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The Age of the Megacommute

March 7, 2013

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I have mega-commuting on my mind, which is not unrelated to the Marissa Mayer inspired “work-from-home or work-from-work” debate, I suppose. Earlier this week, the Census Bureau released a report indicating that nearly 11 million Americans (about 8.1 percent of the working population) commute to work more than one hour each way. Nearly 600,000 of these road warriors fall into the category of megacommuters, with travel time exceeding 90 minutes over a distance greater than 50 miles.

The meaning of this phenomenon is not clear. Researchers agree that high housing prices in cities such as San Francisco and its neighboring communities herd many people further away from their jobs. On the other hand, the profile of the mega-commuter is actually an older, married male who commands a high salary and whose wife does not work, suggesting that professionals who want to optimize both their living situation and the quality of their work experience are willing to accept the reality of the megacommute as a price worth paying to have it both ways.

The timing of this research was propitious for me because Sunday night I hopped the red-eye to New York, attended one meeting, then scurried back to JFK in time to board a 4:00 pm flight back to Seattle. I was gone about 22 hours. In my mind, this was just another day at the office, simply one with a longer commute time. Consider it a mega-mega-commute.

The environmental implications of my junket are probably more clear-cut than the impact of daily mega-commuting. Airplanes emit phenomenal amounts of greenhouse gases, with extreme multiplier effects at high altitudes. A round-trip flight between New York and Seattle emits the equivalent of nearly two tons of greenhouse gases for every passenger on the flight (the details are complicated, so you’ll just have to trust me). My single-day round-trip spewed almost 20 times more environmentally noxious gases into the atmosphere than the average Haitian does in a year.

This troubles me. The social equation unfolds in the following manner. Economic globalization dramatically boosts (and is enabled by) air travel, which has become very much a low-grade transportation utility, like power grids and surface transportation grids and digital information grids. More people fly. And those who fly travel farther. The incremental growth of air travel mileage in 2020 will equal the total amount of air travel in 1969, when Boeing gifted us with the first jumbo jet!

Who benefits? Not the pilots, who will tell you their work is much more like driving a bus than flying a fighter jet. Not the flight attendants, who in these days of airline austerity do little more than serve tiny pretzel packets. Not the passengers, who endure a gauntlet of humiliating experiences as they trudge through Security, slouch in the terminals, smash each other on the noggins with their roller bags, and then fold up like origami in their tiny seats.

The benefits accrue to global corporations, beginning with the passenger airline industry (Boeing, United), but with tendrils extending to the financial institutions (international banks), the tourist industry (Walt Disney), the hospitality industry (Hilton, Marriot), the petroleum industry (jet fuel refiners you’ve never heard of), the air cargo industry (FedEx cargo planes consume 50 times more BTU per ton/mile than BNSF freight trains), and ecommerce companies (Amazon).

The growth of global air traffic has been a primary driver of global economic growth and integration. But the fruits of that growth, and the benefits of air travel, pretty clearly belong to the 1 Percent, while the externalities of air travel – global warming, ocean acidification, species depletion, ecosystem destruction – fall on the 99 Percent. Consider this. Five of the top ten magazines based on household income are airline inflight magazines.

Where does that leave our mega-commuter? In a comfortable position of ambiguity. Long commutes to the workplace and traffic delays positively correlate to higher per capita GDP. People who commute long distances to work are more likely to use public transportation or carpool. Highway driving is more environmentally friendly than urban driving (by a factor of more than two). Listening to audiobooks in one’s car or working on a laptop on the bus or train adds a layer of cognition and productivity to the time spent commuting. On the other hand, longer commutes also correlate positively with divorce, high blood pressure, and unhappiness. And new studies provide evidence of the economic, social, and cultural benefits of urban density and vertical architecture, from which the extreme commuter distances himself when he returns, for lifestyle reasons, to his exurban McMansion.

Would it be better if mega-commuters to Yahoo worked from home? Would it be better if I my New York meeting occurred via videoconference rather than face-to-face? The answer is, of course, “it depends”. But clearly these are good questions to be asking. So God bless Marissa Mayer. And God bless the Census Bureau. And God bless BNSF. And God bless Warren Buffet (who owns BNSF).


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