March 11, 2011 10:06 pm

Commuting: best of both worlds?

Washington DC

In the dark ages, I was pinioned in the straitjacket of train timetables from East Croydon and West Dulwich in London. Housing economics meant living where it was affordable and taking cheap day returns. I remember saying never again and, with luck, have managed it. From the Upper East Side, Hirakawacho, Georgetown and Islington, I’ve never been more than a short walk, bus, tube or lazy drive away from work.

But I still feel the pain of the commuter because I hear about it morning and night on the radio – on WTOP in Washington, or WINS in New York. The transport and place names are like a drum roll, always the same – the LIRR, Amtrak, Marc, the Northern Line, the M23, I-66, the Outer Loop, the Occoquan, the Lincoln Tunnel and the BQE. If they are, like Adlestrop, just names, to be visited only in extremis, sometimes they have faces, like my wife’s assistant who, caught in a rush-hour snowstorm last month, took 12 hours to drive the 40 miles back to her exurban Washington home.

Upland Terrace, Washington DC

Indeed, the nation’s capital, last in baseball, is a perennial contender, along with Los Angeles, for the prize of the worst commuter traffic in the US (public transport use is up, though still spotty in its reach). But it is a price that people seem willing to pay for living the suburban dream – and the nightmares so exquisitely explored in the novels of John Updike, Richard Ford and Richard Yates – or accept because there is no affordable alternative. Life is all about trade-offs.

Leesburg, Virginia, is about as typical as they come. Its population is about 40,000, it sits about 40 miles west of Washington and boasts a pleasant 18th-century downtown, with new housing developments, shopping malls and golf courses all around. The median home price is just $321,000, while $2.3m will buy a five-bedroom, 7,700 sq ft McMansion. But the average one-way commute into the big city will be at least an hour by road, which is the only real option; 83 per cent of its citizens will drive it alone, 10 per cent use a car pool and the rest take the bus or work from home. Those figures are not far off the national average.

Even places such as elegant Greenwich in Connecticut, population 62,000, 35 miles from New York City, differ only in degree. The median home price is higher ($1.65m) while the current average listing price stands at a more representative $3.82m. It has excellent train services, 35-40 minutes into Manhattan and a monthly season ticket of $237, but 64 per cent still drive it alone and only six per cent share a ride, with around 18 per cent using public transport. With petrol approaching $4 a gallon at 20 miles per gallon, and tolls to be added ($8 into Manhattan, over $5 each way on the highway to Leesburg), costs do mount.

Danbury, Connecticut

The suburban expansion of the past 60 years has created employment opportunities closer to home, theoretically cutting commuting.

Just this month, a new toll highway opened, linking two Maryland suburban counties without going anywhere near the city itself. Telecommuting also grows apace. But the magnet of the big cities remains unchallenged; 1.5m people still commute into New York every day: over 20 per cent of the residents of Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley work in it. Washington’s daily influx is 400,000 – 80 per cent of its resident population.

Maybe the escape each evening to the green grass of home makes it worthwhile – if you are not in traffic crossing the Occoquan.

Jurek Martin is an FT columnist and former FT Washington bureau chief and foreign editor

. . .

London

On weekday mornings Grant Clemence wakes up in the heart of the Hertfordshire countryside, lets his golden retriever out into the six acres of land surrounding his home, and takes in the idyllic surroundings. Within an hour of leaving his house he can be sitting at his desk in the City of London where he works as a banker.

Six weeks ago Grant and his wife Charlotte sold their townhouse in Tufnell Park, north London, with its four bedrooms and 40ft garden, and moved to the village of Bishop’s Stortford, where they bought a seven-bedroom property with a cottage in the grounds. Apart from the rural location, the selling point was that it is just a few minutes’ drive to the station, from where the fast train reaches London’s Liverpool Street in just 37 minutes.

“We are starting a family and I wanted more outside space,” says Charlotte, a designer who takes vintage pieces of furniture and transforms them into one-off pieces. “I also needed a showroom for my work.” The couple sold their London house for £1.2m and bought a property in the countryside for £1.7m.

“If I’d have known what you could get and how easy it would be to travel in to town we would have moved out ages ago,” says Charlotte.

Heslop Road, London

They are not alone. The desire to find a place in the countryside from which it is still easy to get to work in the City is rising. The number of commuters travelling into the capital has risen by 24 per cent over the past three years, according to new research by UK property agents Savills.

“For many, the decision to commute, and in doing so find the best schools, wonderful countryside and a lifestyle change for all the family, is a carefully calculated move,” says Lucian Cook, director of Savills Research. He says housebuyers are showing more ingenuity, flexibility and care in their hunt for a better quality of life. Laptops, mobile phones and part-time home working now make it easier than ever before.

