Commuter town

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Many municipalities in the US state of New Jersey can be considered commuter towns. Here, riders wait in Maplewood for a train bound for New York City during the morning rush hour. Commuters in Maplewood NJ.jpg
Many municipalities in the US state of New Jersey can be considered commuter towns. Here, riders wait in Maplewood for a train bound for New York City during the morning rush hour.
Hervanta in Tampere, Finland is mostly known for its residential tower blocks, but there are also some commercial services. Hervanta1.jpg
Hervanta in Tampere, Finland is mostly known for its residential tower blocks, but there are also some commercial services.

A commuter town is a populated area that is primarily residential, rather than commercial or industrial. People who live in commuter towns usually work in other places. Routine travel from home to work and then from work to home is called commuting, which is where the term comes from.


A commuter town may be called by many other terms: "bedroom community" (Canada and northeastern US), "bedroom town", "bedroom suburb" (US), "dormitory town", "dormitory suburb", or, less commonly, "dormitory village" (Britain/Commonwealth/Ireland).[ citation needed ] In Japan, a commuter town may be referred to with the wasei-eigo coinage "bed town" (ベッドタウン, beddotaun). [1] The term "exurb" was also used starting in the 1950s for a commuter town, but especially since 2006, is generally used for areas beyond suburbs and specifically less densely built than the suburbs to which the exurbs' residents commute. [2]

Distinction between suburbs and commuter towns

Camarillo, California, a typical U.S. bedroom community made up almost entirely of homes, schools and retail outlets CamarilloCalifornia.jpg
Camarillo, California, a typical U.S. bedroom community made up almost entirely of homes, schools and retail outlets

Suburbs and commuter towns often coincide, but are not synonymous. Similar to college town , resort town and mill town , the term commuter town describes the municipality's predominant economic function. A suburb, in contrast, is a community of lesser size, density, political power and/or commerce comparative to a nearby community that is usually of greater economic importance. A town's 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 in them; hence, they are not commuter towns.

As a general rule, suburbs are developed in areas adjacent to a main employment center, 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.


In Japan, most of the national railway network was privatized by the 1980s but unlike in the UK, both the national railway's tracks, trains, stations and real estate were included in the privatization agreements. Japan's privately operated railroads view real estate investment and development of commuter towns as central to their business model. These railroads continuously develop new residential and commercial areas alongside their existing and new routes and stations and adjust their train schedules in order to provide existing and prospective commuters with convenient work-commute routines. [3]

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 denizens to commute to employment centers. Another cause, particularly relevant in the American South and West, is the rapid growth of small cities. The earlier creation of the Interstate Highway System was one cause of the greatest growth was seen by the sprawling metropolitan areas of those cities. As a result, many small cities[ which? ] were absorbed into the suburbs of the 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, over 80% of the workforce of Tracy, California was employed in the San Francisco Bay Area.[ citation needed ]

In some cases, commuter towns can result from negative economic conditions. 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. [4]


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.[ citation needed ] 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.

A 2014 study by the British Office for National Statistics found that commuting also affects wellbeing. Commuters are more likely to be anxious, dissatisfied and have the sense that their daily activities lack meaning than those who don't have to travel to work even if they are paid more. [5]

In Belgium, the development of formerly rural Flemish towns surrounding Brussels into commuter towns has caused controversy, as most of the new residents are French or English-speaking families with who don't speak the local Flemish dialect. Members of the Flemish movement[ who? ][ vague ] in the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde have attacked restaurants with bilingual menus and demand the strict enforcement of the Dutch language.[ citation needed ]


The term "exurb" was also used in the United States and elsewhere, starting in 1955 for a commuter town, as the word exurb ( a portmanteau of "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. [6] However, especially since a landmark report by the Brookings Institution in 2006, the term is generally used for areas beyond suburbs and specifically less densely built than the suburbs to which the exurbs' residents commute. [7]

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 also typically have average incomes much higher than nearby rural counties, and some have some of the highest median household incomes in their respective metropolitan area. However, depending on local circumstances, some exurbs have higher poverty levels than suburbs nearer the city.

Then and now

Commuters from early exurbs, such as the end of Philadelphia's Main Line and the Northern Westchester region of Westchester County, New York, reached the city center via commuter rail and parkway systems.

Today's exurbs are composed of small neighborhoods in otherwise lightly developed 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 may have 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.

Yesterday's sprawling exurbs, such as Forest Hills and Garden City, New York, often become a later decade's suburbs, surrounded and absorbed into a belt of infill.


Many suburbs within a metropolitan city proper enjoyed their greatest growth in the post-World War II period, after which growth slowed for several decades; however, since the 1990s extensive development has occurred outside of cities. There have also been significant growth differences between inside and outside metro boundaries; many developments typical of exurbs, such as the proliferation of 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 with fewer restraints.

