‘Super commuting’ is on the rise — and that spells big trouble for mid-size cities


In America, the average commute to work takes 26 minutes. Lee Robinson's is 17 times that.

To get to the office, Robinson gets up at 5 in the morning, drives to the airport near his home in Des Moines, Iowa, whips through security, hops on a 6 a.m. flight to Denver, waits for his connection at the airport, boards a second flight to San Francisco, and takes an Uber to the city's financial district, where he works as a VP of developer experience at the tech startup Vercel. Door to door, the trip takes seven and a half hours — on a good day.

Granted, Robinson doesn't make the commute five days a week. He's expected to show up at Vercel's headquarters once or twice a month, mostly to attend executive meetings. He stays at a Hilton near the office for a night or three, then commutes back to Iowa, where he grew up, to be close to his family and friends.

"If you would have told me three or five years ago that it was possible to have an executive role at a fast-growing private technology company from Des Moines, Iowa, I would have been very excited," says Robinson, 30. "When I went to school for software engineering, I thought the only option was to move to San Francisco."

Commutes like Robinson's would have been unthinkable pre-pandemic when everyone was required to show up at the office every weekday. The sudden rise of jobs that were fully remote enabled millions of Americans to relocate to small towns, far from their big-city employers. Now, thanks to the flexibility of many hybrid jobs, more and more professionals are rethinking the maximum distance they're willing to travel to the office on a regular basis. Some are making extended drives from an exurb. Others are enduring long journeys by train, bus, and ferry. And an elite handful — many of them tech executives like Robinson — are taking Herculean journeys involving multiple flights and hotel stays.

All these super commuters, as researchers have dubbed them — those who average at least three hours traveling to and from the office each day — are reshaping the geography of American work. The winners will be the big cities that best accommodate the needs of jet-setters when they're at the office and the quieter locales that cater to their lifestyles when they're at home. The losers will be mid-tier cities like Cleveland and Syracuse which have long served as regional hubs for large employers.

"If employers and their top sales and managerial staff want to be where you can have the most amount of interaction, it's going to be in the big cities like New York," says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University. "The regional headquarters as a concept is gone."

Moss doesn't take credit for inventing the term super commuter. But he and his coauthor Carson Qing were the first to study the phenomenon a decade ago, in a paper they published in 2012. At the time, long commutes were just starting to emerge on the professional landscape. Couples in dual-earning households were finding it difficult to get jobs in the same city, the internet was making it possible for office workers to log in from home, and renters were getting priced out of New York and Los Angeles. Suddenly, living in an affordable town and commuting to a bigger city was a viable option. "The 21st century is emerging as the century of the 'super commuter,'" Moss and Qing concluded.

If you work in San Francisco, super commuting is the difference between living in a suburb or next to a vineyard.

In 1990, the Census Bureau found, roughly 1.5% of Americans had a commute of 90 minutes or more. By 2019, that number had risen to 3.1%. And while there's no reliable estimate of how many long-haul commuters there are today, Moss says the phenomenon has been supercharged by the pandemic-era rise of hybrid work. Among those who worked from home during the pandemic, 46% now have a hybrid schedule, compared with 34% who are fully on-site and 20% who are fully remote. That means employees who moved their families to cheaper towns during the pandemic, or who accepted jobs at companies that are nowhere near their homes, now have the option to stay put. More hybrid jobs means more super commuters.

A super commute may sound like a grind but consider the math. Let's say your commute back when you went into the office every day was an hour each way, for a total travel time of 10 hours a week. And let's say that today, you're expected to come into the office for what is rapidly becoming the standard schedule for hybrid jobs: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. By commuting two fewer days every week, you can now live 40 minutes farther from the office than you used to, while keeping your weekly commuting time constant. That extra radius gives you a lot more options. If you work in downtown San Francisco, say, it's the difference between living in the bland suburbs of Novato and living next to a vineyard in Napa. 

That's the kind of choice that appeals to supercomputers. Why live in sleepy old San Jose, they figure, if you can hop a plane from Sun Valley? "The young tech people," Moss says, "their quality of life is defined by 'I want to go snowshoeing or go hiking' or 'I want to ski.' They're much more inclined to pick places which are compatible with their lifestyle and values."

The tech industry, which has embraced hybrid work more than other employers, is especially friendly to supercomputers. If Lee Robinson's commute from Iowa to San Francisco seems extreme, consider the one undertaken by Ivana Istochka. She's the vice president of demand generation and community at a tech startup called Amity, which requires her to work out of its office in Milan during a designated week every month. That allows her to live wherever she wants the rest of the time. So she recently rented an apartment in Lisbon, to see if she likes it enough to live there permanently. She enjoys the city's sunnier climate and its easy access to water sports, and she's surrounded by other globe-trotters with far-flung employers. All it requires is a 5-hour commute to the office.

People with suitcases congregated in an airport
Some super commuters take a plane to their office in the big city so they can enjoy a more idyllic lifestyle at home. 
Rick Bowmer/AP

For Istochka, super commuting offers the best of both worlds: the flexibility to choose where to live, and the chance to build close relationships with her coworkers. "I love going to the office," she says. "I don't think we would be able to make sound and quick decisions and collaborate so effectively if we didn't have time face to face."

While many super commuters choose to live in idyllic settings, the richest among them often opt to remain in the white-hot centers of Manhattan and Silicon Valley. "They want to be near each other," Moss says. "They need to be near each other because gossip is such a big part of their life."

Still, he notes, not all big cities will fare equally well in the age of super commuting. Some are better positioned than others to host a weekly influx of high-powered hybrid workers, thanks to a single factor: transportation access. Consider the difference between New York City subways and Los Angeles traffic. "In New York, you can have six meetings between noon and 5," Moss says. "In LA you can only have three." For Moss, who's a New Yorker, that leads to a conclusion he arrives at with obvious glee: "LA is not important."

The most extreme super commuters, it appears, are executives — perhaps because their presence in the office is important enough that their employer is willing to foot the bill, or perhaps because they earn enough to be able to afford all the plane flights, cab rides, and Amtrak tickets. (Robinson's employer pays for his travel, while Istochka pays her own way.) In its pre-pandemic analysis, the Census Bureau found that, on average, supercomputers earned higher salaries than other commuters. 

But not every supercomputer is angling for the C-suite. In August, fresh out of college, Lindsay Callihan started commuting to her first job at an advertising agency in Manhattan — from her parents' home in Cary, North Carolina. Her employer required her to come into the office only two to three days every other week. So Callihan made the 1,000-mile round trip twice a month, paying for all the flights, Ubers, and subway fares herself. All that travel still cost her less than paying for a place of her own in New York, and she saved money by crashing at her sister's apartment in the city and living rent-free with her parents in North Carolina.

For Callihan, who always dreamed of living in the big city, super commuting was a means to an end. This month, she finally found a place in New York with a roommate. But the rigors of flying back and forth to the city didn't turn her off from the idea of commuting from afar. She says she might return to it one day, once she's a little older and ready to return to her hometown and settle down. That's an indication of how the trend is likely to transform the workplace for years to come: For those who get a taste of super commuting, it may well become a way of life.

"It's something I would consider doing again," Callihan says. "It's something I've definitely thought about a lot. I love North Carolina, and I think I'll definitely find my way back there."

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