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They take the early bus: Meet New York's super commuters
The number of people schlepping more than 90 miles or 90 minutes each way in order to work in the city has increased sharply in the last decade, according to new research.
Although super-commuters comprise only 3% of the Manhattan workforce, their numbers climbed 60% between 2002 and 2009, according to a report issued by the Rudin Center of Transportation at NYU.
“This is a trend that’s only going to intensify, because Americans are much more able to become mobile in terms of their jobs than they can be in terms of housing," said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center and a co-author of the study with NYU research scientist Carson Qing. The researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Survey and other sources to come to their conclusions.
The number of people commuting between Boston and Manhattan jumped 128% in that time, making it the fourth-fastest-growing inter-urban trek in the country, after Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston, TX; San Jose to Los Angeles, CA; and Yakima to Seattle, WA.
Most super-commuters “are not elite business travelers, but rather more representative of middle-income individuals who may opt for more affordable housing and means of transportation, such as driving or intercity buses,” according to the report, titled “The Emergence of the Super-Commuter."
The trend is being generated by a number of factors, including an inability to unload real estate acquired before the recession; the growth of two-earner households in which both parties can’t land jobs in the same location; and a desire not to uproot the children, Moss said. Another contributing factor is more surprising: the ability to accomplish a lot of work remotely via the Internet, which has made some workers more willing to take on a super-commute a few days a week if their employer is letting them telecommute the rest of the time. And high-speed Internet connections at home, combined with more employer flexibility, have increased the likelihood that an onerous 200-mile commute will only be required several days a week, Moss explained. “Working from home is becoming a management perk.”
He continued: “People are putting their families ahead of the proximity to work. Their feeling is that they’d rather travel to work than commute to their families.” In other words, being close to kids and life partners is more highly valued than the ability to pop into the office at a moment’s notice. The largest growth of Manhattan super-commuters is coming from Western N.J. and Pennsylvania, Moss noted, because “Manhattan wages pay more than in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
In the Northeast, people are especially likely to use multiple means of transportation to get to and from the job. Some drive down from Connecticut, then take Metro-North to Manhattan” and a bus or subway once they reach Grand Central, Moss observed.
The lesson to be drawn from the trend is that “we need to be aware of how important our infrastructure is” to employers, employees and the local economy in NYC, Moss said. “We should be investing in our bridges, tunnels, railroads and mass transit,” he added. “It’s not optional.”
Meet the Super-Commuters
The reasons for a monster trek can be simple or complex.
Some super-schleppers live far away from the city due to domestic necessity: They share custody of their kids with a distant ex or have partners who just can’t bring themselves to join the hive of humanity here. Others are hostages of the affordable-housing crisis: They can’t unload a costly home to move closer in, or they know they’ll never find lodging in the country’s most expensive city equivalent to what they already have.
In his memorable 1988 address to the Democratic National Convention, Jesse Jackson described the poor of the United States as people who “take the early bus.” And so do super-commuters, who often traverse several state lines to get to work.
Tim Schenck, Bellmore to Pelham, N.Y.
Six days a week, Tim Schenck, 35, rises at 4 a.m. to take the Long Island Rail Road from Bellmore, where he lives with a roommate, to Penn Station. At Penn Station, he catches the No. 2 train to 180th Street, where he switches to the No. 5. Then he rides the 5 all the way to the last stop at Eastchester/Dyer Avenue, where he takes the BX#16 bus to the Hutchinson Parkway and Boston Post Road to arrive at the Fairway store where he works as a manager.
“I know a lot of people who complain about their commutes to the city, but none of them have a commute like mine,” Schenck said.
The epic voyage costs him about $400 a month – reimbursed, thankfully, by his employer – from 30 to 36 hours of his free time every week, and pretty much his entire social life.
Super-commuters, Schenck explained, find their lives telescoped down to the bare essentials: In his case, his focus is his 3-year-old son, Evan, whom he sees every other Saturday night and Sunday. The remaining weekends are gobbled up by chores.
“I don’t date; I don’t really have a social life,” Schenck lamented, because “you’re constantly having to catch a certain train. You’re always on a schedule. You can’t stay anywhere for a couple extra minutes, because then you might have to wait an hour.” He used to enjoy playing baseball, “but I’m taking the year off.”
It has been suggested that he move closer to work, “but then I’d be farther away from my son” - an unacceptable trade-off.
Schenck tries to leverage his isolation into a sort of ersatz socializing while en route to and from work via Twitter or Facebook, which he accesses with his smartphone. “I’m a sports fanatic and will text my friends something about who got injured, who’s pitching this week, who failed a drug test or who is matched up in the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championships]. My friends will text me back: ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’ No – I don’t!”
His hopes rose recently when a boss told him that a transfer to a Long Island Fairway was in the works, “but then it didn’t happen. They’re trying,” he said of his employer.
At least, surely, he can bring home great groceries! “Only if I can get a ride home,” Schenck sighed. “I can’t bring home anything perishable because it will have been out of the frig for too long.”
Sonita Ramlakhan, Easton, Pa., to Manhattan
“I’m like a trained seal – I just do it,” Ramlakhan says of her two-hour-plus commute to her job as a Web support and quality assurance specialist for Global Works, a firm on Fifth Avenue that provides young adults with service, language learning and adventure travel programs.
Ramlakhan, who prefers that her age not be published, joked that migrating is in her DNA: She’s of Indian descent but originally hails from Guyana and lived for a time in Venezuela, which she left in 1994 to come to the U.S. “I’m used to this,” she said of commuting, adding: “I’ve always had to move.”
When you commute that far and that long, “everything is a routine,” Ramlakhan said. She chops up and cooks a surplus of vegetables on Sunday night so she’ll have at least a couple days’ worth of healthy dinners when she walks through the door at 8 p.m., famished.
