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The Way We Work: Super Commuters Go the Distance for Their Careers

For Labor Day, Patch examines why some professionals are willing to travel hundreds of miles every week for work. Would you consider a super commute?

At 5 a.m. three days a week, Mark Schofield wakes up in his home in Washington, D.C. to prepare for his commute -- to Philadelphia.  

By 6:15 a.m., he grabs a cup of coffee from the Starbucks in Washington’s Union Station.

“The coffee there is stronger” than on Amtrak train No. 130, he says.  

It’s no wonder he needs a potent blast of caffeine: Schofield spends more than 15 hours riding each week to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. From there he catches a local train to his job at Haverford College in Delaware County. The commute adds roughly two and a half hours and 140 miles onto both ends of a 9-to-5 workday. His three-day commute, roundtrip, totals 840 miles—roughly the distance between Washington and Orlando, FL.

For Schofield, and other “Super Commuters” like him, commuting is a part-time job. One that doesn’t pay but that is essential to keeping their full time gig.

How far is your daily commute? How many hours do you spend getting to work? Tell us in the comments below.

A recent report from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation found super commuters  -- defined as a person who works in the central part of one metropolitan area but commutes a long distance there using rail, bus, car or air from another -- were on the rise in eight of the 10 largest metropolitan labor forces in the United States. Metro Atlanta is one of the few exceptions to this finding.

Though super commuting apparently isn't growing in the Atlanta area, it's still a phenomenon here. The Rudin Center report ranks Fulton County as the No. 4 county in the nation for super commuting among major population centers in 2009, with 7.5% of the workforce falling into that category.

Between 2002 and 2009, Manhattan saw a 60 percent increase in super commuters, Los Angeles a 76.7 percent increase and Chicago a 41.6 percent increase, according to data collected for the report.

Another report from the center found the number of workers coming from the Boston region to the New York area more than doubled between 2002 and 2009. The fastest growing home region for Manhattan commuters? Not the Big Apple, but Boston, the report says.

The center’s super commuter report concludes, “the changing structure of the workplace, advances in telecommunications, and the global pattern of economic life have made the super-commuter a new force in transportation.”

Schofield says people who commute to jobs in D.C. from outside the Washington beltway have it worse than him because they have to sit in local traffic for hours. 

“I think I have it better,” he said. “We have full professional lives and if that takes a little extra work from time to time, it's worth it.”

Effect on work

The average commute time for a U.S. worker between 2006 and 2010 was about 25 minutes. For public trasnportation commuters, the average time was 48 minutes, according to the 2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Just 4 percent of Americans work in a different state from which they live. While long commutes are increasing, they are still far from the norm. 

Super commuter April Connelly met Donna Cooper in the Cafe car on the way to D.C. a few years ago.

Cooper, Connelly and Schofield all prefer to sit in the Cafe Car because the tables allow more space to get work done. The block of time is free of distractions from email, coworkers, or other workplace environment quirks that can get in the way.

“I think it’s the perfect amount of time, actually. You get about an hour and a half of focused work,” Connelly said.

“Having the two-hour block early and ‘off the grid’ is actually quite liberating,” Schofield said.

Each credits a relatively flexible work environment for making this lifestyle possible.

“Clearly I couldn’t do this if I had a job where I had to punch a clock,” said Cooper.

Connelly arrives at work a little after 10 a.m. on Mondays, but she often stays in the office until 9 p.m. each night.

“I don’t think every job is conducive to that,” she acknowledged.

In addition to flexible bosses, their super commutes require flexible significant others (and pets).

“We’ve gotten used to really focusing on each other in the time that we have. So for me the relationship makes it work too," Connelly said of her boyfriend. "If I had kids I don’t know that I could do it.”


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