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Explosion of Super Commuters Offers Lessons for Sustainable Growth

By: Chris Salviati and Rob Warnock
August 16, 2021


Summary

  • There are 4.6 million workers in the U.S. who commute 90+ minutes each way, comprising 3.1 percent of the American workforce. From 2010 to 2019, the number of super commuters nationally increased by 45 percent, more than tripling the growth rate of the overall workforce.
  • Super commuting is concentrated in the nation's most expesnive markets -- the New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco regions collectively contain nearly one-in-three super commuters nationally.
  • Nearly half of super commuters live within a 30 mile radius of their region’s commercial center, illustrating how this trend is symptomatic of excessive traffic congestion and lack of public transit options. Those who commute by public transit are five times more likely to be super commuters compared to those who drive.
  • Remote work is unlikely to meaningfully alleviate this long-term trend. Since the start of the pandemic, the fastest rent growth in large metros has been occuring in the further suburbs and exurbs, indicating that hybrid remote work arrangement could create a new class of part-time super commuters.
  • With massive infrastructure investments currently top of mind for policymakers, the rapid expansion of super commuting highlights the need to rethink America’s urban areas in a way that prioritizes plentiful new housing developed around robust public transit.

Introduction

From 2010 to 2019, the number of super commuters in the U.S. -- workers who travel 90 minutes or more to work each way -- grew by 45 percent, more than tripling the growth rate of the overall workforce. And while the early months of the pandemic last year coincided with sharp declines in traffic, motor vehicle travel has already rebounded back to near pre-pandemic levels. An embrace of remote work will precipitate significant changes in how and where we work, but there is little reason to think that this shift will meaningfully alleviate the problem of super commuting, and in some ways, it could even exacerbate it.

Super commuting is symptomatic of multiple interrelated but distinct issues: lack of affordable housing in the urban cores of major cities, insufficient and/or inefficient public transit options, and excessive traffic congestion. With the Senate’s passing of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, the explosion of super commuting offers important lessons about what is needed to ensure that America’s cities evolve in inclusive and sustainable ways. In the following report, we take a detailed look at the nation’s super commuting epicenters to explore how this trend is evolving.


Growth in Super Commuting is Long-Term Trend

As of the most recent Census estimates from 2019, there are 4.6 million workers in the U.S. who commuted 90+ minutes each way, comprising 3.1 percent of the American workforce. Although these super commuters are a relatively small segment of the workforce, this segment is expanding rapidly. From 2010 to 2019, the number of super commuters nationally increased by 45 percent, more than tripling the growth rate of the overall workforce (13 percent).

The prevalence of super commuting varies dramatically by location, and the problem is most acute in the regions surrounding the nation’s priciest housing markets. Stockton, CA, for example, sits on the outskirts of the San Francisco Bay Area and represents one of the last havens of relative affordability in the region. It also has the highest super commuting rate in the country; more than one-in-ten workers (12 percent) spend more than 90 minutes commuting each way to and from work. Beyond Stockton, three other metros near the San Francisco Bay Area are among the top 10 for super commuting: Modesto, Santa Rosa, and San Jose. Rounding out the rest of the top 10 are three metros on the periphery of the New York City region (Poughkeepsie, Bridgeport, and Allentown), one outside Los Angeles, CA (Riverside), one outside Boston, MA (Manchester), and Washington, DC.

It’s clear from this metro-level breakdown that super commuting is a trend which spans a wider radius than is captured in the Census’ CBSA definitions. Therefore, it is perhaps more appropriate to think about super commuting at the level of Combined Statistical Areas (CSAs), which are broader Census-defined regions that aggregate adjacent CBSAs that have strong economic linkages. For example, the San Jose-San Francisco CSA includes all of the Bay Area CBSAs in the table above (as well as others).

When viewed with this wider lens, we find that the New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco CSAs collectively contain 1.4M super commuters. These three regions are home to nearly one-in-three super commuters nationally (31 percent), despite representing just 16 percent of the overall American workforce. The ten CSAs with the greatest number of super commuters account for 33% of the overall workforce but 52% of super commuters.

In all ten of these regions, the number of super commuters has grown at least twice as fast as the overall workforce over the past decade, but no place has seen super commuting explode as quickly as the San Francisco Bay Area. The number of Bay Area super commuters grew by 255 percent from 2010 to 2019, nearly seven times faster than the growth rate of the region’s total workforce.


