Home
Research

Rise of the Super Commuters

By: Sydney Bennet
April 24, 2018
  • Nationwide, one in 36 commuters are super commuters, traveling 90+ minutes to work each day, spending hours on public transportation or battling traffic.
  • Super commuting is becoming increasingly common: the share of super commuters increased 15.9 percent from 2.4 percent in 2005 to 2.8 percent in 2016.
  • The share of super commuters is highest in expensive metros with strong economies -- New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles, and in their surrounding areas.
  • Super commuters are more likely to rely on public transportation than those with shorter commutes. An estimated 91.4 percent of non-super commuters drive to work, compared to just 69.7 percent of super commuters.
  • In most U.S. metros, low-income commuters are more reliant on public transportation than high-income commuters, creating a nexus between super-commuting and poverty. When transit usage falls sharply with income it suggests that transit is used out of financial necessity rather than as a lifestyle choice.

Every morning, in Stockton, Ca., Sheila James, a Department of Health and Human Services employee, rises from bed to travel three hours on two trains and a bus to reach her job in San Francisco. Across the country, in Oxford, Conn., Corey Ferrell, an electrical engineer, travels three-and-a-half hours each way to work, relying on a bicycle, two trains and a walk to reach his job in Manhattan. Finally, in Miami, housekeeper Odelie Paret’s 13.5 mile commute can take anywhere from one to three hours each way, as she relies on two buses with often unpredictable schedules to get to work.

James, Ferrell and Paret are just a few of the nearly 4 million American workers who travel 90 minutes or more each day to work. These workers comprise a special class of commuters known as super commuters. A new Apartment List analysis of Census data shows that the ranks of super commuters swelled from 2005 to 2016 in metros across the nation. City planners, transportation experts and housing industry officials would be well-advised to consider this class of commuters as they plan for the future.

While super commuters still represent a small share of the overall workforce, their long commutes have become increasingly common over the past decade. In 2005, there were about 3.1 million super commuters, roughly 2.4 percent of all commuters. By 2016, that share had increased by 15.9 percent to 2.8 percent of all commuters, or about 4 million workers. In some parts of the country the problem is much worse; in Stockton, where James lives, 10 percent of commuters travel more than 90 minutes to work each day.

The rising number of super commuters underscores a general trend towards longer commutes. The share of commuters traveling 24 minutes or less to work each day has decreased to 55 percent of all commuters in 2016 from 59 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, the share of commuters traveling 25 minutes or more has increased to 45 percent in 2016, compared to 41 percent in 2005. The share of commuters traveling an hour or more to work each day increased 16.1 percent to 9.2 percent in 2016 from 7.9 percent in 2005.

The increase in super commuters isn’t just seen in the regions surrounding expensive cities such as San Francisco, Miami and New York. The share of super commuters increased in 39 states and nearly three-quarters of the nation’s largest metros between 2005 and 2016. Experts attribute the rise in long commutes to “skyrocketing housing costs and a reluctance to move, born of memories of the 2008 financial crisis.” Additionally, new housing is skewed towards the periphery of major cities, rather than urban cores and inner suburbs, forcing many workers to take on longer commutes in exchange for lower home prices.

Access data for 100 largest U.S. metros

Large Metros with Strong Economies -- and Metros on Their Periphery -- Have the Largest Share of Super Commuters

Top 10 Metros with the Highest Share of Super Commuters

Rank
Metro
Share
Number
1Stockton, CA10.0%28,441
2Modesto, CA7.3%15,335
3Riverside, CA7.3%127,156
4New York, NY6.7%616,789
5Bridgeport, CT6.1%27,082
6San Francisco, CA4.8%104,480
7Washington, DC4.6%138,290
8Allentown, PA4.1%15,756
9Atlanta, GA3.9%101,796
10Los Angeles, CA3.8%227,009

The metros with the largest share of super commuters are a mix of large metros with strong economies and bad traffic -- New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles -- and their surrounding areas.

Increasingly, the most lucrative jobs and most talented, wealthy people are converging in a few “superstar cities” that are are knowledge and technology hubs. Eight of the 10 metros with the largest share of super commuters are in regions surrounding three superstar cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. These same three cities contain 80 percent of the zip codes where the median home price was $1 million or more. Two other thriving cities -- Atlanta and Washington, D.C. -- also see large shares of super commuters, and workers throughout the metro are drawn to job opportunities in city centers. While many higher-paid, highly-educated workers can afford to live in superstar cities, other workers are priced out due to high demand and restrictive zoning regulations that lead to a lack of new housing. These workers are forced to move further from work, enduring longer commutes.

Of the ten cities with the most super commuters, eight of them fall into three regions close to the superstar cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City:

  • On the outskirts of the San Francisco Bay area, Stockton and Modesto, have the largest share of super commuters, with 10 percent and 7.3 percent of the workforce super commuting, respectively.
  • This pattern isn’t unique to the Bay Area. In Riverside, Calif., super commuters battle hours in traffic to reach Los Angeles.
  • Across the country in Bridgeport, Conn., super commuters are making the daily trek to New York City. And Allentown, Penn., super commuters are likely heading to New York City or Philadelphia.
  • At the state level, New York (5.5 percent) and New Jersey (5.1 percent) have the highest share of super commuters, as workers throughout the region are drawn to the lucrative job opportunities in New York City, but priced out of nearby housing markets.

Share of Super Commuters Increased in About Three-Quarters of Large Metros

West Coast tech hubs and their surrounding regions saw some of the largest increases in super commuters from 2005 to 2016. The share of super commuters in the San Francisco metro more than doubled from 2.3 percent in 2005 to 4.8 percent in 2016 (an increase of 113 percent). San Jose also saw large increases, with the share of super commuters nearly doubling from 1.4 percent in 2005 to 2.7 percent in 2016. Large increases in the share of super commuters have also been seen in Vallejo (87.1 percent), Modesto (49.4 percent) and Stockton (44.7 percent), three more affordable metros on the outskirts of the pricey Bay Area.

