Reese (not her real name) commutes from San Francisco, California to Sacramento--more than 90 miles each way. When the traffic IS bad, and that’s usually on the way home, her kids (ages 6, 8,10) call her cell wondering when she’ll get home so they can plan the evening’s activities. “I’ve cried many days,” she says. Generally, she calms her nerves by listening to gospel and NPR and talking with a close friend. But the drive has a high cost both economically and emotionally. To cope, Reese has dramatically changed her family life, and to some extent her work life, to cut down her driving. “Juggling,” she calls it, and she sees it as her only strategy for surviving a bad economy.

Reese is part of a relatively new pack of supercommuters. According to the 2000 census numbers, 3.5 million Americans drive more than 90 minutes each way to work. (The 2010 numbers have not been crunched yet.) In San Francisco nearly 12 percent of commuters--388,000 people-- drive more than an hour each way. For them, the energy trap is a way of life.

Nineteen months ago, Reese and her husband intended to move their family from San Francisco to Sacramento, where they both grew up. They hoped to sell their San Francisco house and get “a mansion,” in Sacramento--along with good schools, and a lower cost of living. Reese, who’d dropped out of the workforce to raise her kids for six years, looked forward to going back to work. In a lousy job market, Reese managed to get a job in human resources in Sacramento. She describes this period as “a fairy tale.” Then she and her husband decided not to move, but the family still needed her second income, and Reese felt that as a returning mother she wouldn’t be taken seriously if she immediately quit her job for one closer to home. More importantly: “This is not the kind of economic environment you can quit in.”

Without the option of quitting, Reese figured out how to cut her commute by almost half--but it’s required changing her family role and her work schedule. She avoids driving two days a week by staying at her parent’s home in Sacramento, and she telecommutes to work one Monday every two weeks. Her husband has the kids to himself two nights a week, and she’s home every weekend and on Wednesday nights. In addition, she’s tried just about every combination of public transit and vanpool possible. Once she got up at 4:30 am to take the local BART train to the van pool. That was too much. So she drove to the van pool. But then the route and destinations changed on the vans and didn’t work for her. So she was back to driving.

The way Reese describes the drive from Sacramento to San Francisco on a Friday evening is an obstacle course--a common traffic jam just outside of Davis, then all the traffic stops outside of Berkeley again, potentially delaying her return home by one and a half hours. The kids call. “I feel so frustrated. I’m so close to them and yet so far.” She often drives on a frontage road beside the freeway just to break up the monotony.

Is it worth it? The whole point of the commute is to keep the job, which enables the family to make “just enough so we’re not scraping. It makes a difference in our comfort level.” Reese has a vague idea of how much money she spends on the commute, but she says she’d have to give up the job if it cost her more than $12,000 a year. By my calculation, even after halving her driving, she’s spending $900 per month on fuel, tolls, repairs, parking and insurance, which puts her awfully close to the borderline. (And that doesn’t include the cost of her SUV, which is paid off.) I get the sense that adding up the total makes Reese anxious. When I ask her how the family budget accommodates gasoline thats as high as $4.25 a gallon, she says, “We haven’t changed our spending… I’m a spoiled brat. We haven’t felt it enough.”

It seems there is no solution to Reese’s problem except finding a job closer to home--even if it pays considerably less. And as our conversation continued, it turned out that she was waiting to get a call back for a job that was only an hour’s drive from her house--but it was a high tech company that offered direct buses from the city to work. After we hung up I worried she hadn’t gotten the job. But a day later she left a message on my voicemail saying she has a new employer and a new commute. And there’s wifi on the bus, “so I’ll come home ready to deal with the family.”