Not all super commuters travel long distances

The example of Stockton above is representative of one archetype of super commuters -- the workers who live on the far periphery of a metro area and who bear excessive commute times because they are simply travelling long distances to the urban core. However, this archetype alone does not tell the complete story of super commuting. It’s important to bear in mind that super commuters are defined based on the amount of time they spend commuting, rather than the distance they travel. In fact, we find that nearly half of the super commuters in the top ten CSAs listed above live within a 30 mile radius of the center of the region’s core city:1

In order to better understand the rapid growth in super commuting, we constructed a classification of short-, mid-, and long-distance super commuters, three groups which reflect interrelated but distinct trends.2 In the series of maps below, we explore these three groups of super commuters in more detail through the examples of the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City regions, the two foremost epicenters of super commuting in the U.S.


Short-distance super commuters (0-10 mile radius from city center)

Across all of the top ten CSAs, 16 percent of super commuters live within a ten mile radius of the region’s commercial center. Some of the super commuters in this radius may reflect the reverse commutes of workers who live in the urban core but work outside it. However, super commuting within this tight radius largely reflects the shortcoming of public transit in many of America’s largest cities. Nationally, 13.5 percent of all workers who commute by public transit are super commuters, and transit riders are five times more likely to be super commuters compared to drivers.

Short-distance super commuters are highly prevalent in New York City -- 5.6 percent of all workers who live within a 10 mile radius of New York City Hall in Manhattan are super commuters, and they represent 22 percent of all super commuters in the region. This is especially striking when one considers that this radius doesn’t even cover the entirety of New York City’s five boroughs. The New York City MTA is by far the nation’s largest public transit system, but one-in-ten of its riders are super commuters. As can be seen in the map above, tracts in the further reaches of Brooklyn and Queens appear to be particularly ill-served by their public transit options.

In the Bay Area, 14 percent of the region’s super commuters fall within the 10 mile radius from city hall. While less prevalent than in NYC, the number of short-distance super commuters in San Francisco grew by 141 percent from 2010 to 2019. Among those living in the city of San Francisco, 10 percent of transit riders are super commuters, a rate that has more than tripled over the past decade. It’s worth noting here the Bay Area really has two labor market centers -- San Francisco and Silicon Valley to its south. It is likely that many of the super commuters who live in San Francisco are actually commuting to work locations outside the city.3


Mid-distance super commuters (10-30 mile radius from city center)

Zooming out, we look next at the mid-distance super commuters who live in the zone ranging from 10 to 30 miles from the center of the core city. The mid-distance zone encompasses a third of all super commuters across the top 10 CSAs. This group consists largely of workers who drive to work and have their commutes lengthened by traffic congestion, despite living a reasonable distance from the urban core. Most of the regions with the greatest number of super commuters also appeared at the top of pre-pandemic rankings of the most congested urban areas in the U.S. Mid-distance super commuters are actually the fastest growing of the three groups that we’ve defined here.

The 10 to 30 mile radius surrounding New York City contains 38 percent of all the super commuters in the region, and among all workers who live in this zone, 8 percent are super commuters. The number of mid-distance super commuters in the NYC region grew by 36 percent from 2010 to 2019, as increased congestion lengthened the commutes of workers in this zone.

In the Bay Area, the mid-distance zone contains 28 percent of the region’s super commuters. As of 2019, 4.8 percent of the workers who live in the 10 to 30 mile zone surrounding San Francisco city hall were super commuters, up from just 2.1 percent in 2010. Notably, the Bay Area’s mid-distance super commuters are primarily confined to the East Bay and North Bay counties, while those who live on the San Francisco peninsula are largely spared. This highlights the way that geographic obstacles can impact commute patterns. From the east and north, San Francisco can only be accessed by bridge or tunnel, which serve as bottlenecks for inbound traffic. A similar dynamic is at play in many of the cities where super commuting is most common, many of which are located on the water for historic commercial reasons.


Long-distance super commuters (30-90 mile radius from city center)

Finally, we expand the view to capture the long-distance super commuters who live within the 30 to 90 mile zone around the city center. This is the widest zone that we’ve defined, and it contains 52 percent of all the super commuters across the top ten CSAs. The closer end of this zone is still capturing areas where a sub-90 minute commute would be possible without traffic. However, in the further reaches of this zone, long commute times to the urban core are unavoidable simply because of the distance being covered.