Socializing is confined to weekends (though it helps that she’s permitted to work from home on Fridays).
Ramlakhan copes by concentrating on the positives. She loves her job, and the Transbridge bus she takes has Wi-Fi, which allows her to tend to her personal emails and punch up her professional chops: She spends long stretches catching up on C-Net’s technology news, HTML5 and other tech skills via her iPad. “I value time very much and don’t waste it,” she said. “I knew German years ago, and I’m downloading something so I can learn it again. You can just pronounce it mentally,” she added, so as not to disturb your fellow passengers.
Then there’s her three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom house, a haven that would have been utterly out of reach if she were to live within a reasonable distance from work. “I’d have to share an apartment with some roommates” to live in NYC, she said, adding: “It would cost a fortune.”
Betty Thompson, 43, Allentown, Pa., to Manhattan
“There’s a whole new rash of transplants from New York commuting from the Lehigh Valley,” observed Thompson, who works as an assistant in a private equity firm. The new marathoners are enduring their four- to five-hour commutes each day for much the same reason she is: “They wanted to live in a house that isn’t ridiculously expensive, but they also want the New York salary,” which is often double what they could earn locally, she explained.
But landing that New York salary is particularly difficult for super-commuters, since discrimination abounds against those who live long distances from where they’re expected to toil, as Thompson discovered during her one and a half years of unemployment: “Recruiters and interviewers all thought I’d constantly be late and wouldn’t even see me.”
She deleted her physical address from her résumé, leaving only her digital and sonic contact info, and landed her current job in June of last year. “It’s very rare that I’m late, because I always leave extra time,” Thompson noted. In addition to the two-hour Bieber bus ride, she has a 20-minute walk from the Port Authority to Park Avenue. Still, “employees who live just a few blocks away from the office are late a lot more often than I am,” she said, proving that distance is not as big a factor as motivation.
Rising at 4:30 a.m. every day after five hours of sleep is a dream compared to the unpredictable treks Thompson had to make into the city when she was interviewing for jobs.
“Your body likes routines and predictable rhythms,” because a predictable routine – no matter how rigorous – is physically easier to handle than a constantly changing and unpredictable schedule.
Thompson and most of her fellow super-commuters grab an extra hour or two of rack time on their Wi-Fi-free bus into NYC. But she dreads Wednesdays, because that’s when matinee-goers – oblivious to the fact they’re in the roadway equivalent of a sleeper car - board the bus chattering excitedly about what they expect to see and do or what they have done in the city.
The bus driver who announces, “This is a commuter bus, and out of courtesy to your fellow passengers, please keep your conversations low and to a minimum” is much beloved.
The hardest thing about her time-gobbling commute is the fact that she rarely sees her kids - Dylan, 10, and Dana, 3 - during the week. Thompson’s husband is “Mr. Mom,” and her two children are not shy about letting her know that her absences are noticed. “They drop everything when I come in,” Thompson said. “They miss Mommy; they tell me that a lot.”
Walter Graff, Sunderland, Ma., to Manhattan
Walter Graff and his wife left their $2,300-a-month, 1,900-square-foot penthouse on the Upper East Side in 2008 to move to Massachusetts and give their boys, Max and Connor – now 7 and 4, respectively – a better life.
A “wicked, horrible divorce” soon followed, turning Graff, now 49, into “a prisoner of the state of Massachusetts.”
Graff and his ex, who has a place near him, split custody of the boys, and living far away from his kids is out of the question, he explained.
But the films and TV segments Graff produces are largely made in NYC, which requires him to drive three hours to and from New York three to five days a week. (“The bus takes too long.”) He leaves at 4 a.m. to avoid traffic, so he can sometimes sit for hours on the streets of NYC, waiting to get a spot.
The commute, he marveled, has turned him into “a living GPS.” A self-styled traffic expert, Graff can give a disquisition worthy of Gridlock Sam as to whether I-87, the I-95 or the Merritt is the best bet on any particular day. “It’s almost like having another job, dealing with the travel,” Graff admitted: “It’s such an intricate dance ... Sometimes you just can’t win. If you leave on a Friday at 2 p.m., you may as well be leaving at 7 p.m. – what should be a three-hour trip will be a five-hour trip.”
He fears the weather the way other people fear death and taxes. During one ferocious snowstorm last year, Graff inched his way past all the stranded motorists despite the near-zero visibility, taking pains not to spin out “so I could be there at 8 a.m. to pick up my children."
There are certain facts of life to get used to (even beyond the $500 monthly gas tab) when you spend that much time in a crate, which, in Graff’s case, is a Lexus his father gave him six years ago. For example, maintenance and tune-ups are non-negotiable. (“I take good care of my horse!”) Cruise control is a blessing, as are amenities such as Monster Energy drinks and Sirius radio (“a must”). He has a headset, which he uses to catch up with friends from around the country while still obeying the law. “They answer the phone with ‘Are you coming or going?’”, since they already know that he’s in the car.
Even so, “there’s a serenity to being in the car; it’s my time alone,” Graff said. One of his favorite ways to pass that time is by listening to the Armand DiMele program “A Positive Mind,” which helps him to stay in one.
There is also the consolation that He Is Not Alone.
“It used to be you hit traffic when you got to southern Connecticut. Now, with so many people driving long distances, I’m hitting traffic in middle Connecticut – much higher up than before,” Graff observed.
59,000: Number of super-commuters to Manhattan
22,200: Increase in super-commuters from 2002 to 2009
19%: Percentage more likely to be 29 years old, or younger than the average worker
49%: Percentage likely to earn up to $15,000 less per year than the average worker
26.5%: Increase in the number of super-commuters earning more than $40,000 a year.