They seem superhuman. We watch them with a combination of awe and horror, we imagine them sitting on the train, ascetically zen, laser-focused on the good life, and most of all, enduring. They are the mega commuters of the Hudson Valley, also known as extreme or super commuters, those who travel “more than 50 miles and 90 minutes or more to get to work.” To clarify, that’s 90 minutes- one way, every day- a minimum of three hours spent commuting.
A spate of socio-economic conditions, coupled with some of New York’s more enduring qualities (i.e. the endless concrete, tenor-pitched pace of life, and upstairs neighbors who seem convinced that the best time to practice their pogo-ing skills is at 3:30 AM), have caused the numbers of mega commuters to rise precipitously over the last two decades. Using census data, the website Apartment List found that 6.7% of all New York jobs took over 90 minutes to get to. Long seen as untenable, the fact is now undeniable- mega commuting is here to stay. Nationally, the rate is at a high as well- over 2.8 percent of all commuters- but only Stockton, California has a higher rate than New York. Mega commuters are more likely to rely on public transit and are also more likely to be non-white than other commuters.
While there isn't any data yet specifically for Hudson Valley mega commuters, it is appropriate to believe that national conditions- increased economic strain, a lack of high paying jobs, and aging transportation infrastructure- all contribute here as well. Where the valley is unique, though, are the reasons people make the hike every day. In addition to the economic ills, good schools, and backyards that are widely touted, people report enduring the lengthy commute every day because they love the Hudson Valley itself. Bypassing entirely the suburban sprawl has its benefits.
Traditionally thought of as a world apart from New York, mega commuter Greg calls Poughkeepsie “a terrific place to live.” Having grown up there but moved away for school and work (during which time he met his wife, who, compared to her native Ohio, would pick the Hudson Valley “100% of the time”), he’s glad to call the southside historic district home. Likewise, Andrea from Brewster reports that having “access to incredible scenery and nature all the time for running, hiking, and biking” is a big part of the appeal to her- she even recently relinquished a second space in Brooklyn to spend more time upstate.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said that it was important to “make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens,” and your grandmother probably has a pillow that says “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” (which is actually a quote by the prominent 20th century theologian and socialist Reinhold Neibuhr).
To those contemplating a mega commute, an early acceptance of your fate, an appreciation for the little things, and knowing your limits are all necessary tools. Greg says that he makes sure to prepare for the train by “downloading Netflix, Amazon Prime, and podcasts” or by “bringing work on the train.” The commute for him means biking to the Metro-North, and he’s in the fortuitous position to work in the MetLife building, directly next to Grand Central Station- saving him the costs of an additional subway fare. Making the most of it means taking “busy work” on the train, and leaving early when he can. The long commute has also encouraged him to pursue working remotely as frequently as possible. Andrea, on the other hand, knew that something had to give. Commuting from Brewster to Harlem for two years meant a drive, then the Metro-North and a CitiBike, but, after she broke her foot, it meant a lengthy drive that often exceeded two hours. After the end of the position (a grant-funded, multi-year project with the city’s health department), she decided to pursue closer options. She currently works in the Bronx as a speech therapist, and while the commute is still substantially greater than most at around fifty miles and 90 minutes door to door, she only goes in three days each week, which helps.
To Greg and Andrea, moving closer to the city was never an answer. She says “if you love your job and you love where you live the commute is manageable as part of the cost of having what you want in those two very important areas.” For Greg, even though “nights where I know I'm not commuting the next day are better,” Poughkeepsie means being near loved ones, that critical small-town feel, and a camaraderie with his fellow mega-commuters: “whenever we see each other it brightens our day.” Even with the occasional fiasco- once, due to trees on the track, he had to shell out $120 for a car service from Croton-on-Hudson, a recent overnight in Williamsburg reminded him that he wouldn’t “live in New York again anytime soon.”
The buzz around mega commuters reveals something else, as well- a need to think about cities as part of broader ecosystems and expanded regions. Some of the mega planners of the 20th century, such as Robert Moses or William Levitt, created grand plans, cutting interstates across the city, unifying rail services, and redesigning the American small town into the suburb. But their plans looked at cities as units with clearly defined “bedroom community” suburbs, and as such, favored cars as the primary method of transportation. Mega commuters reveal that the distances are greater than they imagined, and cars are often only one part of the journey, which might include a bike, a train, a bus, and a boat, or even your own two feet. Trying to unite a region that includes New York’s urban chaos and the Hudson Valley’s idyllic countryside requires a more organic touch, and a necessary one because trends are likely to continue. With the resurgence of interest in the Valley, a number of flourishing small towns, and the surrounding, ever-present natural beauty, who can blame them?