Super Commuters & the Reasons Behind the Problem

In the recent CityLab article, “Where Commuting is Out of Control,” author Sara Holder explains, “Lack of affordable housing and sub-par mass transit are boosting the ranks of 'super commuters' in some regions outside of pricey metros.” Although the article makes important points about affordable housing and mass transit, there is another major factor at stake pushing people to become “super commuters” that is missing from this argument.

Super Commuters are those across the country who commute 90 minutes or more for work each way. The argument CityLab presents is cities with booming economies have the most super commuters because housing in these areas become SO expensive and there is a lack of mass transit.

But here’s what’s missing. Not every super commuter city is the same. The article mentions that, in many of these cities, housing has become too expensive. The unsaid argument here is the author actually means only in certain neighborhoods with good schools and less crime. CityLab, of course, is a major proponent of cities and building healthy, thriving communities (read here and here - they write great stuff). But this particular article ignores that these cities are not just made up of glitzy, expensive neighborhoods. Many families choose to commute long distances because they cannot afford the priciest areas, and they don’t want to live in areas of concentrated poverty.

Take Atlanta, for example, which has one of the highest super commuter populations and is one of the cities with the worst traffic in the world. As CityLab points out, the majority of super commuters are not poor. In Atlanta, the public transportation system, MARTA, barely makes it out of the perimeter of the city. So, yes, there’s a problem with transit too, but school district lines also push families out of areas they might be willing to stay in if the schools were better.

Maps at Edbuild show how income levels play out in Atlanta school districts. 36% of the student population living in the Atlanta city school district live in poverty (see EdBuild image below and site for more detail).

Sure, there are nice areas of Atlanta, and there are certainly people making below the average income level who are super commuters, but to say the problem in Atlanta is merely affordability is off base. It’s more accurate to say that families who can choose are choosing suburbia and longer commutes rather than living in tough areas of Atlanta.

Los Angeles, California has a similar story. The LA Times recently did a story on poverty in California, highlighting the surprising locations of concentrated poverty like in LA (a 24% poverty rate). Similar to Atlanta, there are of course pockets of billionaires, but many people living in the city are poor.

The hard truth is the effects of concentrated poverty often push people to choose a 90-minute commute each way - a choice that is detrimental to both their health and the environment - rather than choosing to live in a community with poor performing schools and high crime. And for those left behind in struggling neighborhoods, the mass exodus only makes their situation worse. How do we alleviate concentrated poverty in areas like this one? We’ve got some ideas. 

Click here to learn more.

Image via AtlantaCitizen