Requiem for the Super Commuter

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In 2010, I stopped being a normal person and became what the U.S. Census Bureau calls a “mega commuter,” a super-awesome name for a famously miserable existence. Mega commuters are not people who go to work via robot suits or yogic flying. They are “those who travel 90 minutes or more and 50 miles or more to work, one-way.” They’re the next-level kin of super commuters, who travel 60 minutes per leg. 

Before the pandemic, you used to hear a lot about such extreme commuters, because their numbers were often said to be growing, and their stories were irresistibly awful. As in this 2017 New York Times piece chronicling the predawn schleps of Manhattan-bound workers living in rural Connecticut and Pennsylvania, or this viral account of the six-hour odyssey endured by a Bay Area office worker who lived 80 miles away, in Stockton, tales of those willing to make epic sacrifices of time and effort just to get to work served as dramatic ways to illustrate the scale of the affordability crisis, and the tortured relationships Americans seemed to have with balancing their jobs and their life. 

The number of U.S. residents with commutes of 60 minutes or more reached a new high in 2018, with about 10% of workers in for such long hauls. Their numbers were particularly strong in and around big cities with pricey housing markets. (Remote work rates in the U.S. also crept up above 5%, a harbinger of 2020’s grand work-from-home disruption.) Baltimore, where I live, became a hotbed of extreme commuting over the last decade, thanks to its affordable homes and a pair of MARC commuter train lines connecting to the neighboring city of Washington, D.C., where 15% of workers logged trips of more than 60 minutes, each way. 

Such stats were typically framed as something of a human tragedy. “Imagine spending the entire month of August — 24 hours of every day — stuck in your car or riding the bus,” wrote the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham in 2016, of the hours wasted to mega commuting. “That’s what it’s like for 3.6 million American workers.” He cited a 2006 study from Daniel Kahneman in which respondents ranked commuting as the least enjoyable activity of the day, and the large body of research connecting commuting to marital woes, depression and all manner of physical and emotional ailments. And Ingraham also imagined the transformative effects of liberating those workers from their onerous journeys. “There’s a huge pool of more or less untapped human potential currently locked up in long commutes,” he wrote. (Critics of this trope, like City Observatory’s Joe Cortright, often argue that the travails of super commuters command excessive journalistic attention, given their overall rarity. “No one has trouble convincing an editor this is a story,” he told me in 2016.)

I enjoyed reading about outrageous commuting, especially during the four hours a day I spent doing it; horror stories about those who somehow found themselves with even worse getting-to-work situations made my own more bearable. And one ironclad rule of commuting is that there’s always someone who has it worse.

But then the pandemic sent me home, just weeks before I could celebrate a 10-year commute-a-versary. On my way home that day in March, I saw something novel — a rider wearing a face mask — and snapped a photo of the arrival-departure board in Baltimore’s Penn Station, because I sensed correctly that this would be my last trip for a long time. 

The pandemic hasn’t killed commuting — the many millions of workers who can’t do their jobs remotely still take cars, buses, trains and subways to work. But it sure as hell killed mine, and others like it. Ridership on the MARC trains that once hauled about 800,000 people a month to and from jobs in D.C. and Maryland has been frozen at about 10% of its pre-pandemic levels since March. Boston’s MBTA and Chicago’s METRA commuter trains report the same 90% plunge. Compare that to urban bus ridership in the U.S., where passenger numbers have generally settled at 50% or more from pre-Covid days. Among those workers — often the essential ones — the commutes go on. (Indeed, many have just gotten longer, because of Covid-related transit service cuts.)

Some former commuter-train riders are now driving to the office, but the majority discovered what the coronavirus exposed to so many around the world, especially in major cities where half the workforce remains remote: Among workers in white-collar fields who once traveled great distances to sit at desks in major cities, 2020 was the year the ride ended. The grand experiment in time-liberation that the Post’s Ingraham imagined is well underway.

And, for me at least, leaving mega commuting behind has delivered a mixed assortment of blessings and curses, some of which are impossible to separate from the stew of disruption and anxiety that the pandemic has served. Mostly, the act itself — trekking daily to a city 50 miles away, to sit in a room with a screen — seems increasingly unimaginable after a year of barely venturing beyond the bounds of the immediate neighborhood. Did that really happen? Why?  

To fully revel in the death of pointless commuting as one of the silver linings of the pandemic, one has to embrace the consensus that commuting is indeed The Worst, one of those bits of life-cruft that the virus swept blessedly away. Think “soul crushing,” the go-to modifier in so many jeremiads against the practice. Commuting is often seen as a kind of anti-life, a black void between work and home from which no light or joy can escape. Those of us lucky enough to escape 2020 with job and health intact should just celebrate its passing and spiff up our Zoom backgrounds. 

The degree to which that’s true, however, has always depended in part on how you commute. Those who drive alone, as most Americans do, exact the greatest environmental toll and also report the most misery. But walkers, bike riders, and commuter-train takers are fairly satisfied with the experience, even when their commutes run long. 

