Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Lack of affordable housing and sub-par mass transit are boosting the ranks of “super commuters” in some regions outside of pricey metros.
In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau found that it took the average commuter more than 26 minutes to get to work. That figure might sound less than much—26 minutes is about enough time to finish a podcast, after all, and some historians argue that a roughly half-hour commute has been optimal since caveman days. But it’s up 20 percent from 1980, suggesting that lots of people are now enduring considerably longer trips to work. And some cities are seeing striking growth among people who travel more than 90 minutes each way to work—the so-called super commuter.
Super commuters make up a small minority of all commuters, but their share of the population has been growing since 2005: Today, 2.8 percent, or 4 million people nationwide, are classified this way. And according to a new analysis of census data released Wednesday from ApartmentList, their growth has been especially pronounced in higher-priced cities with booming economies and big housing shortages, where workers have been forced to move further from economic centers. In the San Francisco metro alone, the share of super commuters more than doubled from 2005 to 2016; in Seattle, they rose by 65.6 percent.
The list of cities with the largest number of these pitiable characters is led by Stockton, California, super-commuter capital of North America. In this city about 80 miles inland from San Francisco, fully 10 percent of workers are trekking 90 minutes or more to their jobs every morning. Modesto and L.A.-adjacent Riverside are not far behind, at 7.3 percent each. On the East Coast, super commuters abound in New York City (6.7 percent), and neighbors Bridgeport, Connecticut (6.1 percent), and Allentown, Pennsylvania (4.1 percent). Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, also crack the top ten. When tracking by state, New York and New Jersey have the highest shares of super commuters.
But one takeaway of the report is that long commutes are not limited to pricey coastal cities. Since 2005, super commuting increased in 39 states, and about three-quarters of large metros.
“The super commuters in areas where the housing isn’t necessarily super-expensive and there just isn’t transit infrastructure are concentrated more in the middle of the country,” said Sydney Bennet, a senior research associate at ApartmentList and the author of the report. “There’s a lot more people super commuting for economic reasons in those places.”
The media has a curious fascination with feats of extreme commuting. Readers seem to take pleasure in marveling at the “astonishing human potential wasted” by other Americans whose commutes are literally “killing them.” City Observatory’s Joe Cortright has long been a critic of this fixation, pointing out that the last decade’s growth in super commuters mostly reflects economic growth, and that the number of car commuters engaged in these grim daily rituals has stayed largely flat. Many super-commute stories are also tales of privilege—people determined to take on high-powered jobs in cities without uprooting their families. There’s the chief medical officer choosing to commute from her Boston-adjacent hometown to Manhattan, or the chief operating officer who flies from Toronto to Vancouver every week. And, indeed, super commuters overall do represent a more affluent subset of Americans, according to Bennet: About 2.5 million of the 4 million (or 62.5 percent) of super commuters nationwide make above the median income.
But the report also highlights the fact that many super commuters now look more like Sheila James, the health and human services worker whose epic schlep (she wakes up at 2:15 each weekday to travel by bus and train from Stockton to San Francisco) was the focus of a much-discussed New York Times piece in August. Super commuters like her are more likely to be using public transit, and that transit is not always serving them well.
The Miami Herald, for example, recently profiled hotel housekeeper Odelie Paret’s two-bus slog, for example, to draw attention to the affordable housing challenges facing Miami-Dade’s service workers, but it’s also an indictment of the area’s transit access: Her afternoon commute takes about two hours door-to-door, though she lives only 13.5 miles away.
Nationally, the vast majority (91.4 percent) of workers with shorter, “regular” commutes drive to work, ApartmentList estimates, compared to only 69.7 percent of super commuters. But the gap can vary widely from city to city. In Las Vegas, 95 percent of regular commuters drive, versus only 47.9 percent of super commuters. And in many such cities, it’s the state of public transit itself that is contributing to the conditions that create the painful super commute, says Bennet. “It’s really a lot of lower-income super commuters in areas like Las Vegas or Cleveland that are taking transit,” she said. “Not necessarily of choice, but out of necessity.”
Among those Cleveland super commuters, for example, 55 percent are earning below the metro area’s median income. (It’s worth noting, however, that super-commuting Clevelanders represent an extremely small community: A mere 1.3 percent of the Ohio city’s metro qualify.)
So how do we make super commutes less onerous? Boosting transit-accessible workforce housing seems like the easy answer—but, as the recent failure of a California bill designed to increase housing density near mass transit stops demonstrates, it’s not as easy as it sounds. To address ballooning drive times, congestion pricing has been proposed as a fix for New York City’s traffic-clogged roads; programs to reduce single-occupancy vehicles have shows some success in Washington State.
But ultimately, the report emphasizes the importance of improving public transit: “As more households are priced out of expensive cities and inner suburbs, without major investment in public transit, the growth in the share of super commuters is likely to continue,” it concludes. As fixes go, that’s neither quick nor easy, especially given the current political climate. But it’s also a solution that would improve the lives of all commuters, not just the super ones.