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Supercommuters, skyrocketing commutes, and America’s affordable housing crisis

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Our increasing time behind the wheel shows the lengths many go for a reasonable rent payment

The number of Americans looking at this scene for 90 minutes a day has jumped by 23 percent between 2010 and 2015.
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The term “supercommuter,” which refers to those Americans who travel more than 90 minutes each way to work, somewhat blithely suggests something bigger and better. In many ways, modern business has helped reinforce the importance of the portable creative class. Empowered by new communications technology and changing workplace norms, the modern, multicity employee—often a consultant or executive cut in the mold of George Clooney’s character in the 2009 film Up in the Air—has increasingly become a reality, flying weekly between office and home as routinely as others drive to work.

“For many, work is no longer defined by physical space,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning and director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management at New York University. “So many organizations now encourage dispersed workforces and different structures.”

But that lifestyle makes up a small fraction of the increasing number of American supercommuters. For most members of this growing demographic—which increased by 23 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to data from the Pew Charitable Trust—the weekday commute is spent in the car, often stewing in rush-hour traffic. Commuters logged 6.9 billion hours in rush-hour traffic in 2014, according to a report from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. That’s 42 hours per commuter per year, an excessive amount of drive-time radio and podcasting.

These vast fleets of private cars, idling for longer and longer periods every day on our highways, are also an indictment of the country’s affordable-housing policies. Far from every worker is forced into a long commute: Some trade time behind the wheel for the home, neighborhood, and school district they desire, all part and parcel of pursuing the suburban American dream.

But research increasingly finds that for many, longer drives are a direct result of a dearth of housing near jobs, especially in increasingly expensive downtown districts. Our dreary national commute reflects larger choices about zoning and housing development, which add to the affordability crisis that has gotten worse over the last decade, especially for the poor and the middle class.

“There is no easy fix,” says Phil Lasley, a transportation researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute. “If somebody could figure out the affordable housing problem, they would get the Nobel Prize.”

Nothing’s more American than suburbia, and traffic jams. A 1959 pile-up on Highway 25 in Colorado.
Cloyd Teter/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Americans choose the house (and spend less time at home)

Extensive commutes have traditionally been linked to suburban development and the pursuit of the white-picket-fence American dream, says Lasley. While cities, and even suburbs, followed denser development patterns before World War II, the postwar boom and economic expansion led more Americans to seek their own homes and spacious yards, larger lot sizes, and a continued race for space in desirable neighborhoods with good schools.

Homeowners are now being priced out of many U.S. markets, he says, and are willing to sacrifice transportation time for the neighborhood or lifestyle they want. When it comes down to making a decision, most sacrifice a shorter drive for a lawn, marble countertops, and a good school district. The push out may be more pronounced with the return to cities and the rise in urban real estate prices.

“You have lots of people who want to live in a certain place, and with the way we’ve developed our cities, there’s no way they can make that happen,” he says.

Lasley specifically cites zoning rules, which encourage sprawl rather than dense development, as a hindrance to building affordable housing in areas where workers could still cling to a decent commute to work. As people cluster in newly desirable neighborhoods, prices rise. Without room for increased density, people leave and the cycle begins anew.

“The quick fix is building farther and farther out,” he says, “so on the supply side, you’re pushing people farther and farther away.”

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Moss adds that the Great Recession—and uneven recovery—hasn’t necessarily helped. According to a Brookings study, between 2000 and 2012 the number of jobs within the typical commute distance for residents in a major metro area fell by 7 percent. Workers are willing to go farther to find work, yet, due to a tightening of the mortgage market, they are more apprehensive about their economic security and moving.

“People are much more likely today to keep their homes,” says Mitchell. “There’s a reluctance to relocate, and people are much more comfortable staying in place.”

Transportation’s big impact on the family budget

Transportation and housing costs are closely intertwined, though that’s not always apparent when taking traditional measures of affordability into account. This relationship becomes clearer when looking at the choices that lower-middle-class and low-income workers have to make when it comes to housing. In many markets, as the continued rise of home and rent payments gets well-deserved coverage, increases in the cost of transportation, which can make a huge difference in a monthly budget, often get undersold.

According to a 2012 report by the Center for Housing Policy called Losing Ground—which looked at the combined burden of housing and transportation costs—rents in coastal cities such as Washington, D.C.; Boston; and San Francisco are high, but they’re usually matched by higher incomes, as well as greater access to affordable public transit, which lowers overall transportation costs. That lowers the overall cost burden when viewed as a percentage of total spending each month.

