A commuter town is a town whose residents normally work elsewhere, although they live and sleep in these neighborhoods. The name also suggests that these communities have little commercial or industrial activity beyond a small amount of retail, oriented toward serving the residents.
A commuter town may also be known as an exurb (short for "extra-urban"), or a bedroom community (Canada and northeastern U.S. usage), bedroom town or bedroom suburb (U.S. usage), a dormitory town or dormitory suburb (UK Commonwealth and Ireland usage also sometimes Canadian), or less commonly a dormitory village (UK Commonwealth Ireland and sometimes Canadian as well).
Distinction between suburbs and commuter towns
Suburbs and commuter towns are often the same place, but sometimes not. As with college town, resort town, and mill town, the term commuter town describes the place's predominant economic function. A suburb in contrast is a community of lesser size, density, political power and/or commerce than a nearby community. Economic function may change, for example when improved transport brings commuters to industrial suburbs or railway towns in search of suburban living. Some suburbs, for example Teterboro, New Jersey and Emeryville, California remained industrial when they became surrounded by commuter towns. Many commuters work in such industrial suburbs but few reside; hence, they are not commuter towns.
As a general rule, suburbs are developed in areas adjacent to main employment centres, such as a town or a city, but may or may not have many jobs locally, whereas bedroom communities have few local businesses and most residents who have jobs commute to employment centers some distance away. Commuter towns may be in rural or semi-rural areas, with a ring of green space separating them from the larger city or town. Where urban sprawl and conurbation have erased clear lines among towns and cities in large metropolitan areas, this is not the case.
Commuter towns can arise for a number of different reasons. Sometimes, as in Sleepy Hollow, New York or Tiburon, California, a town loses its main source of employment, leaving its residents to seek work elsewhere. In other cases, a pleasant small town, such as Warwick, New York, over time attracts more residents but not large businesses to employ them, requiring them to commute to employment centers. Another cause, particularly relevant in the American South and West, is the rapid growth of once-small cities. Owing largely to the earlier creation of the Interstate Highway System, the greatest growth was seen by the sprawling metropolitan areas of these cities. As a result many small cities were absorbed into the suburbs of these larger cities.
Often, however, commuter towns form when workers in a region cannot afford to live where they work and must seek residency in another town with a lower cost of living. The late 20th century dot-com bubble and United States housing bubble drove housing costs in Californian metropolitan areas to historic highs, spawning exurban growth in adjacent counties. For example, most cities in western Riverside County, California can be considered exurbs of Orange County, California and Los Angeles County, California. As of 2003[update], over 80% of the workforce of Tracy, California was employed in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A related phenomenon is common in the resort towns of the American West that require large workforces, yet emphasize building larger single-family residences and other expensive housing. For example, the resort town of Jackson has spawned several nearby bedroom communities, including Victor, Idaho; Driggs, Idaho; and Alpine, Wyoming, where the majority of the Jackson workforce resides. Many of the workforce who serve The Hamptons also reside in communities more modest and more suburban than their workplace, giving rise to a daily reverse commuter flow from more dense to less dense areas.
In certain major European cites, such as London and Berlin, commuter towns were founded in response to bomb damage in World War II. Residents were relocated to semi-rural areas within a 50-mile (80 km) radius, firstly because much inner city housing had been destroyed, and secondly in order to stimulate development away from cities as the industrial infrastructure shifted from rail to road. Around London, several towns – such as Stevenage, Harlow, Basildon, and Crawley – were built for this purpose by the Commission for New Towns.
In some cases, commuter towns can be the result of negative economic impact. Steubenville, Ohio, for instance, had its own regional identity along with neighboring Weirton, West Virginia until the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. Combined with easier access to the much larger city of Pittsburgh via the Steubenville Pike and the Parkway West, Steubenville has shifted its marketing efforts to being a commuter town to Pittsburgh, as well as one with a lower cost of living in Ohio compared to tax-heavy Pennsylvania. In 2013, Jefferson County, Ohio (where Steubenville is located) was added to the Pittsburgh metropolitan area as part of its larger Combined Statistical Area.
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Where commuters are wealthier and small town housing markets weaker than city housing markets, the development of a bedroom community may raise local housing prices and attract upscale service businesses in a process akin to gentrification. Long-time residents may be displaced by new commuter residents due to rising house prices. This can also be influenced by zoning restrictions in urbanized areas that prevent the construction of suitably cheap housing closer to places of employment.
The number of commuter towns increased in the US and the UK during the 20th century because of a trend for people to move out of the cities into the surrounding green belt. Historically, commuter towns were developed by railway companies to create demand for their lines. One 1920s pioneer of this form of development was the Metropolitan Railway (now part of London Underground) which marketed its Metro-land developments. This initiative encouraged many to move out of central and inner-city London to suburbs such as Harrow and out of London itself, to commuter villages in Buckinghamshire or Hertfordshire. Commuter towns have more recently been built ahead of adequate transportation infrastructure, thus spurring the development of roads and public transportation systems. These can take the form of light rail lines extending from the city centre to new streetcar suburbs and new or expanded highways, whose construction and traffic can lead to the community becoming part of a larger conurbation.