Some of the MARC riders with whom I once shared two hours a day, for example, clearly could not get enough of the stuff. For years, I marveled at the train’s “party car” scene — a clutch of garrulous characters who claimed the quartet of face-to-face seats and spent every evening sharing snacks and happy-hour-grade yuks. They often kept this up into the station; as the rest of us trudged past on our way home, a half-dozen might be holding forth in a little knot in the center of the hall, too lost in happy gab to part ways. One standing-room-only ride home late in December, I wedged myself into their party zone, uninvited, and was immediately handed liquor-filled chocolates. These people’s souls were not being crushed. 

Nor was mine, really. Indeed, the mechanics of the journey could often be pleasant. I rode a bike to a train station, rode a train to D.C., then hopped on the same bike (it folded!) to the office. This took a long time and, in bad weather, often sucked, but some of it was exercise, and even more of it was essentially sitting in a bouncing office with a nice view, tapping at the same laptop that would sit on my desk. I showed up a bit later than my colleagues and left before them, but my employers tolerated this, and my family learned to put up with it. In time, having a stupidly long commute became a part of my personal brand — something to talk about when I met people at parties. (Among them: an annual party composed entirely of Baltimore-to-D.C. commuters.) 

Instead of a black void, commuting was a grind punctuated with moments of grace and beauty and human drama. From the train seat, I saw deer and beaver breakfasting by the side of the tracks. From the saddle, I rousted blue herons on the urban bike trail that made up much of the home side of the bike leg, and enjoyed a scenic tour of the D.C. monuments twice a day on the work side. Armed with a coterie of train buddies, I killed many an hour with the kind of loopy dorm-room-style conversations that only people trapped together for ambiguous periods of time can have. On a few very good or very bad days, we might purchase a big can of Foster’s Lager at the Union Station liquor store. 

Even the hardships of the commute — broken engines, flat tires, eruptions of train rage and body fluids — look bearable in hindsight, since they turned just getting home into a celebration-worthy occasion. Plus, the physical rigors of the journey, and its inflexible timetable, imposed a not-unwelcome discipline on my shambolic existence. The great treks that bookended each day served as a barricade that kept work from seeping into life, and seemed to sharpen both the hours spent in the office and the precious few left once I made it through my front door. 

Pandemic life has dismantled this chronological and geographical scaffolding; “work” is now smeared across time and space, conducted in homebound digital isolation, nowhere and everywhere. My mega-commute may have been a ludicrous time-suck, but it felt necessary, even as the personal technology we hauled aboard made it ever-clearer that it really wasn’t. Now that it’s gone, so is the sense of purpose this mass migration seemed to confer. The commute, even when awful — perhaps especially when awful — ennobled the whole enterprise of employment. To be immersed in a diverse sea of humanity engaged in a common pursuit feels utterly alien here in in splintered and self-contained 2020.

Like missing the office, missing the commute is a distinct subgenre of post-pandemic workplace prognostication. Polls suggest that many workers are anticipating a hybrid model, with more flexible hours and days, once the vaccine restores the normalcy we claim to want. We’ll get exactly as much in-person face time, and thus commuting time, as we want, somehow. Commuting writ large, in its standard 30-minutes-or-less size, will survive the pandemic, as it has past disruptions, because it provides a critical work-life separation that endures even as travel modes change. But for practitioners of its supersized variant, I suspect the spell has been broken. It may prove difficult to convince our ranks that there’s anything that needs to happen at a desk in another city so important that it could not be accomplished at a desk closer to hand. 

Having poured an ocean of time into this practice, then, I’m now left with just a handful of singular moments. The bonds uniting the commuter collective were typically unspoken; on the train, strangers respected each other’s private rituals and rarely struck up conversations — especially in recent years, as headphones took over. A few of times a year you’d get a chatty seatmate and a glimpse into someone else’s work universe. The encounters that linger were usually just brief exchanges. Once, soaked with sweat after a long ride to the station on a brutal summer day, I plopped down in the only available seat I could scrounge, which was next to a very large and even-sweatier guy in grimy work clothes. Neither of us looked happy about this. An hour later, as I gathered my gear, he stopped me — I’d left my phone on the seat. When I thanked him, he held my gaze and replied with a gravity that surprised me. “We have to take care of each other,” he said. 

Here’s another: Many years ago, the woman sitting next to me tapped my arm and pointed out the window. We were pulling into a park-and-ride station, where, in the parking lot, an older man sat beneath the open hatch of an SUV, smoking. The dog sitting beside him watched the train intently, like one of those statues of the fisherman’s wife scanning the sea for returning boats.

At last, the animal leaped up, tail wagging: The woman they were waiting for had emerged from the train. “He waits for her every day,” the rider beside me said of this scene. 

We pulled away and settled into a companionable silence. Years later, sitting on the same side of the same train, I found myself looking at that parking lot again. There was the smoking man in the back of the SUV; the dog, its muzzle gone grey, now stood stiffly beside him, watching for the woman to come home. 

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