Transportation costs compound the problems of housing affordability.
Center for Housing Policy

Affordability and transport really become a weight on moderate- and low-income families in areas of rising housing costs, lower average incomes, and a dearth of accessible transportation. A prime example is Riverside-San Bernardino, California, the metro area where moderate-income residents spent the second-highest percentage of their income on housing and transport costs (69 percent, just under Miami’s 72 percent). That means for moderate-income Californians, little-known Riverside—not Los Angeles or tech bubble San Francisco—is the most cost-burdened place in the state.

Factoring in transportation costs can radically change affordability studies that only take housing into account. For instance, Losing Ground found that Houston was the eighth most affordable place to live out of the 25 cities studied in 2012 (the last year the survey was completed). When transportation in the sprawling city is factored in, Houston drops to 17th. The opposite happens with cities that offer more public transportation, such as New York and Chicago, which become more affordable when factoring in the cost of mobility and getting to work.

Longer commutes and extra expenses continue to rise. The 2015 American Community Survey shows the average commute rose to 26.4 minutes in 2015. According to the Department of Transportation, drivers are increasingly riding to work alone—11 million more people drove to work alone in 2014 than they did in 2000—and increasingly moving farther away from their places of work. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of Americans who live in one county and work in another soared from 23.5 million to 40.1 million, a 7 percent increase.

This evidence can be found on roads and highways on the fringes of expensive cities like Seattle. In 2015, according to Pew data, 57,000 workers there endured 90-minute supercommuter-level rides to work. In 2010, only 33,000 made such long daily trips. The growth in these types of commutes has become so stark that suburbs are being “eclipsed,” says Moss. People are simply leap-frogging them in favor of cheaper homes in the exurbs or rural areas.

Rising costs putting poor Americans on the move

The weight of rising rents is forcing low-income Americans to live farther and farther from where they work, which in turn increases their transportation expenses. The same Pew report found that, after years of rent increases in rebounding city real estate markets, “service workers can’t compete for urban apartments near their jobs,” and that those who find work “may not feel secure enough yet to move closer to work, especially as prices soar near job centers.”

Many are also literally feeling pushed out. According to Zillow data, the commute time for lower-income workers in cities such as Seattle has risen in recent years. In San Francisco, lower-income workers now have higher commute times than high-income workers, which flipped about a decade ago. The median commute distance for those earning $15,000 a year or less has jumped from 12 to 21 miles between 2006 and 2013. There’s a pronounced racial dimension to the increase in commuting time: Brookings research found that as more lower-income urban Americans are pushed to suburban areas due to rising rents, the number of jobs near the typical Hispanic (17 percent decline) and black (14 percent decline) resident in major metro areas declined much more steeply than for white (6 percent decline).

Each additional mile adds up. According to data from the Metropolitan Policy Program for the Brookings Institution, the cost of commuting hits the working poor hardest. It currently takes up roughly 6 percent of their income, double that of high-income workers. For those driving alone—a larger and larger part of the U.S. workforce—the percentage rises to 8 to 9 percent.

"Those costs are so high that it's actually changing the calculus of where people are willing to live," Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings, told Reuters.

Trulia data shows that in some cities with high housing costs, transportation is more affordable and takes less out of monthly budgets.
Trulia

Solutions in strategic development

Unless there’s a big shift in where jobs are being created, the problem of affordability requires providing better transportation and housing options. Lasley advocates for more efficient, even equitable development, including zoning and building codes that encourage density, and better use of transportation infrastructure. Building new roads often induces demand, increasing transport times instead of adding more options. Building in ways that take better advantage of existing transportation networks is key.

“Those who champion higher density often miss the fact that once it’s built, it’s really hard to change it. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t change,” says Lasley. “But for example, once a road is laid down, it’ll probably be there for the next 500 years or more.”

The Losing Ground report suggests focusing more on what could be called strategically placed affordable housing, and increasing density and supply. Municipalities should look at the preservation of existing affordable homes near job centers, public transit stations, and other places where transportation costs are low, and focus on “location-efficient areas.” Lasley says much the same. Instead of spending billions to build new roads to exurbs and new developments on the fringes of big metro areas, invest hundreds of millions in building better school districts in lower-priced neighborhoods already connected to regional highway systems.

For those spending more time driving to work to reach the same destination, laying more roads for longer commutes isn’t the long-term answer.