Increasing “reverse commuting” inspires innovative transit programs

By Dan Moser

Over the last decade, “reverse commuting”—travel from central city residential areas to suburban jobs—has increased significantly. Two trends—increased movement of employment to suburbs and growing preference by some employees for central city living—are driving the reverse commute. While in-migration to walkable and transit friendly cities has reduced driving for non-work auto trips, many workers still need to travel to jobs in the suburbs during peak hours, posing new challenges for transit planners. Transportation planners, employers, and commuters around the country are attempting to adjust to these changes in a number of ways.

Commuters that thought they would have an easy time driving out of the city in the morning and back in the evening are finding the roads are almost as crowded in both directions. Public transit can reduce congestion on the road, but the reach of existing fixed-route transit service is often limited. Most existing public transit systems were designed primarily for the traditional work commute to a compact central business district. In contrast, many suburban employment centers are low-density business parks, campuses, or shopping districts that do not support transit.

The lack of efficient transit service to these dispersed office parks aggravates the “last-mile” problem. Historically, the “last-mile” problem was most often encountered at the residential end of the commute. Some reverse commuters now encounter the problem at their work destination rather than residence, while others experience it at both ends of their commute.

As part of its coverage of commuting patterns, NPR examined trends in reverse commuting in Chicago. Reverse commuting in the region has increased by 64 percent over the last decade. Nearly 70 percent of the Chicago region’s jobs are now located 10 miles or more from the central business district, and only 24 percent of jobs in the Chicago region are within a 90 minute transit commute.

The Chicago region illustrates the rise of reverse commuting and provides one example of a public-private transit solution designed to address the last mile, where fixed route transit often does not go. In order to reduce commute times and traffic congestion, Chicago’s Shuttle Bug service, sponsored by large employers such as All State Insurance and Wal-Mart, provides employees with peak-hour bus service between four suburban employment campuses and seven commuter rail stations. Public partners include suburban and urban transit providers.

Two examples show how reverse commuting in the tech sector required developing solutions to the problem of urban dwellers commuting to suburban worksites. In the San Francisco Bay area tech firms operate so-called “Google buses”—a generic term encompassing private shuttles from Apple, Yahoo, and Facebook as well as Google. In Boston, the 128 Central Corridor Coalition’s efforts to improve transit options for employees in Boston’s version of Silicon Valley are notable.  Where practical, some employers offer flexible work schedules, allowing commuting during off-peak hours or making work from home possible. Other strategies include increasing the availability of bike- and ride-share programs.

Dan Moser is a Research Assistant at SSTI.