Some architects, environmentalists, 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 motor vehicle 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, The New York Times [8]

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, timber land, and natural areas. [9]

See also

Related Research Articles

Suburb Human settlement that is part of/or near to a larger city

A suburb is a mixed-use or residential area, existing either as part of a city/urban area, or as a separate residential community within commuting distance of one. Suburbs might have their own political or legal jurisdiction, especially in the United States, but this is not always the case, especially in the United Kingdom where most suburbs are located within the administrative boundaries of cities. In most English-speaking countries, suburban areas are defined in contrast to central or inner city areas, but in Australian English and South African English, suburb has become largely synonymous with what is called a "neighborhood" in other countries, and the term encompasses inner city areas.

Smart growth

Smart growth is an urban planning and transportation theory that concentrates growth in compact walkable urban centers to avoid sprawl. It also advocates compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use, including neighborhood schools, complete streets, and mixed-use development with a range of housing choices. The term "smart growth" is particularly used in North America. In Europe and particularly the UK, the terms "compact city", "urban densification" or "urban intensification" have often been used to describe similar concepts, which have influenced government planning policies in the UK, the Netherlands and several other European countries.

Metropolitan area Region consisting of a densely populated urban core and its less-populated but economically-linked surroundings

A metropolitan area or metro is a region consisting of a densely populated urban core and its less-populated surrounding territories under the same administrative jurisdiction, sharing industries, commercial areas, transport network, infrastructures and housing. A metro area usually comprises multiple jurisdictions and municipalities: neighborhoods, townships, boroughs, cities, towns, exurbs, suburbs, counties, districts, and even states and nations like the eurodistricts. As social, economic and political institutions have changed, metropolitan areas have become key economic and political regions.

Exurb Area of less density than suburbs

An exurb is an area outside the typically denser inner suburban area of a metropolitan area, which has an economic and commuting connection to the metro area, low housing density, and growth. It shapes an interface between urban and rural landscapes holding an urban nature for its functional, economic, and social interaction with the urban center, due to its dominant residential character. They consist of "agglomerations of housing and jobs outside the municipal boundaries of a primary city" and beyond its suburbs.

Green belt Largely undeveloped, wild, or agricultural land surrounding urban areas

A green belt is a policy and land-use zone designation used in land-use planning to retain areas of largely undeveloped, wild, or agricultural land surrounding or neighboring urban areas. Similar concepts are greenways or green wedges, which have a linear character and may run through an urban area instead of around it. In essence, a green belt is an invisible line designating a border around a certain area, preventing development of the area and allowing wildlife to return and be established.

Commuting Periodically recurring travel between ones place of residence and place of work, or study

Commuting is periodically recurring travel between one's place of residence and place of work or study, where the traveler leaves the boundary of their home community. By extension, it can sometimes be any regular or often repeated travel between locations, even when not work-related. The modes of travel, time taken and distance traveled in commuting varies widely across the globe. Most people in least-developed countries continue to walk to work, as the ancestors of all people did until the nineteenth century. The cheapest method of commuting after walking is usually by bicycle, so this is common in low-income countries, but is also increasingly practised by people in wealthier countries for environmental and health reasons. In middle-income countries, motorcycle commuting is very common. The next technology adopted as countries develop is more dependent on location: in more populous, older cities, especially in Eurasia mass transit predominates, while in smaller, younger cities, and large parts of North America and Australasia, communing by personal automobile is more common. A small number of very wealthy people, and those working in remote locations across the world, also commute by air travel, often for a week or more at a time rather the more typical daily commute. Transportation links that enable commuting also impact the physical layout of cities and regions, allowing a distinction to arise between mostly-residential suburbs and the more economically-focused urban core of a city, but the specifics of how that distinction is realized remain drastically different between societies, with Eurasian "suburbs" often being more densely populated than North American "urban cores".

London metropolitan area

The London metropolitan area includes London and its surrounding commuter zone. It is also known as the London commuter belt, or Southeast metropolitan area.

Edge city New unstructured settlement created near a major city

Edge city is a term that originated in the United States for a concentration of business, shopping, and entertainment outside a traditional downtown or central business district, in what had previously been a suburban residential or rural area. The term was popularized by the 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier by Joel Garreau, who established its current meaning while working as a reporter for The Washington Post. Garreau argues that the edge city has become the standard form of urban growth worldwide, representing a 20th-century urban form unlike that of the 19th-century central downtown. Other terms for these areas include suburban activity centers, megacenters, and suburban business districts. These districts have now developed in many countries.

Urban sprawl Expansion of auto-oriented, low-density development in suburbs

Urban sprawl is the unrestricted growth in many urban areas of housing, commercial development, and roads over large expanses of land, with little concern for urban planning. In addition to describing a special form of urbanization, the term also relates to the social and environmental consequences associated with this development. Since the advent of the industrial era, sprawl has entailed no direct disadvantages, such as the loss of protection from medieval city walls. However, its disadvantages and costs include increased travel time, transport costs, pollution, and destruction of countryside. The cost of building the infrastructure needed for new developments is hardly ever recouped through property taxes, amounting to a huge subsidy for the developers and new residents at the expense of existing property taxpayers. In Continental Europe, the term peri-urbanisation is often used to denote similar dynamics and phenomena, but the term urban sprawl is currently being used by the European Environment Agency. There is widespread disagreement about what constitutes sprawl and how to quantify it. For example, some commentators measure sprawl only with the average number of residential units per acre in a given area, but others associate it with decentralization, discontinuity, segregation of uses, and so forth.