“There are broadly two types of buyers who have a commute in mind; those who move to an area for the best commute and then find a school, and those who find the school first and then work out the best commute,” says Mark Parkinson, partner at country buying agency Middleton Advisors.

Within a 20-mile radius of London, popular commuter spots include St Albans and Sevenoaks. For those willing to travel a bit further, Milton Keynes, Petersfield, Bishop’s Stortford and Cambridge are key areas. Further out, Doncaster and Grantham are on the rise because of their fast train links in to London. There are now 2.2m season ticket holders commuting into London. Such pressure has created a sizeable commuters’ premium on houses close to fast lines. Savills calculated in 2006 that average prices on commuter lines reached £1,156 for every minute saved on a train journey. New analysis reveals this figure has now risen to a £1,302 per minute.

“About seven out of 10 of the houses we sell are bought by commuters,” says Ed Meyer, an agent at Savills Bishop’s Stortford office. “A property that is very commutable will probably be valued at around 20 per cent over one that is further from the station.”

Lucy Warwick-Ching is the FT’s online money editor based in London

. . .

Hong Kong

No one in Hong Kong is innocent about the daunting cost of a home. Children learn about the local property market at primary school, where teachers invoke ancient proverbs to describe a city where “an inch of gold will only buy you a foot of land”.

To avoid causing bitter disappointment in their later, mortgage-burdened lives, kids ought to be told that an inch of gold is not going to buy anything more than a dot on the landscape in today’s market.

Bordered to the north by mainland China – the city maintains its own immigration controls after it was returned to China in 1997 – and surrounded by water on all other sides, the basic geography of the place precludes any spreading out by the metropolis of 7m people.

Yet, a mere 7 per cent of the 1,108 sq km of land belonging to the territory is used for residential purposes. This is largely down to the government’s tightly-controlled land sales – designed to keep prices high and used since the colonial era to cover the city’s major expenditures. Other factors, such as the preservation of large country parks much used by local residents, are also at play.

Imperial Court, Conduit Road, HK

There have been growing calls for the government to change its high land price policy as inflationary pressures exert their vice-like grip on household finances. But there are few who expect the government to stray too far from its liberal approach to running Hong Kong. In the absence of a major economic shock, the price of a basic two-bedroom flat situated away from the city’s more desirable neighbourhoods will stay around HK$2m (US$257,000, £159,000), unless you qualify for public housing built for lower-income households.

There are many who either cannot, or would not, pay such a large sum of money for what is usually a cubbyhole with no more than around 350 sq ft of usable space. Some used to see Shenzhen, on the other side of the mainland border, as a feasible commute. However, flats which used to be one-third of Hong Kong’s cheaper prices have more or less caught up.

The good news is that Hong Kong’s already excellent public transport network has become even better with the recent expansion of its train system. Areas in the New Territories are now deemed quite liveable even by those who would previously find it hard to leave their comfort zones of Hong Kong Island – where the central business district is located – and the lower reaches of Kowloon. One such place is Yuen Long, which used to be a nice day out in the countryside. Today, the new railway station means Yuen Long residents can reach Central within 45 minutes. The price differential for property remains significant compared with Hong Kong Island, particularly in Yuen Long’s Tin Shui Wai district.

For those who want a five to 10-minute commute to Central, there are always the lower mid-levels on Hong Kong island. Here, you would pay an average HK$10m for a run-of-the-mill flat in a densely packed neighbourhood – the price of convenience.

The upper extreme of the market is the segment preserved for some of the richest homebuyers on the planet. If you are paying more than HK$30m for a property, the likelihood is that you can afford a chauffeur and your commute is going to be an easy one.

Enid Tsui is the FT’s Hong Kong correspondent

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Decision to move is a tradeoff

chart: Commuter psychology

Larger houses, better schools and clean air are some of the factors that might entice those who work in the city to move out of London, and thus commit to a daily commute, writes Izabella Scott.

Lucian Cook, head of Savills Research, suggests the decision to commute involves a “three-way trade- off between quality of life, house prices and journey time”. In an analysis of commuter trends, Savills looked at factors that buyers will most compromise on, revealing that proximity to schools (at 0 percent), bedroom count (at 7 percent) and garden size (at 13 percent) were least open to compromise.

Marcus Dixon, also at Savills, suggests that commuters fall into two basic groups: those who cannot afford to live in the city, and are forced to move where property is cheaper; and lifestyle commuters, those willing to trade time spent commuting – often to benefit a family – to prime rural locations or expensive commuter towns.

Dr Cary Cooper, professor of psychology at Lancaster University, believes that lifestyle gains – for either commuter group posed by Dixon – do not outweigh the negative effects of commuting regular hours. He suggests that motivations such as better schools and better quality of life for a family are diminished by the logistics of a long commute: “both the health of the commuter, and the health of the family decline”, he says. His evidence shows that individuals who consistently work a 45-hour week – hours that include commuting time – are affected by a decline in health.

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