“I can’t afford to leave this job, and I can’t afford to move,” said Barber, 46, who has been making the commute for nine years. “I have a good job, it’s just 74 miles from home.”
Barber is one of a growing number of “mega-commuters” whose daily trip to work spans more than 50 miles and 90 minutes, according to new census figures released Monday. About 600,000 Americans endure such an extreme commute, and more than a quarter of them live in the Washington area. Almost 4 percent of the region’s workers are mega-commuters, up from 3.5 percent in 2000, according to census data. That proportion is rivaled by workers in New York City and surpassed, just barely, only by San Francisco.
One in five commuters in the region has a commute of one hour or longer each way. And the average commute is creeping up, too, from under 32 minutes in 2000 to 34 and a half minutes in 2011, when the information was collected.
The census figures reflect a sprawling region in which more than half of all residents work outside the county or city where they live. Sociologists and demographers say that is partly because the region’s affluence is built on households that pull in two incomes, so living close to the office of one breadwinner is not the priority it once was. But it also is a byproduct of an economy still heavily reliant on the federal government, with many workplaces rooted in the District. Three out of four jobs in the District are held by people who live outside the city limits, according to census data.
“In many other metro areas, jobs tend to move out to the suburbs, but we’ve got a lot of white marble buildings downtown, and they aren’t leaving,” said Alan Pisarski, who lives in Northern Virginia and wrote “Commuting in America,” a report on commuting patterns and trends. “So you have a lot of people who are employed downtown and they’re forced to the farthest edges of the region in order to find affordable housing. That’s why every morning, you see those cars moving up I-95 in the HOV lanes, and down from Maryland.”
The commute is excruciating for Akash Jayaprakash, who spends two hours or more traveling to and from work. Shortly after 6 a.m., he leaves his home in Cecil County, Md., about 15 minutes from the Delaware border, and drives to the station in Perryville to catch the 6:30 train. After arriving at Union Station shortly after 8 a.m., he hops a Red Line train to get to his Dupont Circle job.
By the time he walks into his office at Salsa Labs, where he trains people in computer programming, he has two and a half hours of travel behind him.
“It’s literally physically painful to be on the train for that long,” said Jayaprakash, 35, who now telecommutes from home part of the week. “It hurts my back; it cramps up. The trains were not designed for people to take two-hour trips to the end of the line.”
Jayaprakash and his wife used to live in Alexandria, but moved to Cecil County after his wife got a job at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Many couples in the region face similar dilemmas when figuring out where to live.
“Washington is rich not because there’s a guy in most households making a lot of money,” Pisarski said. “It’s because two people in those households are making a lot of money. So what are the odds of living near work? The first question you have to ask yourself is, whose work are you going to live near?”
The census figures show the degree to which the region’s workforce of about 3 million people ripples between jurisdictions.
About 12 percent of Maryland workers come into the District to work, while 13 percent of District workers commute into Maryland. Maryland sends 113,000 workers into Virginia, which in turn sends 68,000 workers into Maryland.
Regional planners consider the potential workforce to be 60 miles beyond its most distant suburbs. Some come farther. The census says the District draws workers from as far away as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia.
Mega-commuters are coming into the District from Spotsylvania and Stafford counties in Virginia, from Baltimore and Frederick County in Maryland, and from Berkeley County in West Virginia.
“A lot of these folks are making these long trips to get affordable housing, particularly young families needing space,” said Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Others make equally long commutes, in reverse.
Brian Benjamin drives 55 miles between his home in Ballston and his construction management job in Frederick. He spends the one-hour trip listening to podcasts.
“Sometimes the drive can be relaxing,” said Benjamin, 24. “But the gas prices are killing me.”
It costs Benjamin more than $500 a month to fill up his tank. He logs 2,200 miles every month in his 2005 BMW that he bought used in 2011.
Some mega-commuters say they find it challenging to endure so many hours in transit.
“My health suffered,” said Jayaprakash. “I was in a bad mood a lot of the time; I was bad company. I was definitely productive at work, but I paid for it in my off hours in terms of lost sleep and diminished activity.”
Since his employer started allowing Jayaprakash to work from home part of the week, “it completely changed my life,” he said. Now he goes to the gym and has lost weight.
Barber has tried tweaking her schedule. She tried working four-day weeks, but her family complained because she was gone for 15 hours at a time. She has shifted her work day so she starts earlier and gets home earlier.
“It’s killing me,” Barber said. Then she chuckled. “I laugh because there’s not a whole lot of options.”
Jennifer Jenkins and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.