5.1 percent of workers in the long-distance zone are super commuters -- up from 4.4% in 2010 -- making this the area where super commuting is most common. Broadly speaking, the increasing prevalence of super commuters in this zone represents workers moving further and further from the urban core in search of more affordable housing options.

In New York City, this view clearly shows elevated rates of super commuting in all directions surrounding the urban core. This is particularly true in the areas to north and east of the city, which contain the smaller Poughkeepsie, Bridgeport, and Allentown metros discussed earlier in this report. The lower super commuting rates to the southwest represent Philadelphia and its suburbs, illustrating the intersection of these two commercial regions. Between New York and Philadelphia there are a significant number of super commuters who face a long commute to either city.

In the Bay Area, this long-distance zone contains the peripheral Stockton, Modesto, and Santa Rosa metros, all of which have some of the nation’s highest rates of super commuting. 60 percent of all Bay Area super commuters live in the 30 to 90 mile zone. 5.0 percent of workers who live in this zone are super commuters, up from 3.4 percent in 2010. This view also highlights increased super commuter rates in the counties near Sacramento, which sits in the northwest section of the map.


How will remote work impact super commuting?

While the data show a clear worsening of this trend over the past decade, it is natural to wonder how a shift toward remote work will impact super commuting going forward. The Census ACS data that we analyze in this report have not yet been released for 2020, and even when the 2020 data do become available, they are likely to be a pandemic-era aberration. That said, there is good reason to think that super commuting will continue to be a problem even as more jobs go remote.

Firstly, it’s important to note that the majority of jobs still require being on-site due to the nature of the work -- we estimate that just one-in-three super commuters works in an occupation that is fully compatible with remote work, and not all of them will be offered remote flexibility by their employers after the threat of COVID has subsided.4 At the same time, it’s clear that remote work will be far more common after the pandemic than it was prior. In a survey of remote workers from April of this year, we found that three-in-four expect to have ongoing remote flexibility post-pandemic. Increasing remote flexibility also stands to reshuffle where workers choose to live. A majority of respondents to our survey said that their location preferences would change if they had long-term remote flexibility.

The potential implications of remote work for super commuting differ for each of the zones we’ve defined in this report:

  • Short-distance (0-10 mile radius): As described above, we can consider this group to be a rough proxy for the 22 percent of super commuters who rely on public transit. A shift toward remote work is unlikely to have a positive impact on existing inefficiencies in public transit; if anything, there is more potential downside here. If remote work leads to declining transit ridership, some cities could end up cutting budgets, exacerbating the issue for remaining transit riders.
  • Mid-distance (10-30 mile radius): In this zone, the biggest potential impact of remote work would be lessening traffic congestion. 2020 saw huge declines in traffic in American cities, but while traffic levels have still yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, they’re quickly catching back up.
  • Long-distance (30-90 mile radius): While remote work has the potential to eliminate some commutes, half of those who expect to have a permanent remote option say that their employer is planning for a hybrid arrangement, meaning that they will still be commuting part-time. In our April survey, 50 percent of respondents said their location preferences would change in response to a hybrid work arrangement and remote workers were twice as likely as on-site workers to say they were planning an upcoming move to a more affordable housing market. Assuming that workers are more tolerant of long commutes if they are less frequent, this could imply that widespread adoption of hybrid remote work arrangements could lead to heightened demand in this outer zone. This could result in a new group of “part-time super commuters,” with the potential for commuting zones to expand even further.

Ultimately, remote work is likely to have nuanced implications for commuting patterns, and it’s still unclear exactly what the new normal will look like when COVID is no longer a concern. That said, the current evidence suggests that remote work alone is unlikely to meaningfully alleviate the problem of super commuting, and there are plausible scenarios in which remote work could actually exacerbate the problem.