Suburbanization Population shift from central urban areas into suburbs

Suburbanization is a population shift from central urban areas into suburbs, resulting in the formation of (sub)urban sprawl. As a consequence of the movement of households and businesses out of the city centers, low-density, peripheral urban areas grow.

Wallan, Victoria Town in Victoria, Australia

Wallan, traditionally known as Wallan Wallan, is a town in Victoria, 45 kilometres (28 mi) north of Melbourne's Central Business District. The town sits at the southern end of the large and diverse Shire of Mitchell which extends from the northern fringes of Melbourne into the farming country of north-central Victoria and the lower Goulburn Valley. The township flanks the Hume Freeway and is set against the backdrop of the Great Dividing Range. At the 2016 census, Wallan had a population of 8,520.

Urban village Decentralized urban development

In urban planning and design, an urban village is an urban development typically characterized by medium-density housing, mixed use zoning, good public transit and an emphasis on pedestrianization and public space. Contemporary urban village ideas are closely related to New Urbanism and smart growth ideas initiated in the United States.

Greater London Built-up Area Conurbation in south-east England

The Greater London Built-up Area, or Greater London Urban Area, is a conurbation in south-east England that constitutes the continuous urban area of London, and includes surrounding adjacent urban towns as defined by the Office for National Statistics. It is the largest urban area in the United Kingdom with a population of 9,787,426 in 2011.

Oklahoma City metropolitan area Metropolitan area in Oklahoma, United States

The Oklahoma City metropolitan area is an urban region in Central Oklahoma. It is the largest metropolitan area in the state of Oklahoma and contains the state capital and principal city, Oklahoma City. It is often known as the Oklahoma City Metro, Oklahoma City Metroplex, or Greater Oklahoma City in addition to the nicknames Oklahoma City itself is known for, such as OKC or 'the 405'.

Thessaloniki metropolitan area

The Thessaloniki metropolitan area or larger urban zone (LUZ) is the complete area covered and directly influenced by Greece's second-largest city, Thessaloniki. The metropolitan area traditionally consisted of the municipality of Thessaloniki and its immediate surroundings, what is today referred to as the Thessaloniki urban area. However, since the mid to late 1990s, the areas surrounding the urban area, have succumbed to urban sprawl and what used to be agrarian communities are rapidly urbanizing and being developed into suburbs or exurbs. This is creating new problems for a region already facing issues such as pollution, traffic congestion and social ills.

Inner suburb Suburbs located close to centre of a large city

Inner suburb is a term used for a variety of suburban communities that are generally located very close to the centre of a large city. Their urban density is lower than the inner city or central business district but higher than that of the city's outer suburbs or exurbs.

Activity centre is a term used in urban planning and design for a mixed-use urban area where there is a concentration of commercial and other land uses. For example, the central business districts of cities (CBD) are also known as “Central Activities Districts” (CAD) (also known as Downtown in North America or "Central Activities Zone" in the United Kingdom in recognition of the fact that commercial functions are not the only things that occur there. The term activity centre can also be used to designate an area for mixed-use development, whatever its current land use happens to be.

Overspill estate

An overspill estate is a housing estate planned and built for the housing of excess population in urban areas, both from the natural increase of population and often in order to rehouse people from decaying inner city areas, usually as part of the process of slum clearance. They were created on the outskirts of most large British towns and during most of the 20th century, with new towns being an alternative approach outside London after World War II. The objective of this was to bring more economic activity to these smaller communities, whilst relieving pressure on overpopulated areas of major cities. The Town Development Act 1952 encouraged the expansion of neighbouring urban areas rather than the creation of satellite communities. The authorities wished to divert people living in poor conditions within highly populous cities to better conditions on the outskirts of these cities. Overspill not only involves moving people to a new area, but requires industry and employment to follow. Often the industries and resources took longer to migrate than the people, hence there were a number of issues surrounding early overspill projects. Slum clearance tenants often had problems with the move, since it separated them from extended family and friends, needed services were often lacking, and only the better off workers could afford the extra cost of commuting back to their jobs. Another criticism was that the new estates occupied what had been productive agricultural land.

Compact city High density mixed use transit oriented planning

The compact city or city of short distances is an urban planning and urban design concept, which promotes relatively high residential density with mixed land uses. It is based on an efficient public transport system and has an urban layout which – according to its advocates – encourages walking and cycling, low energy consumption and reduced pollution. A large resident population provides opportunities for social interaction as well as a feeling of safety in numbers and "eyes on the street". It is also arguably a more sustainable urban settlement type than urban sprawl because it is less dependent on the car, requiring less infrastructure provision.

Complete communities is an urban and rural planning concept that aims to meet the basic needs of all residents in a community, regardless of income, culture, or political ideologies through integrated land use planning, transportation planning, and community design. While the concept is used by many communities as part of their community plan, each plan interprets what complete community means in their own way. The idea of the complete community has roots in early planning theory, beginning with The Garden City Movement, and is a component of contemporary planning methods including Smart Growth.


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