Commuter Convert

For 12 long years, Nicol Lee was a perpetual driver.

A nonprofit executive, pastor’s wife and mother of two young children, Lee spent dozens of hours weekly in traffic during her two-hour commute from northwest suburban Algonquin to her office in downtown Chicago.

The traffic jams came in threes.

The first occurred right before Hubbard’s Cave, the second kicked in shortly before O’Hare International Airport and the last one snagged her right before Schaumburg.

Driving in her blue 2005 Nissan Pathfinder–”the car, which she bought new, already has more than 80,000 miles–”Lee listened religiously to radio station WBBM to try to avoid getting snared and worried often about being hit by other drivers doing office work while on the road.

“You do see a lot of people doing work on the road, but that’s not safe,” said Lee, vice president of One Economy Corporation, an organization dedicated to accelerating high-speed broadband access and content for low-income people. “You do lose a lot of time in traffic due to preventable accidents and going back and forth to the gas station.”

Knowing that she was “killing the environment” only added to her stress.

There were perks. Having the valet where she fed her $20 daily “parking habit” know her name made her feel like a jet setter; knowing she could zip back out to the suburbs in case of a family emergency comforted her.

But there were costs, too. Lee spent close to $800 monthly filling up the Pathfinder’s gas tank, about $400 to park and often ate on the run at fast food chains like McDonald’s. And she often ended up getting home too late spend quality time with her son, Keith, 5, and her daughter, Chloe, who is 19 months old.

For a long time, Lee’s nanny, who hails from the South Side, urged her to take public transportation. Lee said she would but never did.

Things changed in late 2007, when Lee’s family decided to shed a car. For the first time since her childhood in New York, Lee decided to take public transportation.

She’s been taking it since.

The transition required some tinkering. For the first month, Lee experimented with trips from two stations to see which was easier for her. At times, she didn’t have a ticket with her because she didn’t realize or remember she had to buy it ahead of time. And she had to figure out how to still spend time with her children. Her solution was to have her nanny drive her and Keith to Elgin Academy, where he attends kindergarten, and then take the Metra to Union Station.

The experiment has paid off and Lee has become an avid rider, purchasing a Metra pass, expanding her usage from the Metra to taking a bus rather than a cab from Union Station to work and advocating that other workers at her company also use public transportation.

During the rides, Lee reads, knocks off tasks for work and listens to tunes on her recently purchased MP3 player. More efficient at work, she actually has more time to spend with her family and has taken up yoga with her extra time.

“It’s added 10 more years to my life by not having the stress of sitting in traffic,” she says cheerfully.

Lee freely acknowledges that there have been times when her trips’ logistics have challenged her, particularly on the suburban side. Often reliant on cabs to get home, she was frequently stranded when cabs were either late or did not show up at all. Chicago’s piercingly cold weather has made her yearn for the comfort of the Pathfinder, too.

But then she thinks about the financial and lifestyle gains she has as the result of public transportation and keeps going.

Lee’s source of tenacity mirrors the method used by Hans Diehl, director of the Lifestyle Medicine Institute, a Loma Linda, Calif.-based organization that helps people improve their health through lifestyle changes.

Although he works in the field of nutritional sciences, Diehl explained that his patients use a similar process of acquiring skills and evaluating the benefits that materialize from a specific change plan. “It’s not only the information you give; it’s also the benefits that accrue from the information if applied,” he said.

Working in large groups is generally more effective than trying to change individuals, in part because an individual can develop a sense of “accountability” to others, Diehl said.

“It comes out of the group phenomenon,” he said. “They talk to each other, and there is that word-of-mouth type thing that creates good feelings.”

Lee certainly has good feelings while riding home on the Union Pacific Northwest Line to the Crystal Lake station. Occasionally, a smile fills her face when she passes by the intersection of Interstate 94 and Clybourn Avenue, where she used to be snarled in traffic but instead is reading a Jane Austen novel.

“I like watching all my former commuters,” Lee says. “I say, –˜That was me.’ It gives me a little chuckle.”

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