Strong Towns member Joe Cortright runs the think tank and blog City Observatory. This post is republished from City Observatory with permission.
If you’re covering the transportation beat, the plight of the poor super-commuter is a reliably evergreen story.
Profile some poor person who gets up at 4:00 AM to travel two hours and forty or fifty miles to a distant job, struggling to make ends meet between paying the rent and the high cost of transportation, with the added insult of having little free time to spend with their friends and family. Too often, the implication seems to be if we just had enough freeway capacity, these folks could whisk themselves to work in a fraction of the time.
For all the ink (pixels?) they command in the media, you’d think super-commuters would be a large fraction of Americans. But their numbers are actually extremely small. Data from the Census suggests that only about 3 percent of all commuters travel more than 90 minutes one-way to their daily workplace. A couple of years ago, I looked at the data and concluded that super-commuting was a non-growing non-significant non-problem.
A look at more recent data from the 2017 American Community Survey prompts us to revise that judgement…slightly. Super-commuting is still a trivially small share of all commuting, and for reasons we’ll discuss momentarily it is still mostly a non-problem (insofar as our transportation system is concerned). But in the past few years, there has been an uptick in long duration commutes.
Super commuting is up–because gas prices are down
Here’s what the data shows.
While super-commuting was essentially flat for several years after 2009—even as the economy was growing robustly—the number of commuters traveling 90 minutes or more started increasing in 2014. After growing less than one percent per year through 2014, from 2014 through 2017, super-commuting increased about 3.7 percent annually.
What might be behind that increase? The most important factor, in our view, is the big decline in gasoline prices in 2014. As data from the Energy Information Administration shows, the rebound in super-commuting occurred at exactly the same time gas prices plummeted.
As I’ve shown previously at City Observatory, the big drop in gas prices in 2014 led to a significant uptick in miles driven (and traffic deaths). And cheaper gas also directly served to make longer commutes more economical.
Super-commuting: A few people, a few metros, a few occupations
But super-commuting is less about transportation and freeways, and much, much more about housing and transit. Some recent data compiled by Chris Salviati at Apartment List bring the super-commuting picture into much clearer focus. First, when we look at geography super-commuting is most common in the largest metro areas with the most constrained housing supplies. The Apartment List data highlights the prevalence of super-commuting on the periphery of the New York and San Francisco metro areas—two regions famous for simply failing to build enough housing, especially affordable housing near the urban center. Little wonder folks are pushed to the periphery.
But that’s not all. While most Americans commute to work by car, super-commuters are far more likely to be public transit users than car drivers. The data compiled by Apartment List show that 14 percent of transit riders, compared to fewer than three percent of auto commuters, have commutes of longer than 90 minutes.
If we’re really concerned about reducing the commute times of those with the longest commutes, we ought to be looking for ways to make transit better. The two best approaches are more right-of-way (high occupancy toll lanes on freeways, dedicated bus lanes and signal priority on surface streets) and greater frequency (wait times are a significant part of transit travel times).
Super-commuting as a lifestyle choice
While they typical super-commuter is often portrayed as the helpless victim of circumstance, that’s not always a fair characterization. If you want a large-lot, single family home in the suburbs, particularly in a large metropolitan area, often the only way it’s going to be affordable is if it’s a healthy distance from the urban core. Land is simply too scarce and too valuable near the dynamic business districts of New York’s Manhattan and San Francisco’s Market Street for us to have cheap single family homes nearby. For at least some super-commuters, long commutes represent a conscious choice to earn some sweat equity (getting paid by your boss for eight hours a day, and getting paid in the form of lower housing costs by commuting an additional three hours each day). For these people, long commutes are in many ways a conscious choice: No one buys a home in Stockton and takes a job in San Francisco without being fully aware of the implied commute time.
For other super-commuters, a long distance commute has much to do with the nature of their job. Those who work in construction and extractive industries have a much larger share of long-distance commuters. Construction workers are about twice as likely as those in other occupations to be super-commuters; those in extraction (think mining, oil wells) are three times as likely. Especially in construction, long commutes may reflect the temporary nature of such jobs—it may make more sense for a worker to commute for several months to a distant job site rather than move closer.
In effect, all of our subsidies to transportation, especially the construction of non-tolled urban freeways, have been an inducement for people to seek housing further and further away from urban centers. When actually confronted with somewhat higher costs for travel when gas prices rose between 2004 and 2008, the market for exurban houses contracted sharply.
Finally, one afterthought: Why are they called “super-commuters”? What’s so super about spending an hour-and-a-half traveling each way to and from work each day? Why aren’t they called “hyper-commuters” or “commute-dependent” or “extreme commuters”? Too often in urban policy discourse we regularly use terms that are sympathetic or positive for behaviors that are of dubious social value (“super-commuter”) and also use terms for more positive policies that are off-putting or cryptic (“transit-oriented development”). Consider the different connotations of “super” and “TOD”—the latter being nearly a homonym for the German word for “death.”
Top photo by Andrew Butler.