December 02, 2004
Extreme commuting

I'm just boggled by this article on "extreme commuting".

"The sun isn't even up," says Sandra Foster, 42, who's been making the 85-mile trip into Manhattan for nearly a year to her job as an information-technology recruiter. "The last thing anyone wants to do is chat."

Foster is one of 3.4 million Americans who endure a daily "extreme commute" of 90 minutes or more each way to work. They're among the fastest-growing segment of commuters, according to a Census study, Journey to Work, released in March. Their commute times are more than triple the national average of 25.5 minutes each way.

For many extreme commuters, the distance is so far they actually travel through several weather zones from the edge of the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, or from Pennsylvania resort towns in the Poconos to midtown Manhattan.

Extreme commuting is being driven by strong forces. And this year's surge in gasoline prices hasn't deterred people from driving longer distances to get to work. Workplace shifts make it easier to telecommute, use flextime or work part time. Accelerating prices for close-in housing push people farther from cities to find affordable homes.

And government planners, desperate to keep traffic moving, are spending billions to improve mass transit, including far-flung routes for express buses and commuter rail lines. Whatever the outlook, extreme commuters are pounding out the corridors of what will become the next generation of suburbs.

There are a lot of reasons cited for this in the article, with a prominent one being the greater affordability of housing the farther out one goes from many major metropolitan areas, with California being a prime example. I can't argue with any of that, but as someone who was an "extreme commuter" for four years of high school - I lived on Staten Island and went to Stuyvesant HS in Manhattan, which meant taking a bus to the ferry, the ferry to Manhattan, the subway to 14th Street, then walking five blocks; the total round trip was between 2.5 and 3 hours each day - I'd sooner live in a hovel than have a commute any longer than the 15-20 minute drive each way I have now. There are some things you can do to make the time you spend in transit less of a waste, but at the end of the day, that's time you could be spending doing something better, which in my mind is almost anything else. Even before we had a baby, my time was too valuable to me for that. I don't begrudge anyone their lifestyle choice (though I do strongly begrudge some of the public policy choices that can result from those lifestyles), but man, is that ever not for me.

(Thanks to Anne of blogHOUSTON for the last two links.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 02, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

I have a friend who 'extreme commuted' even farther than you did in high school: he lived on Staten Island but went to school at Regis, on the Upper East Side.

And when my brother went to Stuy, he had some friends who lived out in deepest darkest Queens, out near the Nassau County border--that was one hell of a commute.

Of course, perhaps the most extreme commuting story I've ever heard of was a professor I had in college at Arizona: he lived in Oakland but worked in Tucson. How'd he do it? He only taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Monday night he'd fly into Phoenix, take the bus/shuttle van to Tucson; teach Tuesday-Thursday; Thursday afternoon he'd get back on the bus to Phoenix and thence fly home.

The amazing thing is that he'd been doing that for 20 years...

Posted by: Frankenstein on December 2, 2004 8:35 AM

But how unamerican to cavil at the fine citizens who choose to endure endless hours of petrochemical-intensive commuting to the least-efficient-in-government-resource-cost communities (and stressing out to the point where their spousal and child abuse rates skyrocket) so that their children will have the opportunity to spend their waking hours unsupervised by parents and neighbors and getting involved in methamphetamine abuse.

'cuz, see, they don't want the little nippers growing up around "those people" - you know, the ones who don't teach their kids values.

They'd rather see their kids become "those people"

But in, you know, a big house.

How bucolic.

Posted by: julia on December 2, 2004 8:41 AM

I'm loving my 20 minute walk to work. Much less stressful than driving at all. Plus, it gives me quality time with my iPod.

My boss has a 2+ hour commute each way and if he's even a few minutes late getting out of the office and misses the late train, he ends up staying here in a hotel.

Posted by: Michael on December 2, 2004 8:49 AM

The two most extreme commutes that I have ever seen:

1. I knew an Alaska Airlines flight attendant who lived in Seattle and worked out of Juneau. Every morning she would right the early morning flight from Seattle up to Juneau (2.25 hours) and then start her work day working a flight from Juneau back to Seattle, then fly back up to Juneau on another working flight before flying back home to Seattle for free again. Go figure. I never did understand why she couldn't just work the first flight too but they have strange work rules about that.

Second most extreme commute. Guy I went to grad school with in Seattle ended up getting a teaching job at University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His wife worked for Microsoft and couldn't leave Seattle so every day he would drive from Seattle to Vancouver, crossing the Canadian border twice a day. It's a 2.5 hour drive one-way if you have no wait at the border, but during the summer the wait can reach an hour or more.

Posted by: Kent on December 2, 2004 9:24 AM

I knew a professor who split time between somewhere up east and Rice like that. I can't remember which one, but it was one of my women's studies professors.

My ex knew a guy who lived in Sealy and commuted to JSC. This was long before the Belt was completed, so he had to drive at least to the Loop to do the whole thing on a freeway. I thought he had to be nuts, but some people like that.

Posted by: Ginger on December 2, 2004 9:32 AM

I don't if this qualifies, but I have to take a train from Tottenville (the southern tip of Staten Island) to get to the ferry and walk from the ferry to Wall Street every morning. That's a good hour and 45 minutes.

Posted by: William Hughes on December 2, 2004 9:37 AM

How would you like to be a member of Congress from Hawaii? Fly in for a vote, the back home for a speech at the Rotary Club back for committee meetings, then back for a fund raiser at the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce etc.

A few years ago the Chron had a contest trying tosee which Houston area resident had the longest commute. I recall someone fella lived in Columbus TX and commuted daily to west Beaumont. Go figure.

I live in Spring and work in the TMC. I once listened to an entire set of "Great Books" on tape.

