Daily two-hour commutes and high housing costs steered employees toward super commuting long before COVID-19 and the rise of remote working. Now, as companies encourage or require their employees to return to the post-pandemic office, super commuting has returned.
In 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 1.5% of Americans had a commute of 90 minutes or more. That number more than doubled to 3.1% by 2019. The pandemic's promotion of remote work appeared to leave super commuting permanently in most employees' rearview mirrors, but hybrid schedules and in-office requirements mean super commuting may instead be moving to the fast lane.
What is super commuting?
Super commuting describes people who travel long distances -- daily or at least once or twice weekly -- between home and work. Super commuters travel by air, rail, bus, car or a combination of modes.
Super commuting's recent spike in popularity parallels an increase in flexible and remote work opportunities, as well as concern about rising metropolitan housing costs and more affordable living in general. These issues echo the origins of super commuting. Current analysis marks its emergence in the late 20th century due to several factors, including the following:
- The growth of metropolitan areas. As metro areas expanded in recent decades, commute times increased for many people residing outside the city's hub.
- The rise of the knowledge economy. Characterized by high-paying jobs concentrated in major cities, the knowledge economy attracted people from all over the world to major cities, though most could not afford to live in the city center.
- The development of new transportation technologies. Low-cost airlines and high-speed trains made it easier and more affordable for people to travel long distances.
In 2012, the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management recorded 3.42 million super commuters in the United States, or 2.3% of the workforce. The study also noted super commuters were more likely to be male, younger and have higher levels of education and income.
A 2023 study by Worldwide REC determined the post-pandemic return-to-office policies implemented by many companies corresponded to an increase in super commuting. The study also found the new breed of super commuters was more likely to work a hybrid schedule, commuting to the office less frequently but traveling longer distances.
Super commuting, now a global phenomenon, is particularly common in developed countries with large metropolitan areas such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia. For example, some super commuters travel the 100 miles from Philadelphia to New York City or even the 450 miles between Washington, D.C., and Boston for work.
What are the pros and cons of super commuting?
Successful super commuting requires a self-awareness of preferences and a realistic view of circumstances that affect and shape this lifestyle choice. Some of the pros of super commuting include:
- Lower cost of living. Super commuters often live farther from major cities, which typically offers significant savings on housing, taxes and other expenses.
- Better work-life balance. Super commuters can often work a hybrid schedule, combining remote work with occasional trips to the office to gain flexibility and control.
- More career opportunities. Super commuting opens doors to global companies headquartered in major cities, while giving these employees access to life and residence in a smaller town or rural area.
- Reduced environmental impact. Super commuting that features public transit reduces traffic congestion and air pollution in major cities.
- Exposure to cultures and perspectives. Super commuters, because they live and work in different places, are afforded more opportunities for broadening their cultural perspectives.
In addition, employers benefit from super commuting, from reduced need for office space to lower overhead costs and, of course, a wider talent pool. Still, the employee must remain cleareyed in recognizing potential pitfalls in super commuting. The following are some of the cons of super commuting:
- Long travel times. Super commuters often spend several hours each day commuting to and from work. It is physically and mentally draining.
- Disrupted sleep schedules. Super commuters often wake up early in the morning or stay up late at night to accommodate their travel schedules. This can lead to sleep deprivation.
- Increased stress levels. Super commuters face the stress of traffic congestion, flight delays and, in general, unpredictability daily.
- Social isolation. Super commuters have decreased time with family and friends due to their increased travel time. This can lead to social isolation and loneliness.
- Reduced employee productivity. Travel fatigue affects productivity. Additionally, super commuters sometimes miss important meetings or events due to unexpected travel delays.
- Additional costs. Super commuters incur transportation costs, lodging expenses and other related expenses.
- Difficulty balancing work and personal life. Time spent super commuting can interfere with both a person's work commitments and personal life.
- Limited career advancement opportunities. Employers might be less likely to promote super commuters -- seen perhaps as less available for work-related commitments -- to senior positions.
How do employers manage super commuting?
Employers can not only manage super commuting, they can encourage and embrace it. Here are some common strategies:
- Offer flexible work arrangements. Employers can give super commuters the option to work remotely, work a compressed workweek or telecommute, giving super commuters scheduling flexibility and reduced commuting times.
- Provide financial assistance. Employers can offset transportation costs, lodging expenses and meals.
- Establish support groups. Employers can establish groups to provide super commuters with emotional support and practical advice.
- Offer training and development programs. Employers can specifically target super commuters with training and development programs to help them advance their careers.
- Create a culture of understanding and support. Savvy employers educate other employees about the challenges of super commuting and implement policies that support super commuters, such as allowing breaks during commutes and, at times, remote work itself.
Employers can also use technology to help administer super commuting's oddities. For example, telepresence robots allow super commuters to participate in meetings and other events remotely. Employers can also use video conferencing and other communication tools to contact super commuters who are working remotely.
Kaitlin Herbert is a former managing editor for the Learning Content team. She has a background in writing and publishing on a variety of technology topics.