Supercommuters and My Many Journeys Getting to Work

I recently came across this article on CityLab, which led me to this article, which discusses this report from ApartmentList about supercommuters. This is just a small example of content I’ve seen addressing this topic. 

No surprise, many metropolitan areas in the U.S. saw an increase in the number of supercommuters (90-plus-minute commutes) between 2005 to 2016, according to the ApartmentList report. But I was surprised that Chicago was one of the few cities to see a reduction in the number during this time, as denoted by the large green circle in the chart.

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As a resident of Chicago, this of course is good news; fewer people are spending time in their cars, trains, bikes, pedicabs, feet, etc. getting from Point A to Point B on a daily basis. Yet, Chicago still has hundreds of thousands of supercommuters. Also, the reduction in the local supercommuter number doesn’t forget the fact that non-supercommuters still have lengthy commutes (60 minutes is a long commute).  

Why is this? Are the transit systems not efficient? Or maybe is it people driving out of necessity or choosing to drive over taking transit, even though it is a longer commute?

After reading this report, I began thinking about my current and prior jobs and how I got to work each day. I particularly thought about when I worked at a company in Des Plaines and Schaumburg, which provided me with my own supercommuter experience.  

Reverse Commute to Des Plaines – Fairly OK

When I first started at that job, the company’s office was literally across the street from the Cumberland Metra station in Des Plaines. I lived right off Irving Park Rd. at what I suppose is the border between Buena Park and Lakeview. Each day, I would generally zig-zag my way to the office, which resulted in a lot of trial and error trying to find the best route and wear and tear on my car. There were also a number of times I would rely on public transit because I simply could do so. The key word there is “simply.” I would walk a block from my apartment and catch the old X80 CTA bus (before they discontinued it … and then reinstated it) and take it to the Irving Park stop on the Union Pacific Northwest Line. From there, I’d catch the outbound train, and ride it a handful of stops out to Cumberland, where I would then walk probably no more than 200 feet to my office door.

Did it save me money? Not really (I had a fuel-efficient car). Did it save me time on my commute? A little bit. Was it convenient? Yes! Was it more enjoyable than dealing with traffic in my car? Absolutely!

So why didn’t I do this more often? It was because at the time, there were no amenities near the Cumberland Metra station. All that was there was the Northwest Highway lined with ‘50s- and ‘60s-era offices (including mine), and residential areas. On days I took the train to work, if I needed to run errands on my own time or go out to lunch, I could not do that. If I took the train, I had to significantly plan out my entire day to NOT use my car in a relatively car-oriented office location. Thus, due to lack of things around the station, the convenient train commute became an inconvenience. So, of course, I drove more often, which inevitably led to a longer daily commute, particularly during the evening rush.  Overall, the transit system was efficient. But I chose to drive for my own convenience and ability to do things without the hindrance of suburban transit. And, anecdotally, many people with cars choose to drive for the same reason. 

Reverse Commute to Schaumburg – Ooof

The choice of the Metra became null when my company decided to relocate to Schaumburg. Then, if I wanted any chance to get to work on time, it was the car, and only the car. What most Chicagoans think of Schaumburg (Ikea, Woodfield Mall, office buildings) is far from the village’s Metra station and commuters either have to drive or rely on a network of Pace buses (by connection of CTA or Metra for reverse commuters), which, while providing decent coverage, can make a daily supercommute a certainty. (I once heard that this area was designed this way in the ‘50s because “cars were the future,” so let’s design business districts near two interstates, not trains. It’s probably true considering other highway-oriented plans from the last half century but something I need to investigate further)

After a few months of driving and getting annoyed with traffic and parking near my apartment (and spending 90 minutes driving my car after work), I decided one day to park overnight at the Blue Line station at Rosemont, and take the train to Irving Park and back to the X80 bus home. I would reverse this route the following morning. I did this probably one or two days a week for a while and found humor in taking three modes of transit just to get to my job. (One of my friends at the time was working in a far north suburb and would do something similar with parking at a Metra Union Pacific North Line station in the suburbs and commute home to the city.)

For me, while traffic on I-90 was terrible commuting home, it was nice to know I could stop half way and jump on the L. One time I was driving home in a snowstorm, and, to avoid dealing with Irving Park bus traffic, took the Blue Line downtown and transferred to the Red Line up north. It took over three hours to get home, but it was interesting, almost aspirational, to see other people on the Red Line coming home from their jobs downtown with a regular commute about one-third the length of mine. I wonder if they even knew how bad the traffic was that day.

Overall, in the case of the Schaumburg office, I drove partially out of convenience, but mostly out of necessity. The transit system was efficient to a point, but the number of Pace transfers and amount of walking required to get to my office would undoubtedly make for an even longer commute versus a car.  

I believe options for reverse commuters have improved since then, with the new bus shoulders (er, lanes) on the expressways and tollways offering express service to business centers, something I would’ve certainly tried a few times myself.

Par for the Work-Commute Course

Although this experience was unique to me (and my friend) in my circle of friends, I knew that it was far from unusual. Millions of people each day have to navigate their way to a workplace far away each day, and this is especially burdensome for people who have to take multiple modes of transit or make several transfers. I-90 was jammed every day going home because people like me were commuting from Schaumburg and the surrounding areas. The Rosemont Blue Line station was crowded for the same reason.

And see this every week currently, with people making multiple CTA-CTA, CTA-Pace, or CTA-Metra transfers, taking many of my colleagues and friends (and me) at least 45-60 minutes to get to work door-to-door. You see the roads all around still jammed too. It would be interesting if congestion pricing gained some momentum in the city. Use that extra funding to soup up the transit systems even further.

I actually think that despite the financial and operational difficulties that regularly encounter the CTA, Metra, and Pace, they are fairly reliable services and also have contributed to the decrease in Chicagoland supercommuters. As has been reported elsewhere, housing policy/planning/selection and a company’s choice to locate where it does also contribute to long commutes.

But supercommuters still exist because the transit is inefficient to their place of work, they choose to drive for personal convenience, or they choose to drive out of necessity (with that being the case for many folks in suburban offices located in poorly designed industrial parks straight out of Office Space). Businesses that offer shuttles from train stations certainly helps, but many (including my Schaumburg company) can’t afford to offer that service, so people drive.

And, yes, many people will drive out to work due to personal convenience, whether they go to the gym afterward, pick up their kids from school, go to the doctor, or enjoy the alleged “freedom” that a car provides, regardless of any stress it might induce. I didn’t have to live or work where I did, but chose to do so and deal with the stress of driving for the sake of my convenience, even though I hated driving every day. 

Still I hope regional politicians and agencies keep a long view and don’t get complacent about reports like ApartmentList’s and how Chicago is one of the few green spots on the map. Yes, it’s an improvement, but they should recognize and understand the necessity for continual improvement in connecting people to places via public transit or at least better-planned business centers. Even though Chicago’s supercommuters circle is green, it’s still a large circle.

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