Bloomberg News

Super Commuters Surge as Stuck Homeowners Fly

February 23, 2012

The round-trip cost of Karl Sparre’s weekly commute is $250. Photographer: Brad Dececco/Bloomberg Businessweek

The round-trip cost of Karl Sparre’s weekly commute is $250. Photographer: Brad Dececco/Bloomberg Businessweek

Most Monday mornings, Karl Sparre is at Boston’s Logan Airport getting orange juice and a muffin before a 7:20 a.m. flight. By 10 a.m. he’s at his desk in Philadelphia. On Friday, he’s back home in Boston by 7:30 p.m.

Sparre’s 600-mile (965-kilometer) odyssey of buses, trains, planes and automobiles inaugurates him into a growing group of executives. Researchers such as Mitchell Moss, an urban policy and planning professor at New York University, call them “super commuters”: men and women who have a residence in one city and work in another far away, often 100 miles or more.

From 2002 to 2009, the number and concentration of super commuters grew in eight of the 10 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, according to an analysis by Moss and others at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management. In the area surrounding Philadelphia, those workers rose 50 percent. In the Houston area, they almost doubled, Moss’s research shows.

“We have people here who are living in Chicago, living in Connecticut and flying here because their families are there and they want to keep them intact,” said Sparre, 56, vice president for global talent acquisition at Aramark Corp. and one of a small number of executives at the Philadelphia-based food services company with an extended commute.

A shortage of qualified workers -- particularly women -- and a growing reluctance of many employees to sell homes that have lost value mean that companies have to support long- distance commuting in order to hire the best candidates, saidJudee von Seldeneck, founder of executive recruiting company Diversified Search in Philadelphia. With unemployment still high, more workers are willing to suffer the commute, too.

Communication Tools

The Internet also helps because workers can keep in touch using their BlackBerrys, iPhones, iPads and other devices during the commute and away from the office, she said.

“The tools we have to communicate make it a whole lot easier; you pretty much just need to live in a city with an airport,” said von Seldeneck. “Companies recognize they have to be more flexible. They are broadening the candidate pool you can look at.”

The super commuter trend is going to continue and it’s probably going to grow, said Moss, who has advised New York City and the state of New York on transportation issues. Dual-worker households often mean spouses who live in the same city and work in different places, he said.

“It’s really a very, very big, but dispersed trend,” said Moss. “As organizations become aware of how important it is to have the best talent, it will only make them more flexible.”

Plane, Train, Automobile

For Sparre, the commute only begins when he lands at Philadelphia International Airport and hops the 40-minute train to Aramark’s 32-floor downtown office. The rest of the week he alternates between a train and his Lexus sport-utility vehicle to commute from his sister’s house in Wilmington, Delaware, which often takes an hour.

It’s a far cry from the 30-minute drive he used to make on back roads to get to Sun Life Financial Inc. (SLF)’s suburban Boston campus. He lost his Sun Life position in a round of budget cuts and after failing to find work nearby for many months, took the Philadelphia job about a year ago.

He’s one of an estimated 42,100 super commuters in the Philadelphia-Camden-Vineland corridor, according to NYU.

The life of a super commuter isn’t always easy, Sparre said. He’s texting more with his wife during the day and they try to do videoconferences using Skype a few times a week. He also texts frequently with his daughter, who is a sophomore in high school. His 25-year-old son has a job in Boston.

‘Work at It’

From a financial perspective, his $129 round-trip ticket on Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) is about to become a $220 flight with US Airways Group Inc. (LCC) because Southwest is ending service between Boston and Philadelphia. He pays his own commuting expenses.

“You have to work at it,” said Sparre, who added that his wife of 17 years will probably move to Philadelphia once their daughter graduates high school and heads to college. “Really all you have is weekends and there’s never really enough time on the weekend. The relationship aspect should never be underestimated.”

Farther north, in the area around Manhattan, super commuting grew 60 percent from 2002, the NYU data show. Tom Kowaleski, who retired last year as head of communications for Bayerische Moteren Werke AG’s North American unit, has been among the regular Monday morning super commuters arriving in New York for several years. He’s still making the trip regularly as a consultant.

New Jersey Apartment

Kowaleski, who also is a former head of communications at General Motors Corp., flies each Monday from Detroit to the New York area to get to BMW’s Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, office. He spends the week at an apartment he rents in Park Ridge, New Jersey. His wife, a volunteer docent at the Detroit Institute of Arts, stays in their Birmingham, Michigan, home.

