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author photo by Autotrader February 2008

In the 9-to-5 world, we each have our own routine, and yet many of them are strikingly similar  —  we awaken to a blaring alarm clock, slam down a cup of coffee, and try in vain to mentally prepare ourselves for the bumper-to-bumper mess that constitutes the ride to work. We creep along, surrounded by our compatriots who clutch half-eaten granola bars, or haphazardly apply makeup, or weave in and out of lanes, or just liberally honk the horn. And when we finally get to work, we're stressed before we walk in the door.

Most of us persist with this routine because we're used to it, or have accepted it as a fact of life — but alternatives exist to help make that commute a little easier, and a little can go a long way.

Pool Your Resources
Most often, these alternatives just require a little initiative from the beleaguered driver, and that could be as simple as going next door. Joining forces with your neighbors or coworkers in a carpool, even just one day a week, can result in numerous benefits. The most desirable one, of course, is more money in your pocket — you'll save on gas, maintenance costs, and maybe even car insurance. The savings may seem small, but they add up quickly (and keep in mind that, during standstill time on a bottlenecked freeway, your car gets zero miles per gallon). Another key advantage to pooling is access to HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes. Many metropolitan freeways have them, and they can cut a lot of time off your typical round trip. 

On a similar note, vanpool programs from third-party rental services are becoming more and more common across the country. Vanpools mean even greater savings for commuters, because of the added passenger potential — many full-size vans can accommodate up to 15 people.

A final advantage to pooling simply has to do with improving your state of mind. Beyond feeling good about saving money, you'll have that much more "mental health" time over the course of your day. That could mean reading an interesting book, getting to know a fellow commuter, or even catching up some of the sleep you wish you had gotten the night before.

While some don't want to lose the freedom of having access to a car at all times, that small sacrifice can result in big savings and ultimately a better lifestyle. It's just a matter of initiative, and a simple Internet search can reveal programs that may have been active in your neighborhood for years.

Employer Benefits
Because of growing concerns about the environment, and the desire to offer a healthy work/life balance for employees, many employers offer various programs to make life easier on commuters.

One increasingly popular concept is having flexible work hours. This allows employees to structure their schedules so they can avoid the road during peak traffic hours — some even arrange work weeks of four ten-hour days. Beyond that, many employers offer reimbursement for employees who opt for public transportation, as well as free rides home for carpoolers with emergencies.

Of course, these programs aren't available to everybody, but often times it just takes a driven employee to get the wheels turning.

Get the Jump on Traffic
Even with employer benefits, vanpools and other commuter programs, traffic isn't going away anytime soon. Some simply try to outsmart it.

The most popular way to do this involves an in-car navigation system. Already a mainstay for millions between Point A and Point B, most navigation units can also be configured to receive real-time traffic information. This includes accident and construction reports, and can even automatically calculate a less congested route to your destination. Although traffic reports usually mean an additional monthly fee, the cost will be worth it for many fed-up commuters.

Time to Reexamine
While a shiny new navigation system would benefit many, the greatest savings by far are possible with a quick reexamination of your commuting life. Chances are many people in your neighborhood and office share your frustration and your desire to commute smarter, even if it's just for one or two days a week. For most, cutting gas consumption by even 20% would result in eye-popping savings by year's end.

When it comes down to it, there's no miracle cure for the daily grind. Well, unless you count telecommuting or unemployment, but those just aren't feasible options for most. So take the initiative by considering the things you can do to make your commute easier on the environment, on your car, and on yourself.

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Commute Smarter - Autotrader