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How far would you go?

A study just out in the United States has found a new breed of worker emerging – Super Commuters. People willing – or with no better option – than to commute ever-increasing distances to get to work. These aren't business people flying as part of their job; these are people heading out in the wee hours of a Monday morning, playing planes, trains and automobiles to get to work, and then returning late on a Friday.

I've encountered an increase in people doing just this in Canada, too. In times of high unemployment, you go where the work is. I've been seatmates twice now on flights with Maritimers heading to Alberta, working two weeks straight, flying home to see their families, then back again. One young guy had been doing it for more than six months. He was tired; he missed his kids; he wanted to work at home, but couldn't.

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For many people, a daily commute is a part of life. I live in a suburb, and I've watched a steady stream of workers heading into Toronto for generations now. When you change homes, you instantly factor in your commute. When you change jobs of your own volition, it's always a consideration. But with so many jobs no longer a constant, it's the commute time – and mode – that is changing rapidly. Most of us know people who talked themselves into extending a commute in order to get that dream house more affordably, only to discover that "it's only an extra 20 minutes" became intolerable.

I've known people to time-shift their day to try to reduce their commutes – leaving at 5 a.m. to dodge the constant clog on major routes. I know people who have had to escape ridiculous housing markets in exchange for an opportunity to even enter into home ownership. A good friend of mine commuted from Toronto to New York City for several months to bridge an employment gap; irregular hours made it possible, but even knowing it was temporary didn't make the wear and tear on every part of her life more bearable.

Major cores in the United States are seeing workers expanding their commutes into "super" territory at rates of growth as high as 100 per cent (Houston) and 77 per cent (Los Angeles). What qualifies as a Super Commuter? Consider someone living in Toronto and working in Montreal, or having the family in Saskatoon and the job in Winnipeg, or living in Whitehorse and working – anywhere else.

Some people will do the travel until a home is sold. Many in the United States have found themselves in a dire housing market, unable to relocate even if they wanted to. Many people don't want to uproot families and must consider a spouse's work. The study notes that our boundaries have been expanding with transportation technology; places once considered outside the scope of a reasonable distance are now fair game. It seems some of the same technology that has changed the way we perform our jobs – enabling some to venture no farther than their home offices – has also put an increasing number of us on the road for longer periods of time.

A Goodyear study in 2008 in Canada reported that 25 per cent of people would be willing to take a pay cut to have a shorter commute, and as many as 13 per cent said they'd considered quitting their job outright because of the distance involved.

Much has changed since 2008, and something tells me the boost in Super Commuters being reported in most major centres indicates a change of heart: instead of entertaining ideas of cutting back, workers are increasingly prepared to hit the road for even longer.

During that same Goodyear study, it sponsored a Longest Commute in Canada contest, and the winner clocked in at a trek of 430 kilometres, one way. Stories of high milers used to be popular because they were oddities. Those stories are more rare, because the long distance commuter is more common.

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I've known people who loved the time alone in their car each day, and treated it like a sanctum. But with the rapid increase in technology extending everybody's leash – with both job and home – and the crowded chaos on so many of our roads, the concept of a private cocoon is dwindling.

With walk-able cities still beyond the reach of many, and with jobs shifting like desert sands, how far would you go? What's the time and distance trade you'd be comfortable with, and what's the longest commute you've done?

lorraineonline.ca

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More

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