Remote work and the end of super-commuting

Before the pandemic, more than four million Americans suffered through a daily work commute of more than 90 minutes. Help is on the way.

Years ago, my wife decided to take a one-year course in holistic health counseling. The trouble is, the course was in New York City — and we lived at the time in Santa Barbara, CA. So she flew once a week to New York to attend classes — a hefty commute to the Big Apple.

She was a "super-commuter." A person who travels for 90 minutes or more each way to work (or school).

Super-commuting used to be associated in the public mind mainly with senior executives who lived beyond the boundaries of urban and suburban centers, who would drop in once or twice a week, commuting by car or airplane. It was seen as a glamorous perk.

But the reality is that millions of workers super-commute every day because they live in over-priced, overcrowded cities with poor public transportation options.

So super-commuting was (and is) mainly a burden and a problem — a failure of public policy.

According to the US Census Bureau, even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing remote- and hybrid-work surge, super-commuting was very much on the rise. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of super-commuters in the United States increased by 45%, according to an analysis by Apartment List. In 2019, some 4.6 million Americans commuted for more than 90 minutes each way.

Pre-COVID, the rise in super-commuting was driven by rising housing costs and road congestion. Nearly a third (roughly 1.4 million people) were found near only three over-priced housing markets: New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. And nearly half live within 30 miles of the office; those longer commutes resulted from slower traffic, not further distances.

Many super-commuters, especially in and around New York City, live only 10 miles from their place of work. But it takes so long to get to the office because of slow rush-hour traffic, long waits to switch between buses or subway trains, and other problems that have nothing to do with living far from work.

So what is the effect of post-COVID work arrangements on the super-commuting trend?

We have to speculate because the number of super-commuters is changing quickly right now, and the census data won't be out for a couple of years. 

However, generally, it's reasonable to assume that remote work reduces super-commuting and hybrid work increases it. In other words, when there's no commute, there's no super-commute.

Many of today's work-from-home (WFH) employees used to be super-commuters.

But when employees are required to come into the office just once or twice a week, they may be incentivized to move further away and tolerate a longer commute — less frequent commutes invite longer ones.

This is another example of how efficient remote work can be and how hybrid work creates inefficiencies.

However, the "problem" of super-commuting is likely to be reduced with each passing year.

For starters, I predict that today's current obsession with hybrid work will eventually give way to more remote work and reduced road congestion.

Also: The combination of auto-pilot technologies in cars and the rising ubiquity of voice interface computing will turn super-commutes into more productive work times.

Those still stuck in a super-commute will be able to use that time for work rather than non-work.

And finally, in the long term, self-driving cars will complete this trend, enabling people's workday to fully begin once they step into their electric, autonomous vehicles.

Of course, the law of unintended consequences could scuttle this optimistic outcome.

 As remote work reduces traffic, that will take the burden off city and road planners to improve affordable housing, ease traffic congestion, and develop better public transportation options.

Regardless of how government agencies and society respond, it's still true that super-commuting is a super painful thing for millions of workers to endure.

However, for those who can work from home, remote work is by far the best solution.


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