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The Way We Work: Super Commuters Go the Distance

For Labor Day, Patch examines why some professionals are willing to travel hundreds of miles every week for work.

Editor's note: This article is the second in a three-part series called "The Way We Work." The ; the third article will run Monday.

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.

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. 

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.

Data for D.C. was not available when the Rudin Center was performing its super commuter analysis. But more recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau's On the Map tool shows that between 2008 and 2010 the number of commuters who live in the New York metropolitan area and commute to the D.C. metropolitan area increased by 108 percent. Commuters making the trip from Philadelphia to D.C. increased by 37 percent during that same period.

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.” 

The Big Schlep

5:25 p.m. Friday: I text April Connelly to let her know I arrived at Union Station in Washington, D.C. in plenty of time for the 6:05 p.m. Amtrak train to Philadelphia. 

Several minutes pass before she texts back: She’s at Farragut North, a metro stop six stations away. It is Friday rush hour. I begin to worry.

5:45 p.m. Friday: I text her again. “They just announced boarding. I’ll get us two seats. Preferred Car?”

Several minutes pass. Eventually, she texts back, “Cafe.”

I grab a booth and after a few moments she walks in the car wearing jeans and a tan cardigan. I have now officially begun the return-home journey Connelly makes weekly between her job at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. and her home in Philadelphia.

Connelly is a super commuter. I am just along for the ride. In fact, as a work-from-home reporter, I am the opposite of a super commuter. 

Connelly has been making the weekly journey since 2005. She generally catches the 7:43 a.m. regional Amtrak train on Monday morning from 30th Street Station and returns to Philadelphia on a Friday evening train. 

“You are just getting up and going to work. It just takes a little bit longer,“ she said.

She sits in the Cafe Car when she can, using the table to organize her papers and prep for her week. Between Monday and Friday, Connelly rents a room in a home in Northwest Washington. She keeps a separate set of clothing, toothbrush, hair dryer and other items in her D.C. and Philadelphia houses.

Donna Cooper shares the same commute as Connelly, but does not share her fellow Philadelphian’s stoic attitude about it. 

“It’s hard, it’s really hard. Nobody likes it,” said Cooper, who commutes between Philadelphia and her job at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. 

She says she is a “Philadelphian,” but there are more job opportunities for her chosen field in D.C.

She rides down on Monday mornings, returns to Philadelphia on Thursday and works from home on Friday. 

“It’s just a long time not to be in your bed every night” she said. Cooper calls her commute “the big schlep.”

After two years of the D.C. commute and eight years before that trudging back and forth from a job in Harrisburg, PA., Cooper is not feeling very super about commuting anymore. Period. 

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. 

Connelly met Cooper in the Café Car on the way to D.C. a few years ago.

Cooper, Connelly and Schofield all prefer to sit in the Café 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.” 

Cooper’s husband takes the Bolt Bus down to D.C. every other week to spend a night and a day in her other life. Schofield is almost always back home in the evening, so he is not apart from his wife as much. But that doesn’t mean his absence goes unnoticed.

“I will say that our dog suffers a bit when she sees me packing up, because she knows that we're not going to the park,” he said.

Super commuting communities

Moises Mojica, an Amtrak conductor of 12 years, currently works on the Acela between D.C. and New York.

Mojica says regular passengers often choose the same seat every time they ride.

“When someone is sitting in ‘their’ seat, they get a little bit bent out of shape,” he said laughing.

Cooper provides an even more specific sociological breakdown of her fellow rail riders. 

“There’s the quiet car people, the café car people, the seat people,” Cooper said.  “The regular commuters, we know we don’t have to get in line. We wait until [the line] goes. We all stand where the café car is going to be.”

Cooper referenced a scene from the most recent season of Mad Men—in which a character takes a local commuter train into New York every day from the suburbs, sitting near the same people and often passing the time by playing cards—to help explain the atmosphere on the train. 

“It’s exactly like that. It becomes a community,” Cooper said.

But not everyone is social. Connelly said she often has “tunnel vision” on Monday mornings as she tries to get her work done. 

Schofield agreed. “People are not particularly ‘chatty’ at 6:30.”

Mojica said it is common to see people tense, preparing for big meetings. 

But often that same tense person who took the 6 a.m. from D.C. to New York is back on the 12 p.m. Acela returning to D.C. after a meeting.

“When they come back on my train, their attitude is totally different. They may have a glass of wine... they are mingling with the other passengers,” he said. 

Connelly told a story about one ride in 2008, just about when the financial market was falling apart and banks were collapsing seemingly overnight.

“People were literally yelling what banks were collapsing and we're ... taking bets on how many were going to be left by the time we got to D.C.,” she said. 

End of the Line

Monday morning, I arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street station too early for my 7:43 a.m. train to ever pass for a regular commuter. 

7:39 a.m. Four minutes before the train is supposed to leave, Connelly texts me that she just got down to the platform. She’s aiming for the cafe car again.

By 10 a.m. I am home in Washington, D.C. As I sit in front of my laptop, the very thought of having to put in a full day of work is exhausting.

At 10:09 a.m. I text Connelly, “I don’t know how you do this. The last thing I feel like doing is work.”

She texts back, “You get used to it."

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