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Traffic, Trains, or Teleconference? The Changing American Commute

By: Igor Popov and Chris Salviati
March 14, 2019
  • Since 2005, the number of "super commuters" who travel more than 90 minutes each way to work has increased by 31.7 percent. Over the same period, the number of Americans who work from home has seen an even sharper increase of 76.0 percent. The growth of these two groups is driven by changing preferences, improved technology, and a lack of affordable housing in many of the nation's hottest job markets.
  • Super commuters and those who work from home tend to be concentrated in locations and industries that offer above average wages. The median wage of super commuters is 20.9% greater than that of those who spend less than 90 minutes commuting each way, while those that work from home enjoyed an even greater wage premium of 28%.
  • The share of workers who super commute is highest on the outskirts of expensive superstar cities including San Francisco, New York, D.C., L.A., and Boston, while the highest rates of working from home are found in mid-sized technology hubs including Austin, Raleigh, and Denver.
  • Super commuting is also common among high-paying blue-collar occupations such as mining and construction, which require traveling long distances to job sites. Working from home is limited primarily to creative and technical white-collar roles. Computer and mathematical occupations are the only category to rank in the top five for both super commuting and working from home.
  • Increases in super commuting and working from home are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, as autonomous vehicles and improved teleconferencing technology make these options easier and more attractive.

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Introduction

Average commute times in the U.S. have remained surprisingly stable for as long as the Census Bureau has been measuring them. The average American commute today is roughly 26 minutes, only about five minutes longer than it was in the 80s and 90s. The average American seems content commuting just under a half hour each way, and some scholars even point out that commute times in the Roman Empire were nearly identical. Stability in the average commute time, however, masks significant shifts taking place at the extremes in the distribution. The typical commute is slowly becoming less common.

At one end of the spectrum, many people are increasingly braving extremely long commutes. Today, 3.5 million Americans -- 2.9 percent of the full-time working population -- are "super commuters" who travel more than 90 minutes to work each way.1 The number of super commuters increased by 31.7 percent since 2005, as 850,000 dedicated Americans crossed the threshold of spending over fifteen hours per week just getting to and from work.

Not everyone, however, is spending more time commuting. On the other end of the spectrum, the share of Americans employed full-time from the comfort of their own home has been rising at an even more dramatic pace. Since 2005, the number of people working from home in the U.S. has grown by 76.0 percent. Today, 5.6 million individuals have a full-time job and no commute at all, up from 3.2 million in 2005. As businesses continue to expand their online presence and new tools make it easier to virtually collaborate with colleagues, homes are increasingly doubling as offices.

Both trends reflect changing preferences in today’s workforce. Many super commuters are now willing to trade off time in traffic for the ability to have both the home life and job they want, even if the two are in wildly different places. Remote workers, on the other hand, can accomplish the same thing by shifting their work online. For a growing segment of the labor force, the tried and true half hour commute is either unattractive or out of reach.

Super Commuters and Telecommuters Outearn Everyone Else

For many, the thought of spending three hours per day in the car sounds miserable. Others have a hard time imagining not leaving their home for an entire workday. For the growing group of super commuters and telecommuters, however, these lifestyle choices can have significant benefits.

People may be abandoning traditional commuting patterns to access higher paying jobs or industries far from where they prefer to live. As of 2017, the median American worker employed full-time outside the home with a commute of less than 90 minutes earned $43,000 annually. The median super commuter, on the other hand, earned $52,000 despite all that time spent commuting -- 20.9% more than those who spent less than 90 minutes commuting each way. Those that work from home enjoyed an even greater wage premium of 28%, earning a median income of $55,000.2

The following charts shows the share of full-time workers with either super commutes or jobs that enable them to work from home. The highest earners are significantly more likely to super commute -- 1 in 23 people earning more than $100,000 are super commuters, which is nearly double the rate of those earning less than $50,000. Similarly, the rate of working from home among those with six-figure salaries (or higher) is 8.6%, compared to the national average of 4.6%.

Super commuters and those that work from home may enjoy high earnings because they tend to live in high wage metros and work in high wage industries. Even within the same metro area or occupation category, however, both groups earn more than the average worker. When we compare super commuters to basic commuters that live in the same metro area, we find that super commuters still earn 15 percent more. Super commuters also earn 12 percent more, on average, than those who work in the same industry but enjoy more reasonable commutes. Similarly, those that work from home enjoy a 21 percent income premium over workers in the same metro area and a 7 percent premium over workers in the same occupation category.

Why is this growing group earning so much? To find out, we explore where super commutes and work from home arrangements are prevalent across geographies and industries.

