By David Perlmutt
Excuse Tom Ross if he’s rousted from a sound sleep and temporarily loses track of his coordinates. Ross, the former North Carolina judge and college and university system president, is living in two worlds.
Most Mondays before sunrise, he pulls himself from bed in Charlotte to make the 8:06 a.m. flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. After leading the 17-campus UNC System and a stint as Duke University’s first Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow (he’s still in that role), Ross has presided over the New York-based Volcker Alliance for the last year. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker launched the nonpartisan organization in 2013 to explore ways to build public trust in government.
At 66, Ross is among hundreds of North Carolina bankers, lawyers, consultants, researchers, company executives and others who leave the state most workweeks by plane, train or car then return at week’s end. Whether you call them road warriors or “super-commuters,” the label coined by a transportation think tank at New York University, their journey is vastly longer than the U.S. Census Bureau’s mega-commuters, workers who travel at least 90 minutes and 50 miles to their jobs.
Ross, like many super-commuters, had personal reasons for choosing to make the weekly trek to his office in mid-town Manhattan instead of moving there. He and his wife, Susan, grandparents of four, wanted to be close to their daughter and her family in Charlotte. The Rosses moved there last year after the Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors controversially removed Ross, a Democrat, as UNC System president and later hired Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush. Ross says he and Susan never considered leaving North Carolina, where he grew up in Greensboro and, until now, has spent his career. “I deeply care about the state and eventually will retire there. I didn’t want to give up my residency,” Ross says. “The frequency of direct flights from Charlotte to New York made the choice easy.”
Super-commuting spiked during the Great Recession, when larger cities had high-paying jobs and a splintered housing market made it difficult to sell homes. Even now, with housing values on the rise again in cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, many super-commuters still are unwilling to uproot their families and move closer to work. The fragile economy keeps them catching planes. Transportation and technology advances have stretched the boundaries of labor markets and led to larger economic regions between once far-flung cities, says Mitchell Moss, an NYU urban policy professor. Moss co-authored a major study on super-commuters with transportation analyst Carson Qing five years ago.
“People were — and are — much less willing to move because of the uncertainty of jobs,” Moss says. “Advances in technology and transportation, airports and highways like the ones in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham make it possible for people to live and work in different places.”
On any given week, more than 1.1 million Americans super-commute to work. It would have been difficult to find many 15 years ago, he says. He doesn’t know how many North Carolinians super-commute, but the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey offers a glimpse of N.C. workers who go beyond a quick drive to the office. The survey found that about 6% of the state’s 4.5 million workers mega-commuted in 2013. Most North Carolinians live and work in the same county, according to Carolina Demography at UNC Chapel Hill.
Super-commuters tend to be younger workers without children or ones in mid- to late careers with children who are grown and out of the house. Many take advantage of the changing 21st-century workplace, going to the office only when it requires meeting with the boss in person, Moss says. “Many firms don’t want you in the office — they want you with the client,” he says. “Super-commuting is no longer the exception. It’s accepted.”
Super-commuters have altered the definition of workweek, workplace and home.
Friends of John Rotan joke that his two-bedroom Raleigh apartment is nothing more than an expensive storage unit. He’s there usually only on weekends. The 47-year-old freelance videographer flies out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport most Monday mornings, connecting in Charlotte or Chicago for a flight to Fayetteville, Ark. A Carrboro-based production company has sent him there since 2009 to shoot a popular “fly-on-the-wall” documentary cable-television show. By early April, he had already flown nearly 40,500 miles this year.
“I’ve been all over the world shooting — to the Great Wall of China and inside Stonehenge — and my friends tell me, ‘Oh, that looks so great,’” Rotan says. “But they forget that when I go to those places, I’m working and don’t get to experience them like a tourist. The worst part is going through airport security and unpacking and repacking my camera equipment.”
He’s a familiar face at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and the hotel where he sleeps. The Morganton native has never considered moving to Arkansas. North Carolina “just feels good to me. It’s home.”
Walker Morris had never lived outside North Carolina. He wasn’t about to change that when in 2007 he turned over operations of his two Southern Pines radio stations to managers and took a job with the Clinton Foundation in New York. Three weeks a month, he flies out on Tuesdays from Charlotte, where he and wife, Katie, now live. (Katie chairs her family’s Belk Foundation.) In Manhattan, he stays in a hotel and oversees the Clinton Development Initiative that runs 10,000 acres of commercial farms, seed programs and technical training aimed at improving crops and lives of farmers in Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania. By Thursday afternoon, he’s usually back home. Every three or four months, he “super-super-commutes” to Africa to check on the programs.
After 10 years, he looks forward to less travel, but the work keeps him hooked. “There’s always some new opportunity or new challenge that makes it tough to pull myself out of it,” says Morris, 65.
For the last five years, an executive for a Charlotte-based developer has made the weekly four-hour drive to Atlanta to be close to his client. The executive (he asked that his name, company and client remain anonymous) oversees 189 employees who manage the client’s 15 million square feet of office space along the East Coast.
He drives about 30,000 miles a year and rents an apartment in midtown Atlanta, two miles from his office — expenses the client doesn’t pick up. “Super-commuting is a personal decision for people who do what I do,” he says. He’d worked for the developer’s real-estate division for two years when his company won a contract to manage the Atlanta client’s property in 2012. He was assigned to lead the project, but his family was tied to Charlotte: At the time, his daughter was in high school and his wife was pursuing a doctorate at UNC Charlotte. “We came to the conclusion that the work decision didn’t necessarily have to change the family circumstances,” he says. “Uprooting the family just wasn’t practical.”
This double life is nothing new for Tom and Susan Ross. Over their 45-year marriage, Susan Ross has become accustomed to her husband being gone. As a state judge for 17 years, the last two overseeing the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, Tom Ross’ duties often took him away from home. The six years he directed the Winston-Salem-based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Rosses lived in Chapel Hill, but Tom spent considerable time in Raleigh and Winston-Salem, where he rented an apartment.
Now, his workweek home is a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s East Side. He walks the mile to his office. Occasionally, when he’s feeling a touch homesick, he dines with friends — who also work in New York — from his days at Davidson College, where he was an undergraduate and, decades later, president for three years. Susan often flies to New York and they explore the city.
Ross never considered retiring after UNC. He says he’d still like to be in Chapel Hill running the university system, but he’s inspired by the mission of the Volcker Alliance, which explores the financial regulations, budget transparency and fiscal stability of state and federal government. “Fighting to improve our form of government is a worthy use of my time and energy. I am simply not ready to call it a career.”
His friends back home kid Ross about living a glamorous life. “The truth is, I get up in the morning and work out in the gym in the building, fix breakfast and work all day, then go to bed,” he says. “By the end of the week, it’s always nice to get back to North Carolina.”