During a break in a recent conference, Kowaleski said he was in a group with a trio of commuters who recounted their regular commutes from Detroit to jobs in New York, Chicago and San Francisco and another with a New York to Kansas City itinerary.

Companies have been more flexible about super commutes since the disruption of the recession and the collapse of the housing market in many cities, said Richard Marshall, who leads the recruiting of public relations executives at Los Angeles- based Korn/Ferry International (KFY), the largest publicly traded executive recruiting company.

‘More Flexible’

“Candidates are less inclined to want to uproot their families and with the real estate situation, companies, frankly, are more flexible because they don’t want to get stuck with properties candidates are upside-down in,” said Marshall, who is himself a super commuter, traveling to New York City each week from the Atlanta area for four years.

In Marshall’s Roswell, Georgia, subdivision, a neighbor three doors down commutes to Florida and another travels to Boston, among a handful of others among the 60 to 80 homes. Areas such as the Northeast corridor are pretty much all connected with a two- or three-hour commute now, he said.

“It’s less important you’re standing up and saluting the rest of the troops at 8:30 in the morning,” he said. “Companies need to be more open to it to attract the best talent.”

Elena West, 45, has been commuting between Phoenix and San Francisco weekly for seven years. The marketing chief for Robert Half International Inc. flies out on Sunday afternoon and returns to Phoenix each Friday. For lodging, she rents a house in Menlo Park, California, a five-minute drive from the staffing service company’s headquarters, she said.

Top-Five Market

About 131,000 people, or 8.6 percent of the workforce in the Maricopa County area that surrounds Phoenix, meet the definition of super commuters, Moss’s data show. That makes it one of the top five U.S. markets for the flexible workforce.

West’s husband started a financial planning business in Phoenix and even after accounting for the Menlo Park house rent and the $250- to $300-a-week flights on US Airways -- which she pays out of pocket -- it’s still cheaper than relocating and buying a home in the San Francisco area, she said.

“We’ve always had a commuting sort of relationship,” West said of her husband. They don’t have children and when she was based in Europe for Robert Half, her husband stayed back in the U.S. and visited overseas.

“Companies are getting more and more comfortable with this trend as long as you’re at the office when you need to be,” West said. She uses an iPad and Skype to keep in contact and her location is often irrelevant because she’s on the phone “from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m, anyway.”

Breaking With Tradition

One of the biggest surprises is how quickly super commuters are spreading outside of the traditional corridors of the Northeast and West Coast, Moss said. The Seattle area posted a 60 percent increase and the Houston area led all markets, almost doubling from 2002 to 2009.

Super commuters are not just elite business travelers, Moss’s research shows. The average age of super commuters is younger than the total workforce and less affluent, making up a higher percentage of people younger than 29 years old than the general labor force. The group is getting older, and the higher- income workers are growing faster than the lower-income group, the data show.

The highest concentration of super commuters is in Texas, according to Moss’s research. About 13 percent of the workforce in the Houston and Dallas areas now meet the definition, the report shows -- about 427,000 people, many traveling the 240- mile route between those two cities.

Texas Hotbed

That’s one reason Southwest Airlines can run 25 flights a day between Houston and Dallas, said Alicia Hasell, managing director at executive search company Boyden World Corp. in Houston, who has also noticed the surge in super commuters as she helps companies find new executives.

“Southwest runs like a Greyhound bus between the two cities,” said Hasell, who said she knows executives who commute from Chicago to Houston each week as part of their normal work arrangement.

Rob Franklin eschews the airport for a 170-mile drive starting 3:30 a.m. each Monday in his 2006 Honda Accord from his home in Austin, Texas (USUSTX), to his job as a compliance manager in the financial services industry in Houston. Sometimes he catches an hour of sleep in the parking lot in his car after arriving.

Franklin lost his job in Austin and after he found the new job in Houston, couldn’t sell his home, he said.

“It can be difficult, but you are just trying to pay the mortgage,” said Franklin, 40, who has a wife and two young children. “My daughter turned 8 years old on Monday and I was here in Houston. She was crying.”

He has an apartment in Houston during the week and carts clothes and items back and forth in laundry baskets and coolers in his car. He usually gets home on Friday night in time to put the kids to bed, Franklin said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan, at jgreen16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Elstrom at pelstrom@bloomberg.net


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