``I was leaving home at 6 a.m. and coming home at 7. I missed having dinner with the kids,'' said Cabral, a mortgage loan underwriter.

``I considered moving to L.A. but the rents were too high and I thought the change would be too drastic for the kids,'' who were still in high school and junior high at the time. Now, working five minutes from home, Cabral says she saves a ton of money on gas and gets to be as involved in her kids' lives as she likes. ``I love the fact if my son forgets his lunch money I can get it to him and come back to work without missing anything.''

In addition to the profound expenses, measured in time away from family and the stress of sitting in traffic, there's a myriad of petty little costs that cut into a commuter's disposable income.

There are fast-food meals on the run, extra child care expenses and stress relievers like Swedish massage treatments to ease the pain in necks, backs and shoulders.

Kim Jensen, a pool salesman living in La Puente and working in Northridge, helps grease the palms of fast-food outlets all over Southern California.

``I never cook,'' says Jensen, who favors El Pollo Loco, Taco Bell and Denny's during sales call lunch breaks. After spending money eating out all day, he treats himself to an iced mocha ($3.50) at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf two or three times a week. Jensen says he makes up for these expenses by always driving a Japanese workhorse for commuting - right now he has a Honda Accord (his Sunday car is a Corvette).

Day-care centers in the San Gabriel Valley now demand $5 from parents for every 15 minutes late they are picking up kids at closing time - usually 6:30. For parents commuting downtown, those fees are likely to kick in with some frequency. Other centers report opening their doors as early as 4 a.m. to accommodate mobile parents. Need to be in a meeting by 6 a.m.? Some centers advertise 24-hour kid coverage - for an extra $25.

Carousel Family Day Care in Los Angeles gets eight to 10 kids a night for overnight service, says Ana Gutierrez, who runs the day-care center.

``There isn't a huge demand, but people who ride buses and have to be in the office early use it and people like nurses and 911 operators need it.''

Southern California auto insurers charge commuters more based on mileage per year.

Starbucks fuels customers, and they keep it going, buying the most coffee during morning commute time.

And in an effort to capitalize on commuters and the car-bound, McDonald's has opened double-lane drive-through stores in Santa Clarita, Thousand Oaks, Paramount and Long Beach.

``Where you really see it is in how commuters appoint their cars,'' said Richard Giss, a partner in the retail services group at Deloitte & Touche's Los Angeles office. ``They spend more money on things like upgrading the car stereo.''

Indeed, cars themselves are increasingly designed with the commuter in mind.

Aside from drink holders and global positioning navigation devices, auto makers introduced concept cars in the last two or three years that have e-mail and computer screens in the middle of the dash, said Geoff Wardle, a transportation design instructor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Traffic jams, coupled with cell-phone deal-making while driving, have made accessories like earpieces ($19.99 to $200), car chargers ($19.99 and up) and lighter adapter kits that make a cell phone a speakerphone ($39) required equipment for most commuters.

Dave Rizzo, a foot surgeon and transportation expert known as ``Dr. Roadmap,'' says his main commuting expense is reading material, like Car and Driver ($3.99) or Road & Track ($3.99). Dr. Roadmap doesn't read while driving. But per his own Southern California driving rule, he figures in an extra 15 minutes for periodic commutes from Fullerton to Norco, meaning he always arrives early, leaving time to indulge his car obsession.

Drive-time leader Big Boy of KPWR-FM (105.9) owes his job to car commuters, who almost single-handedly support the talk radio industry by captively listening to the ads it broadcasts. From 5 to 10 a.m. on weekdays, Big Boy's top-rated ``Power 106'' show commands $1,000-$2,500 for a 30- or 60-second spot, says Jeff Federman, KPWR director of sales.

When not listening to the radio, commuters play audio books, which account for 10 percent of Simon & Schuster's overall sales. The publisher says commuters spend an average 4 1/2 hours a week listening to books such as Dr. Stephen Covey's ``The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,'' ($14).

``I am paying a premium just to make my three-hour commute,'' says Bill Adams, an executive at design firm Cordoba Corp., who shuttles between his home in Anaheim Hills, Orange County, to project sites in the far reaches of the Inland Empire, downtown Los Angeles and, about once a week, the San Francisco office. Adams is living proof that the further you drive, the more you spend to stay comfortable.

``I probably spend an extra 10 or 15 bucks a day on stuff just to get me by,'' he says. And that's just for designer coffee and road snacks. It doesn't account for the $35 sessions with the chiropractor or the $90 Swedish deep tissue massages Adams needs to treat back pain and stress brought on by the long-haul commuting.

Or the minimum $40 unwinding in the evenings with buddies, the beer breaks Adams sometimes takes with friends to wait out traffic, the $3 airport smoothie he treats himself to before catching his weekly flight to Oakland, the two pairs of high-end sunglasses, or the two to three weekly gas fill-ups for his Ford Expedition.

``It costs five bucks just to pass somebody on the freeway,'' said Adams.

Which begs the question: Why drive when you can fly?

Boeing employees cut commute times by flying the company's two helicopters between offices in Canoga Park, Long Beach and Anaheim. Boeing spokesman Dan Beck said he doesn't know exactly what the copter fleet costs the company, but that the time and agony it saves workers is priceless.

``If people can do their job by taking a 15- or 20-minute flight as opposed to sitting for an hour and a half on freeways, it's well worth the cost,'' said Beck.

Of course, commuting isn't always a money-losing prospect. Travelers who ditch their cars to ride the rails or buses usually come out ahead financially.

Evelyn Kramer, a small-business attorney from Pasadena, is saving more than $100 a month commuting to her Los Angeles office by bus. Kramer says she used to spend $200 a month on parking downtown, and now she spends $58 for a monthly pass that covers all subway and bus lines.

More than the financial savings, though, Kramer says taking the bus buys her time to read professional publications she'd have to read at work if she were driving.

For parents like Emily Cabral, there's no way to put a price on the savings reaped by opting out of the commuter lifestyle. Several years after she quit the job downtown, Cabral's old boss is still trying to lure her back, dangling a $10,000 monthly paycheck and her own loan branch to make up for the drawbacks of commuting. But the offer would need to be substantially sweeter to tempt her back to a daily commute. ``When I was growing up, we lived in Covina and my father was working in Los Angeles,'' says Cabral. ``He commuted for 30 years to L.A., and we never saw him. Commuting takes away a lot of your personal life,'' she says. ``I don't think I'll ever go back.''

CAPTION(S):

photo, drawing

Photo:

William Adams sorts through paperwork while on the road. More and more, commuters are bringing the creature comforts of home along during their increased drive time.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer

Drawing:

(color) Gas: $60 a week

Starbucks venti latte: $3.35

Pack of Marlboros: $4.50

Day care late pickup fees: $5 for every 15 minutes

Cell phone accessories: $20 - $200

Music CD: $17

Books on tape: $14

Swedish deep tissue massage: $90

Jon Gerung/Staff Artist
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Sep 22, 2002
Words:1745
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