Philadelphia-area residents driving the Schuylkill Expressway and Interstate 95 at rush hour might get the idea that a lot of workers living in the city travel to jobs outside its borders. And on several occasions in recent years, civic leaders have framed the amount of reverse commuting as a sign of weakness in the local economy.
However, an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by The Pew Charitable Trusts indicates that the commuting patterns of Philadelphians are rather typical for a large city. In 2015, 39 percent of working Philadelphians went outside the city for their primary jobs—the work that provides the most earnings, meaning that they were on average about as likely to reverse commute as residents of 30 of the most populous U.S. cities. (See Figure 1.) Compared to other major East Coast cities, the percentage of working Philadelphians who reverse commuted was higher than in New York
The analysis found that the number of reverse commuters in Philadelphia grew from 180,235 in 2002 to 212,336 in 2015. Factoring in population growth, that translates into a 4-percentage-point increase over that period in the share of Philadelphians who reverse commute, matching the median increase for the large cities for which data were available.
Philadelphians who reverse commuted traveled mostly to jobs in Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania, with smaller numbers working in Philadelphia’s other suburban counties, including several in New Jersey. (See Figure 2.)
The percentage of Philadelphians who reverse commuted was about average among the 30 cities, even though the city is home to a lower percentage of its region’s jobs, 24 percent, than the largest city in all but three of the large metropolitan areas studied. (See Figure 3.) In this analysis, the terms “region” and “metropolitan area” refer to the Census Bureau’s metropolitan statistical areas. Philadelphia’s includes 11 counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. The numbers do not include federal civilian employees (before 2010), military personnel, self-employed workers, informally employed people, and several other specific classes of workers.
Cities that have a larger share of a region’s jobs tend to see less reverse commuting by residents. Such cities, many of which are in the South and West, appear in the lower-right section of Figure 4, which graphs the percentage of reverse commuters in a city (on the vertical axis) plotted against the percentage of a region’s jobs that are in that city. For instance, El Paso, Texas, is home to 91 percent of its region’s jobs, and only 17 percent of working city residents reverse commute. At the other end of the scale, Detroit has 13 percent of its region’s jobs; about two-thirds of its working residents—67 percent—travel to jobs outside of the city.
Considering the strong relationship between a city’s share of regional jobs and its percentage of reverse commuters, Philadelphians are relatively unlikely to reverse commute compared with those in comparable urban areas. As shown in Figure 4, each of five cities—Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Dallas, and Baltimore—has roughly a quarter of its region’s jobs. Philadelphia has a lower percentage of reverse commuters than all but Washington.
It is hard to say exactly why this is the case. But the data suggest one possible explanation. The cities in Figure 4 that have particularly low rates of reverse commuting given their share of regional jobs—Washington, New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia—all have well-developed public transit systems.
Regardless of whether they reverse commute, Philadelphians tend to have shorter trips to their primary jobs than residents of other large cities. In 2015, 30 percent of working Philadelphia residents, a fraction that has remained relatively constant in recent years, traveled more than 10 miles to get to work, compared with a median of 36 percent among the nation’s 30 most populous cities. (See Figure 5.)
Looking at pay, Philadelphians employed within the city earned slightly more on average than those who reverse commuted; 45 percent of Philadelphia residents with primary jobs in the city were paid more than $40,000 annually at those jobs, compared with 40 percent among reverse commuters. (See Figure 6.)
In recent years, Philadelphia has experienced growth both in its population and in the number of jobs—from 663,000 jobs in the city in 2007 to roughly 708,000 in 2017, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those changes did not substantially alter the pattern of reverse commuting; from 2002 to 2015, the reverse-commuting percentage fluctuated within a narrow range at or below 40 percent.
On the whole, the data indicate that Philadelphians are about as likely to reverse commute as residents of other large cities. With the city recently outpacing the region in job growth, the question becomes whether that will cause reverse commuting to decline.
Larry Eichel directs and Seth Budick is a researcher with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research initiative.