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With suburbs expanding outward, commuting times are lengthening

URBANA, Md. — The suburbs are not where they used to be.

In the unending quest to find an affordable home, Americans who work in big cities are moving even farther out and redefining the suburban boundaries.

This trend has turned once tranquil towns like Urbana, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Washington, D.C., and 50 miles west of Baltimore, into pit stops for harried commuters from those cities.

For communities from New York to Colorado, that means coping with big-city problems — traffic, sprawl and crime. But the boom does have its benefits, especially for service-oriented businesses such as gas stations, restaurants and dry cleaners.

"We sell a lot of coffee. Sometimes it's hard to keep up. They start coming in here at 4:30 in the morning," Jeff Jernigan said as he surveyed the new park-and-ride lots across the street from the gas station he works at off I-270. During the morning rush, it can take more than an hour to get from Urbana to Washington or Baltimore.

Demographers long predicted the 2000 Census would show the country was on its way to becoming more suburbanized. But for suburbanites there before the new crush, the statistics gave them concrete evidence of bulging big-city commuter belts since 1990.

For instance:

Population continues farther north and west of New York. Fairfield County in southwestern Connecticut, which is closest to New York, became that state's most populous county. Double-digit population growth was also seen in towns and villages in Orange County, N.Y., and three counties in northeastern Pennsylvania. Those commutes into the city can take as long as three hours.

In Forsyth County, Ga., new schools and subdivisions are dotting the landscape as growth pushes north of Atlanta. The county led the state with 123 percent growth the past decade. "I wish it would stop," elementary school teacher Melanie Kendrix said. "I wish the growing would stop before it gets bad."

Frederick County, Md., where Urbana is located, grew 30 percent, faster than Baltimore County and two other Maryland counties closer to Washington.

People keep moving into the communities farther away from Denver. Douglas County, to the south, grew 191 percent.

Though Loveland, Colo., is not really thought to be a Denver suburb, resident Marie Renner pointed to signs that more people are willing to make the one-hour drive south to the city every day. Loveland's population swelled by 36 percent.

"There's lots of sprawl. New developments going up everywhere," said Renner, who moved to Loveland from Ohio seven years ago. "And then there's the traffic. But at least it still not like New York City."

Blame it on the continued determination of Americans to own their own home, said demographer Martha Farnsworth Riche, former head of the Census Bureau.

"Our tradition of every person wanting their own mini-estate is very, very strong," Riche said.

In many places, the suburbs have become the commuting destinations themselves for workers venturing farther out or making a "reverse commute" from a city. That is the case with high-tech companies in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, and the interstate corridors in New Jersey that connect New York with Philadelphia.

"There's a real misnomer that there are now more people living in northeastern Pennsylvania and south Jersey who are making these two- or three-hour commutes into New York," said James Hughes, dean of Rutgers University's public policy school. "It's likely that many of these people are also working in New Jersey."

As suburbs expand, Byron York hopes business improves. He was one of the founders of 2Plus Inc., a private, nonprofit company that publishes a magazine geared toward commuters that allows readers looking to share rides to place advertisements.

"The Commuters' Register" is published in Charlotte, N.C., New York, and Tampa, Fla., with plans in the works for Seattle and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

"The top commuting congestion market areas used to be in the Northeast. Now they are in the West and South, and some are larger than previously expected," he said.