The rise of “Super Commuters”

The Apartment List Rentonomics blog, which writes on real-estate statistics and economics, recently posted a census analysis on the “Rise of Supercommuters”.  It describes a recent increase in the percentage of people with commutes 90 minutes or longer each way.  This thoughtful analysis is well worth a read.  It finds that:

  • 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.

But the term “Super Commuter” sounds too heroic.  “Super commutes” aren’t something to celebrate.  People should be free to arrange their lives this way, but shouldn’t be forced to by the housing market.

For the commuter, spending three hours of unpaid time a day commuting is only a response to a lack of reasonable alternatives.  For taxpayers, it represents a high cost- both in providing infrastructure, and in increased traffic congestion.  The US Census itself calls commutes over 90 minutes “Extreme commutes”.  That to me, better describes these long commutes- they are something that a few people may have to do because of their job or family situation, but something that shouldn’t be made the new normal.  “Extreme” also captures the right connotation.  As in “extreme sports,” it suggests something that most people would rather watch than do, and that many don’t even want to hear about.

We can also draw parallels between increases in in the prevalence of these extreme commutes and the decrease in overall transit ridership over the past few years.  They are both symptoms of the suburbanization of poverty, and to some extent, the middle class.  These suburbs are not geometrically conducive to high-ridership transit, and as a result the transit options are poor, so many people who move there, resort to driving.  But driving such long distances every day can cost thousands of dollars over the course of a year, so some people would still rather endure the low frequencies and limited spans of suburban transit service to access the city.

The article goes on to conclude that:

Reversing the growth in super commuting requires investment in both increasing housing supply and improving transportation.

Both increasing housing supply and improving transportation have the potential to reduce commute distances, but the location of this new housing and improved transportation are crucial.  Transit always achieves higher ridership per hour of service in dense, mixed-use urban centers, than in unwalkable outlying suburbs, so if we want to reduce the percentage of transit commutes that take more than 90 minutes each way, we will have to substantially increase densities in places where fast, frequent, and useful transit is most feasible.  That means a mixture of housing and jobs, and building up, not out.


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7 Responses to The rise of “Super Commuters”

  1. Eric June 4, 2018 at 9:18 am #

    Interesting stuff. Minor peeve: “increasingly common” is not a great way to describe going from 2.4 to 2.8 %!

  2. Henry June 4, 2018 at 4:06 pm #

    There is often not enough focus on reducing travel times, IMO. For example, in Queens, NY many parts require 45 minutes on the train and 45 minutes on the bus, because the subways were only ever extended to the midpoint of the borough.

    If trains were extended a few miles east, you could replace a 30 minute bus journey with a 5 minute train ride. But there’s no will from the transit agency to push such projects, nor any political will to do so, because everyone has accepted the current situation as fait accompli.

  3. asdf2 June 4, 2018 at 10:35 pm #

    Re:suburbanization of poverty: While bus service in suburbs is not great, it tends to be particularly awful if you have to go from one suburb to another suburb, rather than suburb to city. In many metro areas, the most direct road or highway route between two suburbs doesn’t even have any bus service, so transit trips involving riding around two sides of a triangle, or three sides of a rectangle.

    Take a look at this trip in the Seattle area, which goes from a typical residential neighborhood to a major suburban employer ( This is a trip that thousands of people probably drive every day in 20-30 minutes, without thinking anything of it. But, by transit, the best the system has to offer is a ride all the way into downtown Seattle and out again, with a total time just barely under the threshold to qualify as a super-commute. Make the trip at noon instead of 7 AM, and you have to go this way (, which is even slower. And, this was starting from a home in the residential neighborhood that’s closer to a well-served bus stop than most of the other homes in the area.

    Here’s along example of a trip to another Boeing plant in the area from a nearby residential area ( This one is particularly eggregious, taking 67 minutes if you leave very early in the morning, 2 hours otherwise, in spite of being just 4.7 miles in length, and driveable in under 15 minutes. For this trip, even Uber becomes more economically efficient than the bus, if you value your time at more than the state minimum wage.

  4. Murray June 5, 2018 at 2:46 pm #

    I would certainly agree that some of these commuters are forced to these long commutes because of housing affordability, but there are others (certainly here in Australia) where people want to live on acreage or by the beach, yet still commute to the city.
    In that instance, I have a problem with their expectation that we should be providing quality public transport to allow them to choose that lifestyle. Thoughts?

  5. mb June 5, 2018 at 2:51 pm #

    It has been a while since I read about super commuters. But I remember reading that super commutes are not screwed towards low income workers, but towards higher income workers who mostly choose to live at great distance from their jobs.
    In some of the examples, many of these super commuters take public transit into the core city to work, and use their time on buses or trains to do work.
    Many of the examples featured people who wanted to live on large acreage lots, etc.

    So most of these super commuters are likely choosing the lifestyle.

  6. el_slapper June 5, 2018 at 11:15 pm #

    seen from Paris(where I did live and work until recently), where extreme commuting is not uncommon at all, I’d say that there are all kinds of extreme commuting. From the poor immigrant who just crossed the mediterranean sea and can’t find any housing nearer than Beaumont sur Oise and can’t find a job elsewhere than Paris’s centertown, to the wealthy manager who owns a castle far in the countryside, and in the middle people like me, with moderate income, consulting jobs all around the parisian area, and a need to gor further each time a new kid is born.

    So it’s a complex phenomenon, with many aspects. I had a year long consulting mission 95 minutes from home(by train-RER). Would have been 60-100 minutes by car, with a great variability due to traffick jams. The shortest I’ve done was 55 minutes.

    And there are extremes, even in the extreme. The worse I’ve met is a lady who had a nice home in Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, next to the wood. 4 hours of commute(by train). Morning AND evening. Pure choice. I’d say for 30%/40% of people I’ve met, it was a deliberate choice to live in the countryside. For more than half, though, it was not choosen. I was just below the limit, with an average of 75 minutes of commuting, as I had choosen to stay with my parents who had a big flat NOT THAT FAR from Paris, wirh enough place for them, me, my mife, my daughter.

    That’s what is happening when there are no good solution. Either you take a near bad solution(family of 5 in 30 sqm, 320sqf, 25 minutes of commuting), or you take a far bad solution(big house with garden, 100 minutes of commuting), or something in the middle, neither near nor big enough, but you can’t pay for more anyways.

    in Paris, there is an aggravating factor, which is the very high volatility of IT workers(and there are many). The tradition in France is that most IT workers are “consultants”, and therefore are not allowed to work for more than 3 years at the same place. Which means that wherever you live, you may risk extreme commuting for your next mission, even if you’re near right now.