Here’s why super-commuters are traveling five hours to work
Sam Cookney caused a minor Internet hubbub two years ago when, faced with soaring housing prices in London, he tweeted and blogged that it would be cheaper for him to live in Barcelona and commute back to work in London four days a week.
In fact, he wrote, even after accounting for flight costs and airport transfers, he would save €387 (about $440) a month by trading a one-bedroom London flat in West Hampstead for a comparable three bedroom/three balcony apartment in Barcelona. He could then use that money “to enjoy fine bottles of 5€ Rioja on one of my three balconies,” Cookney wrote. “Sigh.”
Fast-forward to 2015: On a visit to Spain last Easter, Cookney, 32, considered his harried London existence and asked himself, “Was that idea I had two years ago that ridiculous?”
The answer, he decided, was No. So in mid-May he added himself to the increasing mass of international super-commuters and moved into a flat in Barcelona’s downtown El Born neighborhood.
This idea of commuting vast distances isn’t new: In 2006, a report from travel company Thomson predicted that by 2016, 1.5 million people who worked in the U.K. would live abroad. But in the last few years, the growing number of people making the plunge, like Cookney, have pushed the movement to a tipping point.
“This is a growing, growing, growing trend,” says Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU in New York.
In a 2012 study of American commuters, Moss and his co-author Carson Qing wrote that, “The twenty-first century is emerging as the century of the ‘super-commuter.’”—that is, a person who lives in one metropolitan area but works in another. Eight of the 10 largest U.S. metro areas showed growth in “super-commuting” between 2002 and 2009, Moss found, with the Texas cities of Dallas, Houston, and Austin being the most notable. The number of people commuting the 240 miles from home in Dallas to work in Houston, for example, increased 218% between 2002 and 2009, to 51,900.
That explosion was made possible—and has grown since—because of several factors. First, Moss notes, after recent economic crises in Europe and the U.S., people now see that economies are “fragile and uncertain,” and that their jobs could disappear at any time. So rather than disrupt their homes by relocating for new jobs, they decided to commute long distances.
At the same time, the rise of low-cost airlines like Southwest LUV in the U.S. and Ryanair RYAAY and EasyJet in Europe have shrunk distances. (Moss and Qing note that “twin cities,” traditionally thought of as those 40 miles apart, are now separated by 100-200 miles.)
But the most important change in the three years since the report, Moss says, is the business mindset. Companies are now more willing to accept less in-office time (super-commuters tend to travel once or twice a week, according to Moss) in exchange for top talent.
“Super-commuting is no longer exceptional. It’s accepted,” he says. “The demand for talent is so great that people will adapt to your demands. They will be flexible if they can have your physical presence half the time and online, or whatnot, the rest.”
In Europe, the number of people living in one country and working in another rose by 40% between 2004 and 2010, according to David Ralph, an assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Some 300,000 people take advantage of Eurostar rail service and the “chunnel” to split their home and work lives between Paris and London. And, Ralph notes, so many people were commuting into Switzerland (270,000 in 2013) that foreign commuters became one motive for a successful referendum drive to limit immigration and work permits for foreigners there.
“People were annoyed with people earning money there but spending it elsewhere,” Ralph says.
The last few years have added another motive for super-commuting: rising housing costs. Untenable rent and purchase costs in cities like London, San Francisco, and New York have pushed people to look far afield. In London, for example, the average house price is £513,000 (almost $800,000), according to the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics, almost 40% above the peak prices before the financial crisis.
In Sam Cookney’s case, high housing costs meant that he had to share an apartment outside central London and commute 45 minutes to work. At the same time, his boss at Traackr, a tech startup where he works as a social media client manager, grasped that his constant presence was less important than him being happy and committed.
“Most of my clients aren’t aware [I’ve moved], to be honest. There’s really no change in our relationship,” says Cookney. “They call my U.K. number, I see them at my review meetings every month or so. The rest of the time, there are teleconferences and Webex and emails.”
Since moving from London to Barcelona, his monthly spend on rent, bills, and local transportation has fallen by €500, which is offset a bit by the €100 or so he spends on plane travel each time he returns to the U.K. for client meetings. Cookney makes the round-trip several times each month and estimates that he spends the same time commuting as before, just in bigger chunks. He says that he recognizes three or four similar commuters on each flight, and the numbers are growing.
While Cookney’s odyssey started with a blog post about housing costs and having more money at the end of the month, he says today that money isn’t the main point.
“I moved here for the better quality of life. I have my own two-bedroom flat in the city center, as opposed to a room in a shared flat in Zone Two in London. My life is so significantly better compared to what I had in London, where I got to work stressed and annoyed after taking the tube,” he says. “I think taking a walk on the beach before work definitely changes my mindset.”