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Hitting the road early

Morning drive time starts sooner than ever

Among the many things Allison Hargreaves ponders on her drive to work are the destinations of her fellow motorists. Where in the world could all those people be going at 5 in the morning?

Sure, she knows where she’s headed — to her job as a resident at UMass Memorial Medical Center — but she is curious about all those other early risers.

“Where are all these 9-to-5 jobs?” she said. “I wonder what all these people are doing up at 5 a.m.”

Perhaps one of the cars Dr. Hargreaves passes each morning is being driven by Raymond Burlingame of Charlton, a molder at the Saint-Gobain plant in the Greendale section of Worcester. Mr. Burlingame is up at 3:50 a.m. and on the road by 4:30, arriving in Greendale about 5 along with the many other Saint-Gobain workers on a pre-dawn schedule.

Dr. Hargreaves and Mr. Burlingame are among the growing number of commuters who are up and out by 6 in the morning. At one time, those who left for work at dawn were assured of having the road mostly to themselves. Coffee shop employees and police officers — those who deal directly with the change in driving habits — have had to adjust their work habits.

Commuters are hitting the road earlier for a handful of reasons. Some are eager to beat the rush. Some have found a less expensive house far from their workplace and are eager to get a jump on a long commute. Some hope to avoid slowdowns caused by school buses. Others are on a work schedule that begins early and ends in time for an afternoon of chores — or a full 18 holes of golf.

For years, since the traditional 9-to-5 workday started to dissolve, the morning commute has crept closer and closer to dawn. Traffic studies support the premise. And so does anecdotal evidence.

“We have people pulling on the door at 6 a.m.,” said Gordon Cook, a longtime cook at Carl’s Oxford Diner, a popular stop for the morning crowd. “Before you could ease into it; now it starts right at 6 o’clock.”

For those who study transportation for a living, the trend is measured in an aptly named category, Time Left Home. Nationally, workers leaving for work between 5 and 6:30 a.m. constituted 15 percent of those on the road in 1990. The figure rose to 25 percent in 2000. Those numbers, based on census data, are compiled in “Commuting in America III,” a study by the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Research Council, an independent adviser to the federal government.

“With more and more specialization … people are driving longer to get to work,” said Alan E. Pisarski, author of “Commuting in America” and a Virginia-based traffic consultant. “If you’re looking for the job you want, the odds of finding it 15 minutes away are pretty darn slim.”

Mr. Pisarski said there are several reasons for the trend of workers leaving home earlier. In the case of specialization, the American worker is willing to travel 90 minutes to get to the job he or she wants, he said. That scenario makes sense in the many instances a spouse has a job near home.

Another reason, Mr. Pisarski said, is the cost of housing in communities far from commerce centers. That trend is evident in northern Central Massachusetts, where communities such as Gardner and Templeton are attracting Interstate 495-area workers in search of less expensive housing. In Bolton, where Route 117 is a major commuter route linking I-495 with Route 2 and Interstate 190, the bumper-to-bumper traffic unfolds before 6 a.m.

“We get a noticeable slowdown by 5:30, 6 a.m.,” said Bolton Police Chief Vincent C. Alfano. “Before it wasn’t until the traditional hours, 7:30 or so.”

Keith Fournier of Worcester is on the road early, but his 5 a.m. wake-up call is by choice. He doesn’t like to rush in the morning, so he gives himself an hour to get ready and an hour to get to his base at Verizon’s location in Boylston. Mr. Fournier, an underground technician, leaves home at 6 a.m. for a scheduled start time of 7. It’s a trip that could take 20 minutes, even with traffic. But Mr. Fournier likes to take his time, not to mention he likes to stop for coffee, usually at Lala Java coffee shop on Route 9 in Shrewsbury.

“It’s not good to start off your day rushing around; it makes you stressed out all day,” Mr. Fournier said of his early and casual commute.

He’s a regular at Lala Java, at Route 9 and South Street, a popular stop for Worcester-bound early risers. On many days, customers are waiting on the shop’s front deck when the door is unlocked at 6 a.m. A recent day saw early-morning commuters from Natick, Southboro and Westboro hurry in and out of Lala Java en route to Worcester hospitals.

Early-morning traffic jumped markedly in southern New Hampshire in the 1970s as Massachusetts residents, frustrated with what some said was a high cost of living, moved across the state line, to affordable houses, and commuted to their jobs in Massachusetts. Years later, when businesses saw that New Hampshire was chock-full of high tech workers, development took shape in the same region.

In Massachusetts, business development is slow to follow the unfolding of bedroom communities, according to Michael Goodman, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute. The organization studies a variety of issues, bridging academic theory with real-world scenarios.

The Boston area, notably inside Route 128, has long been a dominant business region, and continues to be.

“It’s a price that we have to pay for uneven regional development,” said Mr. Goodman. “One potential solution would be to encourage more job growth where the affordable housing is. As employers are more critically dependent on highly skilled workers, they’re going to move to where those workers are.”

The intricacies of commuting and work schedules are studied by business students at Fitchburg State College. And some students know firsthand that the 6 a.m. hour can be a productive one. The college has an MBA class that starts at 6 a.m.

“It’s just a crazy world where time is a big commodity,” said the MBA professor, Joseph E. McAloon, who has office hours at 5 a.m. “The concept of time is completely different these days.”

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