Ron Nance lets the van warm up a few minutes before pulling out of the parking lot at 5:55 a.m. Most of the riders are going to 205 Butler St. to work at the state Department of Education.
"The first two or three months [of commuting] was an adjustment," Nelson says. "You get used to it, and you just realize that sometimes you are going to get caught in traffic."
Nelson, who was born and raised in Bartow County, lives about a quarter-mile from where he grew up. After a career in the Bartow County school system, he became deputy state school superintendent. The long commute doesn't bother him enough for him to consider moving closer to work. "I don't want to live in the hustle and bustle of Atlanta. That's not my lifestyle."
Each rider pays about $44 a month to use the van, which is supplied by the state. The fee is based on the distance traveled and the number of people in the carpool.
Most riders are too groggy to chatter on the ride to Atlanta. Others speak about the upcoming work day. Usually, the radio remains silent, unless traffic starts backing up.
Nance, chief architect with the Department of Education, takes the Capitol exit and continues the short distance to Butler Street.
There were no wrecks, no major traffic jams. Just a normal 35-minute drive for these commuters. But, Nelson admits, "if I could do it by helicopter, I would."
It's 7:58 a.m. and Tobi North is bright-eyed and ready to hit the road. She cranks up her green 1996 Saturn, which is approaching the 100,000-mile mark, backs out the driveway of her Kennesaw town home and begins the trek to her job at Strafford Publications, roughly 25 miles away, in Midtown.
"I take the back roads in the mornings," she says, "I try to avoid the interstate." But today, there's already traffic backed up on the side street toward her subdivision. "Oh ... it's gonna be bad."
Most commuters are fueled by coffee, but North's only ammo is traffic radio and a giant plastic cup of ice water. She tunes her radio dial to WSB 750-AM.
Why would someone her age opt to live out of town? "I'm 27 years old and single. I wanted new construction, and this is what I could afford. And my brothers are up here, my parents are up here." In fact, Kennesaw is a step closer to Atlanta. "I lived up here for three to four years in my parents' basement, and that was 10 miles from where I live now. If I wasn't already used to it, I don't think I could do it."
At precisely 8:59 a.m., she's at work: one hour and one minute after leaving her driveway. She says that's about average.
At least two hours of Tobi North's day are taken up by traffic -- thinking about it, planning for it, sitting through it or driving in it. That doesn't leave a lot of time to take care of personal business. Lunch is spent running errands.
"You can't really get your personal stuff done. There's not a lot of time. Except on the weekends and then you don't really want to." Or, in some cases, can't. But, she says, "You get immune to the whole traffic thing. This is really the only time I get to be alone. This is my time."
-- Jane Catoe
At 6:47 a.m., Joseph Harrison and his 2-year-old daughter leave their home in Powder Springs. It's pitch dark out, and Ruthie is temperamental. Her mood oscillates between playful singing and sobbing outbursts. "I wouldn't say she's a morning person," Harrison says.
Most mornings, Ruthie gets a ride to daycare with her mom, Shannon. But Shannon has to be at work early on Thursday, so it's Joseph's turn to take Ruthie.
Harrison's 1997 Ford Taurus is one of the few cars on a dark road. By the time he reaches work, the sun will be up, the traffic a mess. He's been doing this commute, or a variation of it, for more than two years. And he actually doesn't mind it.
After dropping off his daughter, Harrison starts toward his office, at an accounting firm downtown. The 28-mile journey usually takes about 45 minutes. Not great but better than the commute to his old job in Chamblee, which took an hour on good days, two hours on bad.
Harrison winds his way through a tangle of forgotten surface streets. "The jury is still out for me if these back roads really are faster," Harrison says. "I guess it's a psychological thing -- at least you're still moving."
Why not move closer to the office? "The only option to avoid the traffic would be to either work around home or to live downtown." He and Shannon like the "quiet, friendly neighborhood feel" the suburbs afford without being too far from the culture of the city. "We like living OTP. It feels safer for some reason."
The traffic gods smile upon Harrison. He makes it to work in just over an hour. He pulls into his parking garage on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue. It costs $63 a month to park there, a discounted rate because Harrison parks on the top floor.
"Living in the Atlanta area my whole life, traffic is just one of those things you always know about," he says. "I think people pick their battles. Some people pick traffic to stress about. For me, it's just a part of my day."
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