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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the September 25, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Commuting Alternatives: In Reverse, With a Twist

Andrew Burwick always gets a seat on the train. A

daily commuter, he has never had to stand on the trip between Princeton

Junction and New York. Not once. Burwick does not have unusually sharp

elbows, nor does he have a psychic’s ability to divine just where

the doors will be when a train glides to a stop.

Burwick, a social policy researcher with Mathematica at 600 Alexander

Road, is a reverse commuter. A resident of the Chelsea section of

Manhattan, he leaves Penn Station in the morning just as the first

commuters are arriving in great, gray waves. He returns in the evening,

taking a dignified ride on an up escalator as the mass of outward

bound commuters, 20 deep and poised to sprint en-masse, crowd around

monitors that announce the platform on which the next train is due

to arrive.

Burwick is different from other commuters in a couple of ways. For

one thing, his reverse commute means that he has no experience of

standing in the company of a couple dozen of his fellows in an elevator-size

train vestibule for an hour as doors open at regular intervals, sometimes

letting in sleet. For another thing, this car-less New Yorker, has

added a nifty refinement to his commute — a Xootr scooter.

Upon arriving at Princeton Junction, Burwick swings the 10-pound scooter

from his shoulder, unfolds it, and breezes through parking lots —

propelled only by foot power — to his office at 600 Alexander

Park. On the return trip, he navigates a trickier route, scooting

on sidewalks and through Manhattan traffic to his apartment on West

22nd Street.

"As soon as I got the job with Mathematica, I started to think

about how to make the commute easier," Burwick says. He looked

around on the Internet and found the Xootr (www.novacruz.com). Its

deck — made of blonde birch with two non-skid black strips —

is wider than those on "toy" scooters like the popular Razor

scooter. It easily accommodates two, adult-size feet. Its narrow handlebars

have comfortable black foam rubber grips, and it has a hand brake,

which brings the scooter to a smooth stop.

"The wheels are larger than the wheels on a Razor scooter,"

Burwick says. This provides stability, and easier passage over sidewalk

cracks and the like. After a year of use, the wheels on Burwick’s

silver-colored Xootr are showing some signs of wear, but not as much

as his shoes. "I’ve got a hole in this one; it’s almost all the

way through," he says, holding up one of his black leather work

shoes.

Burwick, a man who cheerfully admits to being cheap, bought his Xooter

on E-bay for $80. Scooters like his retail for about $149. Fancier

models are available, he says, his voice betraying a definite hint

of gadget lust. One model even has an electric motor. But wouldn’t

that add substantial weight and make the scooter so much more difficult

to schlep around? Not really, says Burwick, adding that the motor

is tiny and the electric-powered Xootr is quite cool. Retailing at

about $900, this, sleek 19.3 pound model, with its motor hidden near

its rear wheel, reaches speeds of up to 17 miles per hour in five

seconds and powers riders up modest hills.

Still, he is happy with his current Xootr. It gets him from the train

to his desk in five or six minutes. The trip takes 10 to 15 minutes

by foot. Times are the same at the other end, making for a one hour

and 15 minute commute each way. He could shave a good 15 minutes from

that time if he took Amtrak trains, but he says that few Amtrak trains

accept monthly tickets at the times reverse commuters are traveling.

Rather than using a monthly commutation ticket, he buys off-peak round

trip tickets. This option is not available to workers making the conventional

commute, and it saves him money.

All-in-all, Burwick says, his commute is not that bad. He generally

uses his train time to read, and finds the ride home helps him decompress

from his work day. But why work in New Jersey at all?

"I went to graduate school at the Woodrow Wilson School,"

says Burwick, "so I was familiar with Mathematica. There aren’t

many companies that do social policy research, and that is what I

am interested in." Mathematica, working mostly under state and

federal contracts, does research on a range of social policy issues,

including health care, welfare, education, employment, nutrition,

and early childhood policies.

Burwick, who majored in Asian studies at Harvard (Class of 1992),

grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. His father, Cliff Burwick,

now retired, was a program manager for IBM and for Dell. His mother,

Barbara Burwick, also retired, was an administrator in international

relations at Stanford. After graduation, he returned to the Bay Area

and worked for a computer hardware manufacturer as liaison to its

offices in Asia. After two years, he left this job to volunteer as

a teacher in Vietnam.

