Long-Distance Commuting in the Boston Region: Necessity or “Strategic Mobility Choice”?

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Posted 11/17

This report examines the phenomenon of long-distance commuting—which overlaps with but is not entirely the same as what is popularly known as super-commuting, mega-commuting, or extreme commuting—and the role that the Boston Region MPO could play in planning for it as a segment of the region’s transportation market. Popular media has drawn significant attention to long commutes, but their precise number and characteristics are poorly defined in the planning literature and available data.

Through focusing on long-distance commutes into the core of the Boston region, this analysis finds that while the exact number of such trips is difficult to pin down, that amount likely approximates 50,000 every day. Using an extensive literature review as well as U.S. Census and survey data, we find that long-distance commuters are generally well-educated and of moderate-to-high household income. Motivations for undertaking an enterprise like a long-distance commute are mixed, but can include balancing a two-career household; rootedness in one place or another; affordability concerns; or attachment to a particular job. One important finding, though in need of further research, is that many long-distance commuters may make the trip only a few times per week, working remotely at other times. Geographically, long-distance commutes into Boston are spread across much of New England including Western Massachusetts and the Pioneer Valley; Cape Cod; southern New Hampshire; and southern Maine. Interestingly, international experience indicates that such trips may, provided that there are appropriate transportation options, re-cluster as core-to-core trips rather than continuing regional sprawl.

Pursuant to these findings, this report develops goals for serving the long-distance commuting population and presents a number of recommendations to meet those goals, including developing better data and information about long-distance commute trips; coordinating long-distance commutes between non-contiguous MPOs; and bridging the gap between “commuter” and “intercity” via more robust rail service. In addition, in light of heightened awareness of long commutes and new federal guidelines that emphasize measuring capacity by person-throughput rather than vehicle-throughput, we recommend reconsidering previous conclusions about the viability of priority lanes for buses and high-occupancy vehicles on regional freeways.

About the MPO’s Staff-Generated Research Program

Work on this research report was funded by the MPO’s Staff-Generated Research Topics program. The program is intended to produce interesting and timely information for the MPO’s consideration; support staff members’ professional development; and yield creative solutions for transportation planning problems. Any views expressed in program products are those of the staff member who conducted the research and are not necessarily those of the MPO.

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