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A black London taxi, also known as a hackney carriage. (PHOTO: JIMMY BARRETT/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

City as Suburb

• August 31, 2013 • 7:48 AM

A black London taxi, also known as a hackney carriage. (PHOTO: JIMMY BARRETT/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Who are the world’s mega commuters and what effect are they having on the cities they live and work in?

What’s the most affordable part of London? Paris, of course. The commute:

Luckily, it’s no longer necessary to choose between Paris and London. They have never been so close. Indeed, viewed from Shanghai or San Francisco, they are virtually in the same place (except if you are a foreigner who needs two different visas to visit them). Now that the Eurostar journey takes just two hours 15 minutes, I often drop my kids off at school in Paris, and later that morning have coffee with someone in London. I get most of London’s joys without the pain. The wonderful new London is better visited than lived in.

The geographic view is perverse. Cost does not concern the mega commuter. For true London residents, they get most of London’s pain without the joys. Greater geographic mobility equals greater prosperity.

London is the downtown of Europe. New York is the downtown of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. A U.S. Census report about mega commuting:

• Mega commuters are more likely to depart for work before 6 a.m., be male, older, married, make a higher salary, and have a spouse that does not work.
• Mega commuters are more likely to travel to another metro or micro area for work, as opposed to the one in which they reside.
• Mega receiving flows are geographically concentrated in populous cities, while sending flows are more geographically dispersed.

Mega commuters benefit from employment density as indicated by the higher salary. They also don’t deal with the downsides of greater residential density, using geographic arbitrage to considerable advantage. As for the folks living closer in, they aren’t reaping the benefits while absorbing a lot of the costs. The boutique city caters to people who don’t have to live there.

An emerging pattern is one of mega gentrification. New York City real estate refugees drive up rents in the urban neighborhoods of Philadelphia:

It’s not news that New Yorkers have been infiltrating Philly for more than a decade. There was an understandable migratory spike after 9/11, and then, about six years ago, a flurry of articles about how New Yorkers in their 20s were descending on neighborhoods like Fishtown and Northern Liberties in the insultingly termed “Sixth Borough.” While the scope of the New York influx may have been unduly glamorized, the numbers aren’t laughable.

Those who can afford to do so are revitalizing cities such as Philadelphia, Scranton, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. It’s return migration:

“Neighborhoods change a lot more slowly in Philadelphia than they do in New York,” Christopher Plant, a realtor at Elfant Wissahickon, tells me. “But once New Yorkers hit Philadelphia, they tend to have this renewed optimism. And besides, they’re networkers, and they’re used to working really hard. A lot of them are pulling it off.”

It turns out that a lot of those who are pulling it off—in real estate and beyond—are originally from here. Indeed, the trend has accrued such critical mass that at least in the Department of Commerce’s Office of Business Attraction and Retention, some officials have cooled their long-held efforts to stymie Philly’s braindrain. “Let them go and do time in New York or Los Angeles, let them gain business and life experience,” director Karen Randal explains. “When they’re ready, they come back and realize what a great city Philadelphia is, and they bring their expertise, business and enthusiasm back here and help pump in new life.”

Christopher Plant is himself an NY-Delphian. After attending Temple in the late 1980s, he moved to New York and, as a partner in the successful art and performance space Galapagos, helped revive Williamsburg, then a dangerous mix of addicts and Hasidic families. Upon moving back to Philly in 2002, Plant recast himself as a civic booster, launching guerrilla campaigns to lure Brooklynites here and becoming an active board member of local non-profits, including the Franklin’s Paine Skatepark, which breaks ground this month near the Art Museum and will purportedly be the largest in the country.

Being a New York-Delphian is similar to transnationalism, straddling two places. A metro doesn’t lose talent while another one gains. Migrants connect two cities. Geographically mobile talent is building Greater Greater New York with inner city neighborhoods throughout the megaregion serving as suburbs to Manhattan.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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