In the United States, it is common for commuter towns to create disparities in municipal tax rates. When a commuter town collects few business taxes, residents must pay the brunt of the public operating budget in higher property or income taxes. Such municipalities may scramble to encourage commercial growth once an established residential base has been reached.
The expression exurb (for "extra-urban") was coined by Auguste Comte Spectorsky in his 1955 book The Exurbanites to describe the ring of prosperous communities beyond the suburbs that are commuter towns for an urban area. Most exurbs serve as commuter towns, but most commuter towns are not exurban.
Exurbs vary in wealth and education level. In the United States, exurban areas typically have much higher college education levels than closer-in suburbs, though this is not necessarily the case in other countries. They typically have average incomes much higher than nearby rural counties. Depending on local circumstances, some exurbs have higher poverty levels than suburbs nearer the city. Others, like Loudoun County, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.; northern McHenry County, near Chicago, Illinois; The Woodlands, outside Houston, Texas; Bartlesville, Oklahoma, outside Tulsa, Oklahoma; Weston, outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Rochester, Michigan, outside Detroit; Saint Francois County plus Saint Charles County, near St. Louis; and Ozaukee County, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have some of the highest median household incomes in their respective metropolitan areas.
Then and now
Today's exurbs are composed of small neighborhoods in otherwise bucolic areas, towns, and (comparatively) small cities. Some lie in the outer suburbs of an urbanized area, but a few miles of rural, wooded, or agricultural land separates many exurbs from the suburbs. Exurbs that originated independently of the major city to which many residents commute. Most consist almost exclusively of commuters and lack the historical and cultural traditions of more established cities. Many early 20th century exurbs were organized on the principles of the garden city movement.
Some communities that lie outside the city proper of a metropolitan area could also be considered exurbs (such as in the American West), whereas those inside the municipal boundaries are often known as suburbs. Many suburbs within the metropolitan city proper enjoyed their greatest growth in the post-World War II period and slowed subsequently; since the 1990s, extensive development has occurred outside of the city. There have also been significant growth differences between inside and outside metro boundaries; many developments typical of exurbs such as big box retailers lie just on the outside, due to older suburbs being restricted by inner-city land-use politics while communities outside are free to develop and grow.
Some environmentalists, architects, and urban planners consider exurbs to be manifestations of poor or distorted planning. Comparatively low density towns – often featuring large lots and large homes – create heavy car dependency.
"They begin as embryonic subdivisions of a few hundred homes at the far edge of beyond, surrounded by scrub. Then, they grow – first gradually, but soon with explosive force – attracting stores, creating jobs and struggling to keep pace with the need for more schools, more roads, more everything. And eventually, when no more land is available and home prices have skyrocketed, the whole cycle starts again, another 15 minutes down the turnpike."—Rick Lyman, New York Times
Others argue that exurban environments, such as those that have emerged in Oregon over the last 40 years as a result of the state's unique land use laws have helped to protect local agriculture and local businesses by creating strict urban growth boundaries that encourage greater population densities in centralized towns while slowing or greatly reducing urban and suburban sprawl into agricultural and timber land.
- Spectorsky, Auguste C. (1955). The Exurbanites. Lippincott, Philadelphia. OCLC 476943.
- Hannah Gosnell, Julia H. Haggerty, and William R. Travis (2006). "Ranchland Ownership Change in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 1990–2001" (PDF). Society and Natural Resources 19. Retrieved 2007-11-22.
- Lyman, Rick (2005-12-18). "In Exurbs, Life Framed by Hours Spent in the Car". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-28.
- Wuerthner, George (2007-03-19). "The Oregon Example: Statewide Planning Works". Bozeman New West. Retrieved 2011-01-27.
- "Commuters," (Dec. 19, 2011) a poetic depiction of the New Jersey-to-New York commuter life by Steve Peacock. Audio and electronic print via the literary journal InDigestMag.
- Central City White Flight: Racial and Nonracial Causes
- Rybczynski, Witold (Nov. 7, 2005). "Suburban Despair". Slate.
- Spectorsky, Auguste C. (1955). The Exurbanites. Lippincott, Philadelphia. OCLC 476943.
- Living Large, by Design, in Middle of Nowhere New York Times private content
- Finding exurbia: America's fast-growing communities at the metropolitan fringe. Berube, A., Singer, A., Wilson, J.H. & Frey, W.H. (2006, October). The Brookings Institution. Retrieved December 23, 2006.