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The super-commuters


Chris McGoldrick often leaves work on Friday afternoons, but it's not until the early hours of Saturday morning that he pulls his white Subaru Outback into his driveway. Aside from the flickering glow of a neighbor's television, there are few signs of life.

It takes about six-and-a-half hours for McGoldrick to drive the nearly 400 miles from his job in Washington, DC, to his home in the North Winton Village neighborhood in southeast Rochester. It's a commute he makes as often as he can since accepting a government contractor job in the DC area three years ago.

McGoldrick, 54, says he landed the job as an aerospace systems engineer after losing his job with ITT Corporation in Rochester several years ago.

When you ask McGoldrick which city he calls home — Rochester or DC — he says, "It's complicated."

"It's kind of both, really," he says. "My car is registered here [in Rochester]. I am registered to vote here. My family lives here. But my employer said it was a condition of employment that I maintain a residence in Virginia."

The long commute may seem trying, even impossible to some people due to financial costs, physical and emotional stress, and strains on personal relationships.

But McGoldrick is not alone. He is something of a forerunner in a relatively new segment of the 21st century work force: what some people refer to as "super" or "mega" commuters. These are people who travel long distances — often 100 miles or more by car, train, or plane — to and from work.

Commuting at its worst for most of us means idling in a cloud of noise, traffic, and exhaust fumes for an hour or less in one of the country's many congested metropolitan areas. For super-commuters, though, it usually means traveling to work in different regions of either a state or the country, and returning home on long weekends, school breaks, holidays, and vacations.

Until the last decade, such time and distances away from home was a routine familiar to workers in only a few careers, such as the military or commercial pilots. But that has changed dramatically.

A combination of factors are driving the trend, says Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University.

"People are commuting longer distances to work in part because they have families and they don't want to uproot them," he says. Sometimes it makes more sense for one person to commute great distances to obtain a higher salary.

General economic insecurity stemming from the 2008 recession makes people less likely to move for a job, Moss says, because they're often not sure how long that job will last.

And a growing unevenness between the housing and job markets creates what Moss calls "compensation gaps" that can make cities like Rochester an attractive place to raise a family, but not a vibrant job destination.

"For example, people commute from Upstate New York quite often because Upstate New York doesn't have the career opportunities and the salaries that Manhattan offers," he says.

But the biggest factor, he says, is a fundamental change in the business world, described in a report Moss co-authored called, "The Emergence of the Super-Commuter."

To attract the right talent, corporate management is placing less emphasis on the 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, brick-and-mortar employment model of the late 20th century, Moss says.

Employees may not have to come into the office regularly — maybe making an extra-long commute once a week, for example.

And conversely, workers are more willing to travel for job opportunities they can't find in their community.

There are about 10 metropolitan hubs in the US where super-commuting is the most concentrated: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Seattle, according to Moss's research.

In those areas, super-commuters can represent anywhere from 7 percent to 13 percent of the work force, he says, adding that these hubs typically draw from cities in nearby regions.

New York City-Manhattan, for example, draws super-commuters heavily from Philadelphia and Boston. The area also draws about 2,100 workers from Rochester — a near 84 percent increase since 2002, according to Moss's research.

McGoldrick became a super-commuter out of necessity, he says.

"The Great Recession took its toll," he says. "I was over 50 with no job."

There were few jobs in the engineering field available in Rochester for someone with his skills, he says. And it's no secret that many local firms have been shedding those types of jobs.

McGoldrick says that he eventually found part-time work at a small Rochester firm. But the company wasn't in a position to hire him full time and he wasn't getting benefits, he says, so he kept searching. He was called to several interviews up and down the East Coast, he says.

"Then I got this, my dream job," he says. "The pay was really, really good. It's important work and the people are so good to work with."

McGoldrick, whose wife and daughter live in Rochester, says that the key to super-commuting is organization and planning ahead. In addition to the home he owns in Rochester, he rents an 800-square-foot apartment in DC that he describes as sunny, conveniently located, and outrageously expensive.

"I have complete extra sets of toiletries, stock extra food around the house, so when I get to either home, there's always something," he says. "Keeping prepared at both ends makes it less stressful to pack and it takes less time. Wherever you are, you've got the stuff you need."

And he says that after some trial and error, he's finally mastered the commute.

"I've looked at different modes of transportation, and there are pros and cons of doing each one," he says. "The drawback to Rochester is that it is not a major hub, so there are limited flights to other places, and the flights you do get tend to be more expensive. Going to most places, except to some major cities, requires two hops on a plane, which adds to the time it takes."

He says he found that most round-trip flights from Rochester to DC cost between $400 and $600, depending on how far in advance he booked them. And even though AirTran has low-fare flights, he says, it means going in and out of the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which is about an hour's drive from DC.

"You have to add at least a half hour to that to allow for traffic, so that's an hour-and-a-half each way," he says. "And then you have to be there at the airport at least an hour before your flight. That's two-and-a-half hours right there and you haven't even gone anywhere."

