Extraordinarily long commutes are worth the tradeoff for Boston’s growing mix of “super commuters,” a loosely defined term that most people in real estate and urban planning circles say refers to people who spend 90 minutes or more each way getting to work.
Proximity to family, a more peaceful lifestyle, and more affordable housing are the reasons why they are willing to spend a good chunk of their day either on the road or a train.
The secret to a super commuter’s sanity while passing a lengthier-than-most trek to work? Podcasts, patience, and even prayer.
“I use the morning time for prayer and meditation, and in the afternoon I listen to music or podcasts or books on tape,” said Connie Maynard, a high school teacher who commutes from her home in Bourne to work at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington, before adding with a laugh: “The only time I get stressed out is when I have to sit for long periods of time in traffic, but you find ways to make the commute fly by.”
There are 4.6 million super commuters in the United States, 3.1 percent of the workforce, according to a report last year from Apartment List. The number rose 45 percent from 2010 to 2019, the most recent data sample provided by the organization.
In Greater Boston, however, the number is even higher.
There were 160,000 super commuters here in 2019 — 4 percent of the total workforce and an 84 percent increase from 2010.
Maynard gets up every weekday morning at 4:30 to get ready and be out the door by 5:45. While her commute is usually 80 to 90 minutes each way, it isn’t out of the question to see that balloon to two hours or more.
That means she adds about 3,000 miles each month to her car, she said.
It hasn’t always been this way. Prior to moving to Bourne in June 2019, she lived closer to work, in a condo in a restored Lowell mill. But a string of inquiries on whether she’d ever like to sell her condo coupled with a desire to live closer to family on Cape Cod was all the motivation Maynard needed.
“My plan was originally to do this the year before I retired, but then I had an opportunity to sell my condo with several offers over the asking price,” she said. “I’m retiring after the end of the next school year, so it’ll end up being four years of doing this long commute.”
Victor Sandim commutes to his loan servicing job in Hingham from West Dennis. The drive is a little over an hour on paper, but it’s at least 90 minutes each way these days. Summer traffic to the Cape means it can easily take two hours or more heading home some afternoons.
“The downside is I have to fill up my tank maybe three times a week, and that’s not good with gas prices where they are,” Sandim said. “The good is that I’m finding how to better use my time — podcasts, learning something. I’m even teaching myself French.”
More recent data aren’t readily available, but there is a widespread anecdotal belief that the number of super commuters has soared even higher because of the pandemic, as more people work at least partially from home.
The fastest rent growth in the largest US metropolitan areas during the pandemic occurred in the suburbs and exurbs, according to the Apartment List study. This signals that hybrid work arrangements could usher in a new model of part-time super commuting.
“The pandemic has shown us all that we have to do things that are good for our whole well-being,” said J. Allie Cliffe, a senior science writer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who plans to move this fall from her home in Newton to a condo in Portland, Maine — a roughly 2½-hour train commute to Boston. “Living closer to my whole family and a lot of my friends [in Maine] is more important than being driving distance from work.”
The Broad Institute is in the heart of Kendall Square and surrounded by some of the most expensive residential real estate in Greater Boston. Cliffe is one of the many residents moving out of the city and finding more affordable housing in parts of New England that provide similar amenities to downtown Boston. While she initially thought moving to Maine would be possible only if she found a different job, the pandemic made more widespread remote work possible.
“You can live in New England and still have your job,” Cliffe added. “I love my team, but half of us don’t live within an hour or two of the office.”
They may not have every amenity of Boston, but areas like Portland, Providence, and Worcester still check a lot of the boxes. When it is necessary to head into Cambridge, Cliffe will take advantage of the more than two hours on Amtrak’s Downeaster service to check e-mail and prepare for meetings.
When she’s home, she will be able to take advantage of coworking space in the public areas of her new building, Procopio Cos.’ Daymark condo complex in downtown Portland.
“[My new condo] has the usual things that everyone’s looking for. It’s the right size, the right cost, and the right place,” Cliffe said. “I’m in the Old Port, so I can walk five minutes to coffee shops. I can walk practically two minutes, and I’m at Trader Joe’s. I don’t like to hop in my car for everything.”
Cliffe acknowledged that part of her embrace of the super commute is that she won’t have to do it every day and, when she does, that hers involves a train ride.
Others aren’t so jazzed when it comes to their super commute.
Sandim and Maynard both lamented how exhausted they can be on weekends after a week of so much time in the car on top of their full-time jobs. But they don’t regret their decision.
“There are downsides, but at the end of the day, everything is worth it,” Sandim said. “I know I would never be able to get the same kind of job here on the Cape.”
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