'Super Commuters,' At-Home Workers on the Rise

Mike Sorohan msorohan@mba.org

March 20, 2019

For some areas of the country, "super commutes" have become the norm.

Defined as commuters who travel more than 90 minutes each way to work, "super commuters" have increased by nearly 32 percent since 2005, according to Apartment List. Over the same period, the number of Americans who work from home has seen an even sharper increase of 76 percent.

In a report, Traffic, Trains or Teleconference? The Changing American Commute (https://www.apartmentlist.com/rentonomics/traffic-trains-or-teleconference-the-changing-american-commute/), authors Igor Popov and Chris Salviati said 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.

The paper noted 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, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles 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," the authors said.

The Census Bureau reported the average American commute today is 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," the authors said.

However, stability in the average commute time 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"--850,000 Americans crossed the threshold of spending more than 15 hours per week just getting to and from work.

On the other hand, 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," the paper said.

The authors said 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," they said. "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."

The paper notes one other key element--super commuters and telecommuters outearn everyone else. 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, 21% more than those who spent less than 90 minutes commuting each way. Those who work from home enjoyed an even greater wage premium of 28%, earning a median income of $55,000.

"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," the authors said. "Even within the same metro area or occupation category, however, both groups earn more than the average worker."

The paper said 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 10 metros for super commuters are all tied to these five labor markets. Industries such as 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," the authors said. "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."

The paper said Stockton, Calif., remains ahead of all metros in the share of employed residents who qualify as super commuters. Among the 11.2% of the Stockton workforce who commute more than an hour and a half each way, many likely travel to the San Francisco Bay Area, 75 miles west. Modesto, Calif., which takes second place on the report's list of super commuting metros, is just south of Stockton.

The authors said these trends are likely to continue. "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," they said. "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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