By the time McGoldrick accounted for rental cars and taxi trips, he says he found that he wasn't saving much in either time or money. Though his employer reimburses him for work travel expenses, he doesn't get reimbursed for his commutes to and from Rochester.

"Now I just suck it up and do the drive," he says. "The advantages to driving are you can come and go when and where you please. Occasionally the weather can be so bad that you don't want to drive, but that's pretty rare. We're used to driving in heavy snow in Rochester, so a little snow isn't going to stop me, where it could cancel a flight."

McGoldrick says that he knows the route well enough now to find the best stops for gas and food.

"And you can bring stuff back and forth that you wouldn't bring on a plane," he says. "You just load up your car. It doesn't matter if it's a guitar or camping equipment or extra clothes."

Robert Doran, assistant professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Rochester, has been super-commuting for years. Prior to his post at the UR, Doran, who is 47, taught at Middlebury College in Vermont while his wife, Sabine, who also teaches in higher education, worked at University of California, Riverside. He commuted to their Southern California home on the West Coast while he taught in Vermont.

When he went to work at the UR, Doran purchased a house not far from the university, and saw his wife in California mostly during long holidays and vacations, he says.

"I was flying there whenever there was a break," he says. "It averaged about once a month."

Doran's wife now has a job at Penn State, roughly a three-and-a-half hour drive from Rochester. He says that super-commuting has become a real factor of academic life, particularly if you teach the humanities.

The job market is so tight that it can pose a dilemma for a two-professor household, he says. There are only a few cities in the country with a concentration of higher-education institutions that allow both spouses to work in the same location, he says.

"The problem becomes, how do you get a university to hire the other spouse?" Doran says. If the spouse is in the same or similar field, it's almost impossible, he says, because the institution wants to avoid the potential of one spouse reporting to another.

Doran says that the biggest challenge was financial. Though they bought their home in California at the low end of the market and recently sold it, flying to and from California became hugely expensive.

And now, maintaining two households, one in Rochester and one in Pennsylvania, continues to be a significant expense for the couple.

"Financially, there are no advantages," he says.

Another hurdle came when their twin boys were born. The first two years were difficult, Doran says, particularly for his wife.

Now that the boys are a little older, he says, leaving them can be emotional.

"When they were super young, they obviously didn't know what was happening," he says. "But when they got older they would ask, 'Why do you have to go? Why can't you come home tonight? When will you be back?' You really do feel quite guilty."

Doran and his wife have been granted tenure at their respective schools, which offers them some degree of job security in the otherwise uncertain world of academia, Doran says.

Still, he says, "It's a hard life. It's not for everyone. It's not for a new couple just starting out."

But Doran says that, with time, his family has worked out a rhythm that feels more natural. Vacation time and school breaks for Doran and his wife tend to coincide with their children's breaks.

And when he's back at the UR, he's able to devote longer, more productive time to work, he says.

Though McGoldrick and Doran are in their middle years, NYU's Moss says that super-commuters tend to be younger and that they are most likely to come from middle-class backgrounds.

And his research shows that super-commuters are not just highly skilled corporate or academic talent — it's occurring among workers at every pay scale and in most fields. This is not just a US business phenomenon, either. It's also happening in Europe and Asia, he says.

The implications of the rise in super-commuting are profound, Moss says. According to his report, municipal boundaries will become less relevant, for example.

This means that local and regional governments will need to place greater emphasis on inter-regional modes of transportation, he says, such as high-speed rail. And greater cooperation between cities will be necessary as businesses and workers become more integrated, according to Moss's research.

These "mega" regions, as Moss calls them, will find it easier to compete in the global market because they will be able to pool their talent and resources, he says.

McGoldrick says that this has become more apparent to him as he travels back and forth between DC and Rochester. The economic differences between the regions are stark, he says.

"Even at the peak of the Great Recession, there were way more jobs there [in Washington] than here," he says. "Even now, if I were to lose my job there, the economy there is such where there are so many more opportunities than here."

And he's established roots in DC.

"I've just met tons of new people there and I've seen things that I would never have seen had I not taken this job," he says. "I've gained more than I've given up."

Still, he says, he's not in a hurry to leave Rochester.

"I do like it here," McGoldrick says. "I came here to go to RIT [in the 1980's] and I just stayed here. I have a lot of friends here. There are a lot of really good things about Rochester. The housing is much less expensive here and there's less traffic. The traffic in DC is horrible."

He says that he even wants to be buried someday in Mt. Hope Cemetery. And, of course, his wife and daughter live here.

"I just try to be here as much as I can," he says. "The downside [to super-commuting] is you're spread thin. I don't feel as though there's much continuity. You live in both places and neither. There's a sense of that. But I had to make a decision and adapt. In life you have to have plans and goals, but no one knows where they're going to be in five years from now. Ten years ago, I would never have imagined I would be doing this."