Amid the pandemic, rents are growing fastest furthest from the urban core

To add further context, our rent growth estimates also serve as a valuable leading indicator of how demand for housing has been impacted by the pandemic. In order to see how rents have been changing in the three zones we discuss in this report, we aggregated up our county-level rent growth estimates across the top 10 CSAs:

Overall, since the start of the pandemic last March, rents are heating up fastest in the outer zones where super commuting is most prevalent. Closer to urban centers, rents fell in 2020 and rebounded in 2021, netting out just above pre-pandemic levels: +0.2 percent within 10 miles of a CSA’s core and +2.7 percent in the 10 to 30 miles range. But beyond 30 miles, rents were mostly flat in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic and have skyrocketed since, and now sit 11.4 percent higher than they were before the pandemic.

Localized rent data suggest that housing demand is picking up in the super commuter hotspots identified earlier in this report. For example, Lehigh County, PA -- the primary county of the Allentown metro -- has seen rents grow by 24 percent since the start of the pandemic, and San Joaquin County, CA -- home to Stockton -- has experienced an increase of 19 percent. Other hotspot counties include Hillsborough, NH; Frederick, MD; and Riverside, CA, all of which have had rent growth more than doubling the national average since last March.


Implications for policy and infrastructure

The growing prevalence of super commuting is largely reflective of two key factors (1) an insufficient supply of affordable housing in areas with easy access to the urban cores of major cities, and (2) insufficient and/or inefficient transportation infrastructure. With the Senate having just passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, there is perhaps reason to be hopeful that progress could be within reach.

The bill includes $49 billion allocated for public transit, and an additional $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, amounting to the largest federal investment in public transit history since creation of Amtrak. However, the largest allotment of transportation spending ($110 billion) will go towards roads and bridges. While expanding freeways may seem like a sensible way to reduce traffic, in many cases it simply has the effect of increasing vehicle travel, and can even lead to worsening congestion.

The current bipartisan version of the infrastructure bill represents a massive scaling back from Democrats’ initial proposal, removing the significant investments in housing that were a part of the original proposal. In response, a separate Housing is Infrastructure Act has been introduced by Congresswoman Maxine Waters to attempt to close the gap.

All that said, it’s important to bear in mind that the housing shortages which have been accruing for decades in regions such as San Francisco and New York City are inextricably linked with restrictive zoning policies over which the federal government has little control. In order to ensure the health and sustainability of these regions going forward, policy makers at all levels must work to enable significant new housing supply built in a way that prioritizes access to transit.


Conclusion

Millions of American workers now spend three hours or more on their daily commutes, and these super commutes are only growing more common. This has significant negative repercussions not just for the quality of life of these workers, but for the environment at large. While remote work is likely to eliminate some of these commutes, it could also give rise to a new group of part-time super commuters, as hybrid arrangements lead to expanding commuting zones.

Importantly, super commuting is largely borne of necessity in the nation’s most expensive housing markets, which have been rapidly adding jobs but severely underbuilding new housing for decades. Few would likely choose to super commute if they could afford to live in a more convenient location. With massive infrastructure investments currently top of mind for policymakers, the rapid expansion of super commuting highlights the need to rethink America’s urban areas in a way that prioritizes plentiful new housing developed around robust public transit.


Appendix - Additional Super Commuter Maps







  1. We use the city hall of the largest city in each CSA as a proxy for the region’s commercial core; distances from this point are calculated at the tract-level and represent the straight-line distance from the tract centroid to the corresponding city hall.
  2. The Census data allow us to identify super commuters based on the tract in which they live, but we do not directly observe the locations that these workers are commuting to. We assume here that the majority of super commuters in a given CSA are commuting to the region’s urban core, which is where the highest concentration of jobs are located.
  3. This hypothesis is validated by the fact that the tracts in San Francisco with some of the highest super commuting rates are those located closest to the city’s two Caltrain stations, which connect the city to Silicon Valley’s tech campuses.
  4. As of the most recent Census Pulse Survey in June, 29 percent of households contained at least one adult who was working from home, but for 81 percent of these, remote work was in response to the pandemic.

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SENIOR HOUSING ECONOMIST
Chris is a senior housing economist at Apartment List, where he conducts research on economic trends in the housing market. Chris previously worked as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve and an economic consultant, and he has BA and MA degrees in economics from Boston University. Read More
SENIOR RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
Rob is a senior research associate at Apartment List, where he examines trends in the housing and rental markets. Previously he worked in public health policy, and before that, graduated from UCLA with a degree in Globalization. Read More
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