Meanwhile, the share of super commuters in the Seattle metro, which has seen record home price increases, rose by 65.6 percent from 2005 to 2016. Portland experienced a 49.4 percent increase in super commuters over the same period.

East Coast metros, including those in upstate New York (Albany, Buffalo and Rochester) and Boston and its surrounding metros (Portland, Maine, Providence, R.I., and Worcester, Mass.) have also seen significant growth in the share of super commuters.

While most metros have seen the share of super commuters increase from 2005 to 2016, Chicago, Phoenix, Kansas City, Mo., and Salt Lake City have all seen the share of super commuters fall.

From 2005 to 2016, thirty-nine states saw an increase in the share of super commuters. States in the Northeast and West, including Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, California and Oregon, have seen some of the largest increases in super commuters.

Super Commuters are Much More Likely to Rely on Public Transportation

Share of Commuters Who Drive to Work

Rank
Metro
Regular Commuters
Super Commuters
Difference
1Las Vegas, NV95.40%47.90%47.50%
2Cleveland, OH93.80%58.30%35.50%
3Salt Lake City, UT92.40%59.60%32.80%
4Baltimore, MD91.00%58.70%32.30%
5New York, NY61.40%31.50%29.90%
6San Jose, CA91.80%62.40%29.40%
7St. Louis, MO95.80%68.30%27.40%
8Chicago, IL83.50%57.20%26.30%
9Philadelphia, PA86.30%61.40%24.90%
10Milwaukee, WI93.70%70.20%23.50%

Nationwide, 91.4 percent of commuters who travel under 90 minutes commute via private vehicle, compared to 69.7 percent of super commuters. While part of this gap is due to the fact that a larger share of super commuters are in metros such as New York and San Francisco with more robust public transportation, the trend holds true within metros as well. Compared to those with shorter commutes, a larger share of super commuters travel to work without a private vehicle in 49 of the 50 largest U.S. metros.

The lack of reliable and efficient public transportation is likely driving lengthy commute times for transit users in metros such as Las Vegas, Cleveland and Salt Lake City, even for some workers who aren’t traveling very far. Almost all commuters in these metros rely on driving, whereas super commuters are much more likely to rely on public transportation than those with shorter commutes. For example, in Las Vegas 95.4 percent of non super-commuters drive to work, compared to just 47.9 percent of super commuters. Even in metros with more robust public transportation, such as New York, San Francisco and Boston, super commuters are more dependent on transit than those with shorter commutes.

Lower Income Commuters are More Reliant on Public Transportation than Higher Income Commuters

The graph above shows the share of commuters above and below their metro median income who rely on public transportation to get to work. Low-income commuters disproportionately rely on public transportation compared to their higher income peers, irrespective of their commute length. For example, in Cleveland, Ohio, 55.5 percent of super commuters earning below the median income rely on public transportation, compared to 16.6 percent of super commuters above the median income. For regular commuters, 5.2 percent of those below the median income use public transportation, compared to 1.8 percent of those above the median income. In Cleveland -- and other metros without robust transportation -- it’s likely that with a car, or more efficient public transportation, super commuters in these metros would experience shorter commutes.

According to urban planning scholar Daniel Chatman, more people living and working in a city center boosts both wages and productivity, but many thriving cities have built too little housing to keep up with job growth. Efficient public transportation plays a key role in achieving these wage and productivity gains because it allows more workers to access job centers.

In metros such as Las Vegas, Cleveland and San Antonio, public transportation improvements would ease the time burden on lower-income commuters. These commuters often rely on slow and unreliable transportation not by choice but out of necessity. A 2015 Harvard study found that “commuting time emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.” Investing in public transportation will not only relieve some of the burden on low-income super commuters, but will lead to more residents using transportation by choice instead of financial desperation.

The fact that transit usage is lower for higher-income commuters suggests that transit is often used out of necessity rather than choice in some metros. In metros with more robust inter- and intra-metro public transit, such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C., a greater share of higher income commuters use public transit. In these locations, more commuters are likely choosing to use public transportation for reasons besides being unable to afford a car.

Conclusion

While super commuters still represent a small share of overall commuters, long commutes are growing more common. From 2005 to 2016, the share of super commuters increased 15.9 percent from 2.4 percent to 2.8 percent. 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.

Increasing the share of residents using public transportation -- by improving existing transit, building new transportation infrastructure and building housing near transit -- will have positive environmental impacts, as transit produces lower greenhouse gas emissions than commuting via private vehicle.

Additionally, as demand from higher-income households increases housing prices in cities, neighborhoods become unaffordable to lower-income households who live in these areas in the past. For these displaced residents, improved transit provides easier access to job centers and offers improved social mobility. Reversing the growth in super commuting requires investment in both increasing housing supply and improving transportation.

Access data for 100 largest U.S. metros

Methodology

  1. All figures are calculated using 2005 and 2016 American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census, accessed from the IPUMS-USA database.
  2. The share of super commuters is the share of workers commuting 90 or more minutes to work, out of the total commuting population. The commuting population excludes unemployed residents and those who work from home.
  3. Median incomes refer to metro-level median household incomes.
  4. The share of workers who commute via private vehicle includes those who use an auto, truck, van or motorcycle. The share of non-driving commuters includes those who commute via bus or trolley bus, streetcar or trolley car, subway, railroad, taxicab, or ferryboat. Those who work at home or do not work are excluded from the sample.
Apartments for rent in our top cities
Atlanta, GAAustin, TXCharlotte, NCChicago, ILDallas, TXDenver, COFort Worth, TX