Before dawn on a recent Monday morning, Aaron Kelley stood at the corner of 6th and Market Streets in downtown Philadelphia, waiting for the Megabus to take him to his job in Hell’s Kitchen. “Today is my 1330th trip, I just did the math,” Kelley told the Voice. “Five days a week, two trips a day, forty trips a month, and I’ve been doing it for almost three years. My wife thinks I’m clinically insane.”
Kelley, a landscape architect, is one of the dozen or so daily commuters who take the Megabus from Philly to their jobs in New York City. “New York is just a poster for me,” Kelley says. “I look out the window, I see the skyline, the Empire State Building — cool — then I get back on the bus and go home.”
The passengers on this particular 6:10 a.m. leg included a social media manager, an IT manager, a brand strategist, and another architect. An exceedingly pregnant woman was also among the regulars.
“The thing that you’ll notice about these people: they’re generally optimistic,” Kelley notes. “Goooood outlook on life.”
Mornings are a relatively smooth two-hour ride into Manhattan. “I kind of enjoy this time, it’s meditation. I listen to the radio, and I sleep,” Kelley says. Evenings are considerably more chaotic — many days he gets home around 9:30 p.m.
“On a Friday afternoon, after a long week at work, it can’t get any worse,” he says. “I know it’s gonna be an hour late, every single Friday, so I just schedule like I’m leaving at 5:00, even though I’m leaving at 4:00.” Unlike its competitors, Megabus offers an upper deck. “That’s where people get loose,” Kelley explains. “They’ll crack open a little bagged one. People smoke weed on the bus, they get caught. I saw a woman get off a fresh meth hit then get on the bus.”
Kelley initially thought his 95-mile commute would be temporary, but the job opportunity in New York and the affordable living in Philadelphia proved to be a potent combination.
“I don’t want to do this though, I’m kind of over this, big time. I’m ready to be done with it,” he says. “Have you considered it as a lifestyle?”
According to a 2012 report from NYU’s Rudin Center of Transportation, Philadelphia has around 42,000 “super commuters” who travel to a different city once or twice a week for work, placing it in the top five cities for super-commuting. Census records peg the number of daily commuters from Philadelphia to New York City at roughly 1,500.
“Super commuters tend to be more middle class than the average worker,” Sarah Kaufman, an assistant director at the Rudin Center, writes in an email. “They’re living where it’s affordable to them and where they can enjoy a higher quality of life. NYC salaries matched with Philadelphia rents seems like a win.”
Philadelphia’s median income was a little more than $34,000 in 2013, one of the lowest of all major cities, according to a 2013 Pew study. New York City’s median income is $50,711. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia is $1,350/month, compared to $3,100 in New York.
“We’d venture to guess that those [super commuters] choose to live in Philadelphia – and put up with a long commute – because the dollar goes so much further here, and the quality of life is so much better,” says Andrew Linton, a spokesman for Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney. “The cost of living is more than 60% higher in NYC than in Philadelphia, particularly housing prices. You can rent a spacious one-bedroom in Center City Philadelphia for about $1,500 a month. Try getting that even in Brooklyn. The City is walkable, bikable and has an affordable, thriving music and arts scene. Hell, even the beer is cheaper.”
Michelle Frantino moved to Philadelphia with her boyfriend this past spring after spending five years living and working in Manhattan.
“I have this beautiful apartment, I have two guest bedrooms. In Manhattan I was living in a cubicle,” Frantino says.
Frantino’s boyfriend spurred the couple’s move after he received a job offer in Philadelphia that he couldn’t turn down.
“I thought, okay, I’ll do this for a month or two and I’ll find something eventually,” Frantino said of her daily commute. “But marketing is in Manhattan, it’s not here. That’s how it is.”
Frantino looked into getting a monthly pass from Amtrak but for how prohibitively expensive it is, she might as well move back to New York.
“I looked at Amtrak, it was an hour and 37 minutes, and it was $1,440 a month,” says Patrick Hagerty, a fellow super commuter and IT manager who has been riding the bus for six months. “Septa to New Jersey Transit was $680, but it was over 2.5 hours. Then I looked at Megabus — just about 2 hours about $400/month. I can’t see spending an extra $1,100 dollars for 23 minutes.”
Hagerty admits that getting home between 8:30 and 9 most nights isn’t easy, “But it’s a job right now.”
“Every night my fiancé has dinner waiting for me, we talk, and every Wednesday I get home early and we have date night. It’s tough and he misses the hell out of me, but with technology nowadays he can send me a video telling me what he’s up to, how much he misses me, all that kind of stuff.”
The commuters also have to purchase each Megabus ride individually, a process that they say takes hours when done several months in advance.
Megabus spokesperson Sean Hughes says that while “commuters form an important part of the Megabus customer base in Philadelphia…we keep the website booking engine simple and this helps us to ensure that the price our customers pay represents the best value.”
And value is what motivates many of these travelers.
“I have a three-story house with a roof deck! The restaurant scene is amazing here, I know all my neighbors. It’s just so chill here, it’s ridiculous,” architect and Megabus commuter Paul Seletsky gushes of Philadelphia. “It reminds me of the East Village.”
Dan Parmenter, the social media manager, chimes in: “The art and culture scene is sort of cooler here too. It’s smaller, it’s more contained. If you live in Queens and want to go to a show in Brooklyn you have to spend an hour and a half on the bus to get there.”
Before the other commuters could pile on their praise for Philadelphia, the 6:10 Megabus pulled up next to the curb, and everyone climbed on in total silence.