He went to Vietnam through VIA, a Harvard program that sends recent

graduates to Asia for volunteer work. There he taught English and

literature in Dalat, a city he describes as being high in the mountains,

a beautiful place to which the French, during their occupation of

Vietnam, retreated in the summer to escape the heat of Saigon.

During his two years in Vietnam, Burwick got around

on a motorcycle. Living overseas, one does not always take the precautions

one does at home, he says. "I didn’t always wear a helmet,"

he admits. But he did don one when his parents came to visit. "I

gave my mother a ride," he says. "She had the full experience."

Upon returning from Vietnam, Burwick had a great time working at Yahoo!

in the "pre-bot" period, when humans rather than robotic computers

actually checked out websites submitted for inclusion on the premier

search engine. The year was 1996, Yahoo! was a small company, and

no one yet knew that the Internet bubble was about to be pumped up.

"No one expected the boom," he says.

Burwick left the company to head for Princeton and the Woodrow Wilson

School before Yahoo!’s stock — and its employees’ stock options

— rose to a level which would have kept him in solid gold Xootrs

for life. "We studied a lot of finance at the Woodrow Wilson School,"

he laughs. "The lost opportunity cost of leaving Yahoo! was high."

Still, he appears to have no major regrets. Social policy research

is what interests him, and he says he loves his work. Before joining

Mathematica, he worked for the Century Foundation in New York City.

But while that foundation funds social policy research, it doesn’t

actually do the work, and that is what he wanted to do. Mathematica,

he says, has an excellent reputation in the field, and that is where

he wanted to work. His recent projects include the study of rural

welfare to work, the privatisation of welfare services, and Early

Head Start.

He goes on field visits frequently, generally visiting towns far off

the tourist route. "In July, I went to Nebraska for the rural

project," he says. Other recent trips were to the lower Rio Grande

Valley in Texas, South Dakota, southern California, and Minneapolis.

The trips — sometimes as many as two a month — cut the number

of train rides to Princeton Junction he takes each month from his

home in Chelsea.

Burwick and his partner, Dr. Casey Gallagher, a dermatologist, bought

their 600 square-foot, pre-War apartment four years ago. So, while

he didn’t benefit from the Internet boom, he has been in on the most

recent Manhattan real estate boom. His one-bedroom apartment has exposed

brick walls, and is in one of the city’s prettiest, most vibrant neighborhoods.

After he arrives home, via Xootr, Burwick sometimes "crashes"

(that would be figuratively, for the most part; there has been just

one relatively minor Xootr crash). But, unlike Princeton Junction

to New York commuters, he has also has a world of after-work entertainment

options right at hand.

"There’s more informal socializing in New York," he says.

He sometimes visits friends after work, or goes out to dinner, to

the theater, or to movies — also via Xootr. On one recent evening,

the Xootr was banned by a movie house manager on the Lower East Side,

but other than that one incident, the Xootr has always been welcome.

As appealing as life in Manhattan is, Burwick and his partner do think

about moving out to the ‘burbs. The attacks of September 11 do not

factor into the decision at all, he says, although he admits he is

still nervous about the possibility of more attacks. He was at work

on September 11, watched the towers collapse on television, and was

unable to get home that night. The smell of smoke permeated his neighborhood

for weeks, but the memory — or the possibility of a repeat —

is not what brings on thoughts of leaving Manhattan.

He sums up the attractions of the suburbs in the same way generations

before him have — more space inside and out, and greenery. "It’s

a trade off," he says. There’s no way to beat the excitement of

living in Manhattan, but enjoying it all generally means living in

a tiny space with no yard, no garden, and very often, no car. And

while not having a car has its advantages — no car payments, no

break-downs, no exorbitant insurance bills — it also makes getting

around on week-ends difficult.

"We would get out of the city more on week-ends if we had a car,"

says Burwick. As it is, when he and Gallagher want to go to the beach,

they take the subway to Jones Beach. When they do want to rent a car,

the cost of doing so in the city drives them to Newark Airport, where

rental rates are substantially lower.