Posted by: Chris on December 2, 2004 11:10 AM

In Medieval Europe, the customary walk from peasant villages to the fields was no more than 15 minutes. If the location of field work changed permanently so that it made their walk longer, eventually they built a new village.

AFAIC, the 15 minute rule still makes sense. I've always tried to get close to that number. Spending three hours a day commuting is like taking a 37.5% pay cut. PLUS there is the cost of commuting, which you have to figure in against the reduced sale prices of houses far away from work.

But not to worry. In a year or two the Chinese and Japanese will get tired of carrying the US national debt, the dollar will collapse, interest rates will skyrocket, the real estate bubble will burst, and everyone who still has a job will be able to buy close in.

Posted by: Demo Memo on December 2, 2004 12:01 PM

Chris, we don't see much of our Hawai'i legislators when Congress is in session unless it's three-day weekends, for precisely the reasons you cite. Of course, since they typically win re-election by 60-40 margins or better, they're not what you'd call vulnerable.

Posted by: Linkmeister on December 2, 2004 5:04 PM

I commuted to Stuyvesant H.S. from Queens, not as long a trip as from Staten Island, but quite long enough for me.

I once knew somebody who commuted into Manhattan to work from Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

These days, many Southern Californians desirous of owning a home are commuting into downtown LA from places like San Bernardino and beyond, which can take 4-5 hours per day round trip.

Faced with a lengthy commute, it would seem preferable to take a train in the Northeast than to be stuck behind the wheel on an LA freeway. As the old Broadway musical goes, "Subways Are For Sleeping."

Posted by: Richard Bellikoff on December 2, 2004 5:28 PM


I commuted to Stuyvesant from - er - Stuyvesant Town.

And then later from Second Ave and 18th St.

I'll slink away now.

Posted by: julia on December 2, 2004 7:29 PM

There's bunches of people doing this in the San Francisco Bay Area. In Santa Clara County, home of San Jose and Sunnyvale, the median house price was over $500,000 before we moved in April 2003 and has gone up since then. Lots of people live in Stockton, Tracy, Pleasanton, and Livermore, places that give them 2-3 hour commutes each way, depending on traffic. In some cases, it's simply because they can't afford the $1500/month rent on a 1-BR apartment anywhere closer.

Posted by: Sue on December 3, 2004 8:41 AM

being in real estate, I see a lot of people being able to sell their homes here (Wash DC suburbs), but not able to afford the next house up...creating then the commute to West Va, where large homes are darn affordable still!

Posted by: Vivdell on December 18, 2004 10:16 AM

As an extreme commuter, the amount of time I spend commuting keeps increasing. The area between my home and work are constantly being filled in with new developments. What is missing are new businesses aside from box stores, supermarkets, and gas stations.

While I have the ability to telecommute occasionally, there are many that do not have that option. The two primary drivers I have found for putting up with an extreme commute is economics and lifestyle.

Economics are usually the first consideration as homes close in to the city are quite pricey compared to what you can buy further out. I have a rather nice older with a great view that would cost 3-4 times more if it was 30 miles closer to the city. It would be 5-10 times more if it was in the city.

There are others in my area that this was a close as they could be to the city and still afford a decent home (no mansions, just a nice little rambler on a small lot).

When you look at lifestyle, recognize that no one really wants the long commute. It is usually tied into economics and/or the locations of certain types of real estate. If you are not what I call a "city person", the frustrations and stress of living in a closely populated area may be out of the question. You may desire less noise, a feeling of safety, and smaller schools that some percieve are not available ot possible in or near the city. A long drive to make the paycheck to pay for the house in the country may make perfect sense given the other options.

It may not be possible to find a job in one's field closer to home or a home that allows your preferred lifestyle closer to work.

What I always find amazing is the amount of time and money a company will put into sending operations out of state or overseas when a perfectly viable option is to move 30-60 miles away from the city center. The suburbs for most major cites extend somewhere out to these radii, so finding workers isn't a problem. Some might be willing to accept a bit less in salary to balance out the reduced commute time. The land is certainly cheaper, although some infrastructure may need to be put into place.

It all comes down to finding the best compromise of how much can/do you make, what lifestyle do you desire, and how far a drive are you willing to endure.

Posted by: Dobie on September 14, 2005 11:39 AM

Extreme commuting for many becomes a necessity rather than a preference as people seek escape from living in the inner cities and surrounding regions for a variety of reasons. Right, wrong, or indifferent, as population increases people will continue to seek better quality of life housing for their families, among other reasons, and opt to try the extreme commute route.

The twist here is not so much that people are doing this, but how complacent we are towards commuting in society in general. Without the commute, no one would get to work. Whether that commute is 5 minutes or 2 hours, everyone takes it for granted as a given, acceptable component of our daily lives despite the impact. Marriages have fallen apart due to a lengthy commute, as an example. Less extremem examples, people can become stressed over traffic, missed appointments, experienced car damage and personal injury due to road accidents, and so on.

As a technologically advanced country we should take commuting a lot more seriously and actively seek out better solutions, such as more high speed rail lines, transit check incentives, car pools, and increased broadband coverage coupled with the ability to telecommute some if not all days of the week.

I intend to lobby for increased commuter awareness, and to urge all commuters to support this mission one way or the other. Commuting may be a necessity, but it should not be taken for granted.


Wayne Meyers
President, Pocono Commuter, Inc.
Commuters Unite!

Posted by: Wayne Meyers on April 28, 2006 3:37 PM

I commute from Montgomery County, PA to Roseland, NJ each day. This takes at least 1.5 to 2 hrs each way

Posted by: Michael A. Ambrosini on May 8, 2006 4:26 PM