Kate swore she would never live in the Omaha suburbs.
Kate swore she would never work at a big corporation.
Which is pretty funny to Kate at 7:44 a.m., when the 31-year-old straps her infant daughter into her car seat, opens the garage door and commences her daily commute from the Omaha suburbs to Mutual of Omaha.
“I didn’t really sign up for 45 minutes to an hour one way,” Kate Bolz Hiykel says as she wheels out of her Elkhorn driveway near 180th and Fort and points her Subaru east. She sighs. “But here we are.”
Kate’s twice-a-day journey is a trip many Omahans, especially those near Elkhorn and Bennington, can understand. It’s a commute made longer by sprawl and increasing traffic and by distance from Omaha’s Interstate system.
It’s a commute made more frustrating by rampant road construction and long red lights and that $%&%#*$! Ford Taurus weaving like a lunatic in the right lane.
And it’s a commute that is increasingly common, both here and everywhere.
The average American adult travels 26 minutes to get to work, according to government surveys.
A whopping 4 million Americans are “super commuters” who travel at least 90 minutes to reach their jobs, according to a report compiled from census data at the website Apartment List.
And while Omaha is light-years from the worst commuting city — consider Stockton, California, where 10 percent of workers endure a one-way commute longer than 90 minutes — both census data and anecdotal evidence suggest our once-simple trips to work are getting longer and harder, too.
Kate knows this only too well as she checks Google Maps to determine her fastest route to Mutual on a recent Tuesday.
She has just dropped off her 1-year-old daughter at a day care near her home. She’s in serious need of caffeine. She wants to be to work before 9. It’s now 7:52 a.m.
“It’s telling me to take 144th to Dodge,” she says as she looks at her phone. “So we get to experience all the traffic today. All the construction.”
After a speedy coffee stop at the 162nd and West Maple Dunkin’ Donuts — total time elapsed: 3 minutes — she is on her way. She works her way through moderate traffic on Maple.
She mutters “what are you doing?” when the driver of the aforementioned Ford Taurus slowly weaves back and forth in between two lanes at 147th Street.
She hangs a right at 144th and tries to forget the wandering Taurus.
“It’s going pretty quick, actually,” she says hopefully.
Kate used to be a die-hard east Omahan, one of those people who cannot imagine why anyone would subject themselves to this type of commute.
Then life changed, and Kate changed along with it.
She got a job that was based in the suburbs. She met Jay Hiykel, who works at the nuclear power plant in Fort Calhoun. They wanted a house and a family, and the good schools and relatively cheap housing prices of Elkhorn neighborhoods beckoned to them.
Kate lost that job in the suburbs, and got a new one as an internal auditor at Mutual of Omaha ... not far from where she once lived a different life. She and Jay had a beautiful baby girl, necessitating the day care drop-off and the urge for more Dunkin’ Donuts caffeine.
Now, during her commute, she tries to catch up on phone calls to friends and family. She listens to her favorite podcasts. She tries not to think about all the time she’s spending in her Subaru.
She tries not to be mad about 168th Street being closed due to road construction, or 156th Street going down occasionally to one lane for other work, or the slow-downs on 144th that happen near Millard North High School.
“School traffic is one thing I didn’t ever think about,” she says. “But school’s out now!”
City officials of course know that the 168th Street closure is frustrating, but say it’s the quickest and best way to widen that increasingly busy north-south thoroughfare.
“You can’t remodel your kitchen without sawdust,” Omaha city engineer Todd Pfitzer told The World-Herald in April.
There is also potential commuting help on the way in the form of the Rapid Bus Transit line that will run from Westroads to downtown, giving a park-and-ride option for people like Kate who could do work while the bus rolls down Dodge to near her office.
Today, Kate steers the Subaru south down 144th Street quickly and easily, but the traffic is starting to build. Waiting to make a left-hand turn on to Dodge, she sits for several minutes.
Then, when she reaches 90th Street, there is a giant backup. She inches forward as the light goes from green-to-yellow-to-red three times.
Finally, when she rolls through the intersection, she realizes that a lone roads worker has set up a series of cones in the middle lane. For the first time this morning, Kate ever-so-slightly loses her commute chill.
“Why? Why? Whose bright idea was it to start setting cones at 8:15 a.m. in the center lane of Dodge Street?” she says, exasperated. Traffic starts to move again, albeit still slowly, as we pass more road construction related to the Children’s Hospital expansion.
“I’m not going to complain about babies getting a new hospital wing,” Kate says. “But I will complain about that center lane.”
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of long Omaha commutes. It’s easy to say things like “you can get everywhere in this city in 20 minutes!” (I may have said this a time or two.)
And yet, when I mentioned on social media that I was writing about Omaha commuters, the stories poured in.
I heard from Jaime, who drives from 156th and State into Papillion each day. It takes 45 minutes, and longer when she drops off her youngest son at her in-laws. And Pam, who drives from 192nd and Blondo to the Old Market each day. That’s 45 minutes, too, and longer when there’s construction.
Luke, who leaves at 6:45 a.m. to beat the traffic downtown. Joni, who also leaves her house near 160th and West Dodge at 6:45 a.m. to beat the traffic downtown, and spends two hours in her car every day.
I heard tales about never-ending north-south commutes. I heard about secret routes, secret departure times. Mostly I heard frustration seeping from each story.
“I’m not trying to dis the ’burbs ... I like Elkhorn,” Kate says as she gets through the light at 72nd and Dodge and speeds up again. “But this is an hour-and-a-half or two hours of my life a day. Hours when I feel very unproductive. You know?”
The Subaru cruises east on Dodge, nearing its destination.
She pulls into the parking garage, parks and speed-walks to the Mutual entrance, heads up the elevator and finally sits down at her desk.
It is 8:46 a.m. Her commute has taken her an hour and 2 minutes.
“And that was a really good day, too,” she tells me. “No traffic.”