The two are beginning to look at suburban neighborhoods, and have

already checked out Maplewood, and like it. "How long would the

commute from Maplewood be?" asks Burwick. According to Mapquest,

Maplewood is 41.5 miles from 600 Alexander Road. Mapquest puts the

drive time at 1 hour and 5 minutes, but with 13.24 miles of the trip

on the Garden State Parkway and 22.93 miles of the trip on Route 1,

one wonders if that 65 minutes might stretch out a bit during rush

hour.

For the moment, Burwick is not in a hurry to leave Chelsea, and is

not fazed by his commute.

The worst part? Well, the Xooter is no good in the rain. Its tires

slip, its brake doesn’t work well, and the lack of a rear bumper leads

to mud-splatters on slacks. But bad weather hasn’t been much of a

problem lately. No, the big drawback is lunch hour. All of Burwick’s

co-workers, like nearly every other desk jockey in central New Jersey,

have personal-use chariots waiting silently all the time, parked mere

yards away, prepared to whisk them away — no questions asked,

no arrangements necessary. They can come and go, running errands,

squeezing in doctor’s appointments, getting hair cuts, and choosing

from among lunch spots in downtown Princeton, MarketFair, Forrestal

Village — and farther.

Burwick, traveling via NJ Transit and Xootr, is sort of trapped. "I

bring my lunch, or I eat here," he says, gesturing to 600 Alexander

Park’s on-site cafeteria, and greeting its manager by name as he leaves

for the day. Sometimes he "mooches" a ride with a friend to

an off-site lunch, and sometimes Burwick, who has competed in the

New York Marathon, motors with a friend to the canal for a mid-day

run.

He says staying on-site during the day doesn’t particularly bother

him, but his experience, shared by other reverse commuters, points

to a reason why mass transit has never taken off in the greater Princeton

area.

Where those who commute to the city can roam at will

during the work day, buying books, sampling new restaurants, getting

teeth cleaned, and choosing from among a virtually unlimited number

of designer coffee vendors, suburban workers who arrive at their desks

via bus, vanpool, or even carpool, are marooned. Their vista may include

manicured lawns, flower beds, and even the occasional nesting swan,

but their wings are clipped, their work day diversions sharply limited.

Burwick says he is far from alone in his reverse commute. "The

platform is crowded," he says. Not nearly as crammed as the space

just across the tracks, but not empty either. Some riders get on in

Manhattan with him, and the train picks others up along the way. Many

of those who get off the train at Princeton Junction with him head

for taxi cabs. Others go toward waiting vans, which take reverse commuters

to, among other places, the offices of Merrill Lynch, Bristol-Myers

Squibb, Princeton Forrestal Center, and American Re-Insurance.

At least a few reverse commuters have the best of both worlds. "One

guy goes over to an electric car," says Burwick. "It’s plugged

in right in the parking lot." Burwick, who says he recognizes

and nods to fellow reverse commuters, but has not made any "train

buddies" so far, does not know who uses that electric car, but

it may be an employee of the Greater Mercer Transportation Management

Association.

Sandra Brillhart, executive director of the organization, says one

of her employees gets to work via an electric car parked at the station.

She says several Sarnoff employees share another. The cars are relatively

old and do not have the range of newer models. Still, she says, they

can go 40 or more miles on a charge, enough to get an employee to

work — and out and about at lunchtime, too.

Meanwhile, Burwick and his Xootr stay in at lunchtime, but enjoy great

freedom outside of work, zipping along on West Windsor parking lots

and expertly weaving through Manhattan crowds at two to three times

the speed of shoe-leather-only locomotion. After work, says Burwick,

it is delightful to feel the wind in his hair for a spell before settling

into his straight-back NJ Transit seat. When he gets home, he expertly

tracks right through the most dense crowds.

All-in-all, his commute — featuring stretches of free-wheeling

speed — sounds a lot more fun than the slow crawl his co-workers,

automobile owners one and all, endure day after day on Route 1 or

Interstate 95. But while the drivers are stuck in traffic, at least

they have some place to sit. A guaranteed seat, something Burwick

takes for granted, is still the stuff of dreams for Princeton Junction

to New York commuters who travel with the tide.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring


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