Are you a 'super commuter'?

Fueled by regional transportation infrastructure and Internet connectivity, "super commuters" are on the rise in many U.S. cities. A new report reveals how many.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

In a new report by Mitchell Moss and Carson Qing of NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management -- brought to my attention this morning by the talented Richard Florida at The Atlantic Cities -- a new type of commuter is described: a "super commuter" that lives in one city but works in another.

The authors write:

The twenty-first century is emerging as the century of the “super-commuter,” a person who works in the central county of a given metropolitan area, but lives beyond the boundaries of that metropolitan area, commuting long distance by air, rail, car, bus, or a combination of modes. The super-commuter typically travels once or twice weekly for work, and is a rapidly growing part of our workforce. The changing structure of the workplace, advances intelecommunications, and the global pattern of economic life have made the super-commuter anew force in transportation.

Enabled by regional transportation infrastructure (for the commute) and today's Internet connectivity (for the home office), this community of "super commuters" is proliferating in the U.S., in key regions where geographic proximity (and infrastructure) allow it.

Cities seeing the trend include:

  • Houston & Dallas, Texas: more than 13 percent of workers (251,000 and 176,000, respectively)
  • Phoenix: 131,000, or 8.6 percent
  • Atlanta: 47,700, or 7.5 percent
  • Philadelphia: 42,100, or 7.3 percent

The most popular routes in the U.S. are:

  1. Tucson to Phoenix (54,400 workers)
  2. Houston to Dallas (44,300)
  3. Dallas to Houston (51,900)
  4. Austin to Dallas (32,400)
  5. San Diego to Los Angeles (78,300)

A map of key super-commuting regions in the U.S., below:

(Unfortunately, Washington, D.C. was not included in the study because data was unavailable.)

It's hardly surprising that people commute within these regions; many are corridors (Northeast, Midwest, Texas Triangle, etc.) we've long acknowledged. What's more startling is how fast this community is growing.

Consider the growth rate of "super-commuters" between 2002 and 2009 in these cities:

  • Houston: almost 100 percent
  • Los Angeles: 77 percent
  • Seattle: 60 percent
  • New York City: 60 percent
  • Philadelphia: 50 percent

Florida writes that "the rise in super-commuting reflects growing economic integration between what were once independent and far-flung cities and metro areas," resulting in regions with closer economic ties.

Who are these people, you ask? Moss and Qing determine that:

  • The super-commuter is younger than the average worker, more likely to be less than 29 years old.
  • They are more likely to come from middle-class backgrounds (less than $40,000 per year)
  • They are not elite business travelers, but rather individuals seeking more affordable housing and means of transportation.

In other words, me.

I'm one of the nearly 9,000 people who commute weekly (but not daily!) from Philadelphia to New York, a community that Moss and Qing say has increased by 40 percent between 2002 and 2009.

In practice, the numbers hold true: modes of transportation between Philly and NYC are plentiful but almost always packed, whether budget bus (e.g. Megabus, Bolt Bus), traditional bus (Greyhound), rail (New Jersey Transit to SEPTA; Amtrak), airplane or the open -- er, bumper-to-bumper -- highway.

Riding the bus or train between the two cities every week, I see the same faces sitting next to me at 6:30 a.m. At this hour, you're far more likely to see briefcases and button-down shirts than students with luggage -- workers, not tourists.

Anyway, the "super commuter" is not necessarily a creature moving between two major cities; sometimes it's from one regional center to the central district of a bigger metropolis. While Los Angeles' top super commuters come from San Diego and San Francisco, Chicago's come from Rockford and Peoria; while Houston's top super commuters come from Dallas and Austin, Phoenix's come from Tucson and Prescott.

Nonetheless, in all of these cases you're looking at a less than five-hour commute; often two hours or less.

And it's all because of technology, the authors write:

This expansion of city labor sheds exemplifies how the economic geography of American cities has evolved in the information age, as cities begin to share labor/commuter sheds and social and economic activities become increasingly inter-regional. While city-regions, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco-Oakland, the North Carolina Research Triangle, and Dallas-Fort Worth, are already highly integrated due to proximity, technological advances over the past 20 years in broadband, mobile communications, and teleconferencing has made geographic proximity a less relevant precondition for metropolitan integration.

It's not just an American phenomenon, either: similar realities are presenting themselves in China's Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta megalopolises; Brazil's Rio-Sao Paulo corridor; and South Africa's Gauteng mega-region.

What should we do to address this? Moss and Qing suggest that distant cities make a greater effort to coordinate goals, resources and policies in the name of economic integration and strength on the global stage. While that sounds easy for a single-state region like the Texas Triangle, I wonder how possible this is in areas that span multiple states -- like my beloved Philadelphia-New York corridor.

Photo: Michael Hicks/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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