Carson Qing & Sarah Kaufman
Earlier this week, The U.S. Census released a report announcing the proliferation of “mega-commuters,” 600,000 Americans who travel at least 90 minutes and 50 miles each way. It’s slightly different from the “super-commuters” we at the NYU Rudin Center defined last year, who are individuals who work in one county (usually of a major metropolitan area), but live in another, usually commuting more than 90 miles each way.
The most pressing difference between the terms “mega-commuter” and “super-commuter” is that the former focuses on the individuals traveling long distances regularly to their workplaces, while the latter also includes people who make these journeys once or twice or week, at most. These long-distance, low-frequency super-commuters may travel to the office only once or twice per week at most, or maintain similarly unconventional schedules. Our definition of a super-commuter, estimated to be 3% to 10% of the workforce depending on the city, includes both “mega-commuters” and low-frequency, long-distance commuters who were not captured in the mega-commuter definition. The graphic below illustrates the differences between these two types of super-commuters in their travel behavior.
The U.S. Census Bureau provides two data sources to define origins and destinations of commuter flows. To define the mega-commuter, the Census Bureau used American Community Survey (ACS), which measures data from only 7.5% of the working population, then extrapolates the data for a larger population based from that sample. But the Census Bureau’s OnTheMap tool (OTM), used in our super-commuter report last year, extracts employment data directly from state employment insurance records and represents coverage of nearly all employees and their work locations, with the exception of self-employed individuals. Because of this difference between ACS and OTM, the “mega-commuter” figure is most likely an undercount of long-distance commuters.
Using OTM, we found nearly 650,000 long-distance commuters in the top five U.S. super-commuting metropolitan areas who commute to the core county from a county outside the metropolitan area. OTM is more successful at capturing low-frequency commuting trips than the ACS, because the ACS’s line of questioning focuses on frequent trip-making, asking respondents where did they work for the majority of the past week and how did they travel to work, and assumes that the sample data applies to a larger population. Low-frequency commuters are coded as “working from home” in the ACS, even though in reality their link to the workplace is not severed: the trips are made less frequently, due to the impediments of travel time, distance, and cost.
The rise of “tele-commuters,” who now represent 10% of the total workforce (or in the case of Aetna, 47% of its workforce, up from 9% in 2005), and low-frequency, long-distance commuting has created a fundamental shift in the way people travel between home and work. The traditional “Journey to Work” survey methodology used in the ACS does not fully capture new patterns of commuting or the growing distances between home and work locations in metropolitan regions. It neglects the large and growing number of Americans who do not travel exclusively between home and work on a regular basis. Thus, transportation planners and researchers should not overly rely on the “Journey to Work” methodology to analyze and understand transportation flows: a more nuanced data source that captures a greater variety of trip purposes is increasingly necessary to analyze travel behavior in this new era of commuting.
 Miller, C. & Rampbell, C. “Yahoo Orders Home Workers Back to the Office.” The New York Times. 25 February 2013.