EDITORIAL: Rise of home workers, super commuters

A NEW study of Fredericksburg area commuting patterns by Dr. Lance Gentry, a business professor at the University of Mary Washington, found that the two fastest-growing trends in the region appear on to be somewhat contradictory: A growing number of area residents are working from home (now over 5 percent) or commuting 90 minutes or more one way to get to their places of employment (now over 10 percent).The object of the study, which was commissioned by the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance, the George Washington Regional Commission and GO Virginia was to get an updated view of commuting patterns over the past few years.Local residents already know from getting stuck in rush-hour traffic every day that most people in the region don’t work where they live. What they may have suspected is that an overwhelming number of Fredericksburg-area commuters (143,432) drive to work alone. A much smaller number car-pool (23,701), and 9,467 work from home. The increase of telecommuters in the region is one of the few bright spots in the study, especially since public transit is in fourth place, with just 5,747 area commuters taking a bus or train to work.

Another bright spot is that 2,765 people in the region live close enough to their place of employment to be able to walk to work.Where do most commuters go? The largest contingent who leave Fredericksburg every morning head to three top destinations: Fairfax County (19,782), Prince William County (11,089), and the District of Columbia (8,032), according to the study. But only 9,629 workers commute from those three areas to Fredericksburg to offset the 38,903 worker outflow. Local residents commute to various other parts of Virginia (including Virginia Beach and Norfolk) and Maryland, as well.People who commute outside the region tend to be male (67.7 percent) and slightly older (the median age is 47) than workers who stay in the region. They are also more educated and have higher levels of experience.
That leads to one of the study’s most surprising findings: The percentage of super commuters rose slightly between 2009 and 2019, from 9.5 percent to 10.3 percent, even as traffic congestion in the region was getting worse. That trend may be partially explained by what Dr. Gentry called the “super commuter premium.” “The median wage of super commuters is 20.9 percent greater than that of those who spend less than 90 minutes commuting each way,” he pointed out.So some people are trading daily travel times of three hours or more in exchange for significantly higher wages. In fact, the median income of those who commute outside the region is $80,000, compared with $50,000 for those who commute to work inside the region.
And this trend has accelerated. In 2013, more than a third (37 percent) of the region’s workforce commuted outside the area. Now it’s 42.2 percent, with nearly a quarter of local residents spending at least two hours a day getting to and from their place of employment.In formulating transportation policy for the future, it’s important to remember that jobs dictate in large measure where people choose to live, in addition to a highly individualized cost/benefit analysis and their own personal priorities. Some people would never even consider a 90-minute one-way commute, preferring instead to make compromises in housing, schools and other amenities. Others are more than willing to make the long trek each day if it means they can live in a bigger, more expensive house in an area with a higher quality of life than available closer to the job.Local economic development officials understand that reducing rush-hour traffic congestion on local roads and highways that are already at or past capacity means luring more employers to the region. The irony is that the congestion itself is a deterrent, especially when the same companies are also being wooed by other states and jurisdictions that don’t have such a critical mobility crisis.But it’s clear that adding more commuters to the mix in the form of residential development without adding a lot more jobs will only make this chicken-and-egg problem exponentially worse.

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