The long haul from Phila. to NYC
Low housing costs here, lucrative jobs there make the commute palatable.
Karen Giberson's day starts at 5:30 a.m. She gets up, gets ready, and drives to 30th Street Station, where she catches the 6:52 a.m. train to Manhattan and her jobs as president of the Accessories Council, a nonprofit trade association, and an associate at Anomaly, an ad agency.
At 5:39 p.m., Giberson is on a return train for Philadelphia; by about 7:20 p.m., she's back home in Glen Mills.
"It's a very long day," says Giberson, 42, who's been making the trek for 21/2 years. "But I love what I do and it's there, and I love where I live and that's here. It's a compromise."
One that puts her in good company with scores of other long-distance commuters who choose to make their homes here while pursuing their careers in New York. Whether it's because of lower real estate prices in this region or plum jobs that happen to be roughly 90 miles to the north, enough people are willing to make the trek that Amtrak estimates it pulled in $9.4 million from 220,800 rides on multi-trip tickets on the Philadelphia-New York route in 2007 - an all-time revenue high.
"The commute from the Philly suburbs can be as quick or quicker than [from] New York suburbs," says Alan Klayman, a Philadelphia-based finance expert and founder of MyIncomeStrategy.com. "The Philly suburbs are as nice, and nicer in many places, as New York suburbs. So if suburban living is your thing, you are looking at [possibly] newer homes at lower prices and lower taxes with a lot of convenience, with the same type of sophistication."
For most of these commuters, it
real estate that keeps them riding the rails, especially when the average purchase price for a Manhattan apartment is $1.4 million. That can make Amtrak's monthly rail pass seem like a cheap alternative at $1,098, especially when people are willing to move deeper into the suburbs and travel farther to work so they can afford the houses they want.
"I love the New York area, but I also have kids," said Giberson, who bought her house in 2001 for $310,000. "It wouldn't really be an option to hike it up there and stick everybody in a little bitty apartment and move everyone from the schools and friends they love."
According to the Census Bureau, 15.9 million commuters leave for work between midnight and 5:59 a.m., and 3 million commute more than 90 minutes a day. Is there that much of a difference between driving an hour from Medford to Philadelphia in rush-hour traffic and taking an hour-and-a-half train ride from Philadelphia to New York?
Instead of spending that time driving, a lot of long-distance workers opt for the train, a time-honored mode of transportation in the long history of the metropolis-to-metropolis commute. In this wired era, folks work as they go, via wireless Internet and cell phone.
"The commute in is actually one of the most pleasurable parts of my day," says Giberson. "I sit in the cafe car, spread my stuff out, get on the computer, and I work from the time I sit down until we hit the tunnel."
Lynnette Khalfani Cox, author of
Your First Home: The Smart Way to Get It and Keep It
, made the trek to NYC for three years, while she was working at the New York bureau of Dow Jones and her then-husband was studying for his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. This is where they could afford to buy a house.
"It doesn't really matter if we're in a recession or not, because the average person feels that way right now," Khalfani Cox says. "The way some people deal with that is they're stretching themselves and willing to go further distances just to get that paycheck."
For Chris Rorer, the option of buying a house was a major factor in moving back to Philadelphia.
"I had a really generous salary compared to what I could have gotten here," says Rorer, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and worked at Pipeline Financial in New York City. "The job was a little above entry level, but I was making about 15 percent more money."
Instead of continuing to pay $1,500, or half his salary, in rent, Rorer bought a house in Society Hill for $418,000 in March 2007 and commuted instead.
Erin Suber, 23, made the workday trip for more than a year and a half, driving to Trenton and taking NJ Transit into New York.
"I went to school in Upstate New York, where a lot of people wind up getting jobs in New York [City]," says Suber, who works at Edelman Public Relations in Times Square. Though she landed that job in Manhattan after she graduated, she couldn't afford New York rent, so she commuted from her parents' home in Yardley - 2 hours, 15 minutes each way.
The commute is not always a permanent solution. Khalfani Cox stopped when Dow Jones opened a Philadelphia branch, which coincided with the birth of her first child. Suber moved to Hoboken, N.J., once she got a job that could pay the rent. Rorer left his New York City job and is looking for a position with a Philadelphia-area company because the traveling was too draining.
"I really had no life," says Rorer. "I'm 26, and I was waking up at 5:30 in the morning and getting home at 8, 8:30 at night. It's not really a commitment I wanted to do at this stage in my life."
But as long as real estate prices stay more affordable near Philadelphia and job opportunities continue to be in New York, people will keep moving freely between the two cities.
"When you do it on a regular basis, you see this group of people, some of them I've never even talked to, but you see them every day," Giberson says. "It's this whole little social network of disconnected people who are all in the same boat for some crazy reason, but it's fun to watch."