Super Commuters Cluster on the Outskirts of Large Job Centers

Super commuters are most concentrated in metros adjacent to, or on the periphery of, large job centers. The San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington D.C., and Boston have all enjoyed tremendous economic growth in the past decade, cementing their positions as innovation centers. The top ten metros for super commuters are all tied to these five labor markets. Industries like software, entertainment, finance, defense, and biotechnology are increasingly clustering in these metros, meaning that workers in these industries often find it necessary to move to one of these metros to pursue career opportunities. As jobs continue to grow but housing supply remains constrained, these areas have grown unaffordable even to many with six-figure salaries. This leads to an increase in super commuters as these workers find themselves needing to move further and further from the urban core in order to afford the type of housing they desire.

Perhaps no part of the country demonstrates this trend more clearly than the San Francisco Bay Area. Stockton remains ahead of all metros in the share of employed residents who qualify as super commuters. Among the 11.2% of the Stockton workforce that commute more than an hour and a half each way, many likely travel to the San Francisco Bay Area, which is about 75 miles west. These super commuters enjoy lower housing costs but still access high-paying jobs in the neighboring metros. Modesto, which takes second place on our list of super commuting metros, is just south of Stockton.

People Work from Home in Mid-Sized Technology Hubs

While super commuters trek vast distances in order to be physically present with their coworkers, working from home means the ability to work from anywhere. Where do these remote workers choose to locate? The top ten cities where people work from home feature a variety of mid-sized cities with booming economies and growing innovation hubs. The Raleigh, NC metro, which encompasses the Research Triangle, tops the list. Austin and Denver come in second and third. These cities also topped our earlier list of growth in high-income renters. Both stories are consistent with the narrative that Austin and Denver are becoming prime destinations for high-earning technical workers seeking greater affordability and a terrific quality of life outside of traditional, expensive, superstar cities.

At the start of 2019, we predicted that mid-sized technology hubs would enjoy a big year, as large global firms continue to set up satellite offices there. These data suggest that the firms may simply be following their own remote workers to these cities.

Extraction and Construction Lead All Occupations in Super Commuting

The rise of extreme commutes goes beyond technical roles that cluster in high-wage urban areas. An analysis of how super commuting varies across occupations tells a broader story. Super commuters tend to either be white collar workers living on the periphery of congested job centers or highly-paid blue collar workers commuting to specific job sites.

In fact, extraction, construction, and protective services are the top super-commuting occupations. Extraction spans industries such as oil and mining, where a long drive to an oil field or mine can pay off with high earnings. Similarly, construction workers need to travel to a variety of job sites depending on the project. Jobs relating to Computer and Mathematical functions also make the list, encompassing many engineers and analysts that travel long distances to access innovation clusters.

Creative and Technical Occupations Lead the Working from Home Charge

The list of the top working from home occupations spans a variety of creative and technical fields. The top occupation category is Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media, where nearly 14 percent of people work from home. This category includes freelancing designers and public relations professionals working remotely. Personal Care and Service ranks second, with many therapists, chiropractors, and other skilled professionals making home offices work for them.

Computer and Mathematical professionals make both the list of top occupations for super commuting and working from home. The prevalence of non-traditional commuting patterns for software engineers and data analysts likely reflects two opposing trends in the technology industry. On one hand, technology firms increasingly cluster in a few supply-constrained job hubs with rich talent pools and high housing costs. On the other, the technology itself enables constantly improving virtual communication, making it easier to leave the job hubs entirely and still stay connected.

Lifestyle Factors also Drive Commuting Choices

Labor markets play an important role in shaping the commuting and remote work landscape, but demographics and lifestyle choices matter too. Both super commuters and remote workers are statistically significantly more likely to own their homes. Super commuters are 14 percent less likely than basic commuters to be renters. Those working from home are 27 percent less likely to be renters. In both cases, unique commuting patterns may be driven either by a desire to purchase a home or remain in one’s home, even as job opportunities arise elsewhere.

Family structure also plays a role. Unsurprisingly, the data show that children make it difficult to work from home. Working parents are two percent less likely to work from home, while those with children under five are four percent less likely to make their home into an office.

Conclusion

The growth in both super commuters and remote workers has been consistent over the past fifteen years. Both trends increasingly affect the way people work and live. These two choices have always gone hand in hand. We live where we work and we work where we live. As both technology and local economies evolve, however, America’s workers are increasingly embracing new flexibility and separating the two decisions.

These trends are likely to continue. Autonomous vehicle technology eventually promises greater commuting ease and safety, which would allow workers to move even farther from their jobs. On the other hand, the proliferation and constant improvement of teleconferencing technologies and office communication tools make it easier each year to feel connected to a team as a remote worker. Barring a disruption in these trends, the future of the typical commute may be very different from its long past.

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  1. To conduct this study, we use American Community Survey Microdata accessed through the IPUMS database. We limit the sample to adults who work at least thirty-five hours per week.
  2. The wage premia for super commuters and those that work from home remain positive and statistically significant when we control flexibly for age, race, sex, and education level.
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