In Most States, a Spike in ‘Super Commuters’

By: - June 5, 2017 12:00 am

Commuter traffic into downtown Honolulu. Hawaii had the nation’s largest increase in “super commuters,” people who travel 90 minutes or more to work, up 63 percent from 2010 to 2015.

© The Associated Press

The number of commuters who travel 90 minutes or more to get to work increased sharply between 2010 and 2015, a shift that traffic experts, real estate analysts and others attribute to skyrocketing housing costs and a reluctance to move, born of memories of the 2008 financial crisis.

In all but 10 states, the number of “super commuters” increased over the period, and in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Rhode Island, it grew by more than 40 percent, according to census data. The growth came amid an overall increase in the number of commuters as the economy improved, but the increase in the number of people with the longest rides, 23 percent, was almost three times the increase in the number of those with shorter commutes, close to 8 percent. 

People with 90-minute commutes still represent a small share of commuters — ranging from 1 percent in Nebraska to nearly 6 percent in New York. But analysts say the spike in long trips reflects several broader trends in the economy.

After years of sharp rent increases, service workers can’t compete for urban apartments near their jobs. Those who found new jobs after the recession may not feel secure enough yet to move closer to work, especially as prices soar near job centers.

The term “commuter” includes anybody who has a job and doesn’t work at home.

In tech job centers like Seattle and San Francisco, low-income workers are moving farther and farther away while high-income workers can still afford to live close to work, according to a 2015 Zillow study that looked at changes through 2014.

“While commute times for higher-income earners hasn’t changed much over the past 10 years, commutes are getting longer and longer for low-income workers,” said Lauren Braun, a Zillow spokeswoman.

Even among those who could afford to live anywhere, more are choosing faraway places because they can telecommute much of the time, said Mitchell Moss, an urban policy professor at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management who has studied super commuters.

“The real change is that the suburbs have been eclipsed,” Moss said. “People are moving directly from the city to the hinterlands.”

The number of super commuters grew in a variety of jobs, from lawyers and computer scientists to teachers, cooks, janitors and maids, according to a Stateline analysis of census data provided by at the University of Minnesota.

Among elementary and middle school teachers, for instance, super commuters increased by 26 percent from 2010 to 2015. Police officers similarly saw a 31 percent increase in super commuters.

Oil and gas workers were the most likely to have super commutes, at 19 percent in 2015, while 18 percent of aircraft pilots and 16 percent of elevator repairmen faced rides of 90 minutes or more. On the other hand, fewer than 1 percent of telemarketers and funeral embalmers who commute to work faced rides of 90 minutes or more.  

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.