“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.”