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Commuting in reverse grows in Westchester

Tony Weng, 27, lives in Queens and commutes

Tony Weng, 27, lives in Queens and commutes daily to Sakura Garden, his sushi restaurant in Hastings-on-Hudson. (March 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

More New Yorkers are reverse-commuting to Westchester jobs in a growing trend fueled by new economic realities, an Internet-based work culture and flourishing suburban downtowns near major train stations.

The employees from the city arrive daily by car, train, bus, subway -- sometimes in combination. Like Joseph Dugan, 36, most of them pack smartphones and a youthful stamina for extreme commutes that take 90 minutes or longer.

"The money up here is better than in the city," said Dugan, an attorney from Queens who commutes two hours each way via subway, bus and rail to a White Plains law firm. He has endured the four-hour daily trek for the last three years because "it's still kind of enjoyable to be in the five boroughs and around more stuff. But in the future, I could see moving here if I was looking to buy a place or have kids."

Commuting in the opposite direction of the traditional suburb-to-city flow is increasing as companies either expand in Westchester or relocate from the city. In the process, White Plains has become a county "regional center" that is competing with other tri-state cities like Stamford, Conn., and Newark, N.J., according to Jeffrey Zupan, senior fellow for transportation at the Regional Plan Association.

"Reverse-commuting is becoming so prevalent that calling it 'reverse' is maybe a passé term," he said.

White Plains is No. 1

Within Westchester, Metro-North's White Plains train station anchors a once-sleepy downtown now packed with new stores, restaurants, offices, luxury condos and even a Ritz-Carlton hotel. The White Plains station has become the No. 1 reverse commuting destination for Metro-North Railroad and the second-busiest stop among its 124 stations -- surpassed only by the traffic at Grand Central Station, according to Marjorie Anders, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the rail system as part of the largest public transportation network on the continent.

"People are using the railroad in nontraditional ways," Anders said. "It was 'Mad Men' redux for most of its life -- it was all male commuters." But now, Metro-North trains pick up 12,000 daily morning riders from the city and deposit them in either Westchester or Connecticut. About 7,000 of them board at either Grand Central or the Harlem-125th stop. The remaining 5,000 hop on in the Bronx at Fordham Road.

The largest passenger block of 3,092 riders is White Plains-bound. But Westchester faces intense competition from two Metro-North stations in Connecticut, with 2,006 reverse commuters going to Stamford and another 1,103 Greenwich-bound.

"The long-term trend is away from Grand Central in the a.m. peak," said Anders, adding that reverse-commuting is one of Metro-North's fastest-growing services. "There are hotels, hospitals, office centers and all kind of businesses out in the suburbs. There are a lot of young kids working at hedge fund places, a lot of young kids working in biotech in Tarrytown."Suburban opportunities on the rise

Since 1990, Metro-North has added 15 trains to handle a 60 percent increase in reverse commuting. Along the way, Anders said general ridership has gone from being all male to 48 percent female. MTA market research also shows that the reverse peak riders tend to be younger and "significantly less affluent than regular Metro-North commuters who commute into Manhattan."

"There are job centers outside the city and the numbers bear out the trend," said Lisa Daglian, spokeswoman for New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, which analyzes regional issues. "Manhattan isn't the center of the universe anymore."

About 200,000 New Yorkers reverse-commuted to Westchester jobs in 2009, up from an estimated 182,000 in 2002, according to NYMTC's most recent study. Employment opportunities in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam are expected to outpace the rest of the New York region, where a total of 1.5 million new jobs will be added through 2035. The number of new jobs in these lower Hudson Valley counties could grow by 26 percent through 2035, compared with growth rates of 16 percent in Long Island and 21 percent in New York City.

More companies coming to Westchester

Office space near the stations has brightened an otherwise stagnant real estate market, said Cushman & Wakefield Managing director Chris O'Callaghan. Commercial rents near the White Plains train hub approach the $40-per-square-foot range compared with $25 per square foot in an office park near Interstate 287.

The ripple effect extends even as far north as Mount Kisco, where rents reach $30 to $35 per square foot near the Metro-North's Hudson line stop. "By most of the train stations in Westchester County, you have dry cleaners, banks, restaurants, fitness facilities -- all the things that New York City has except that you're in the suburbs," O'Callaghan added.

Today's work culture has made leaving Manhattan possible because "in today's world, we either visit clients in their homes, visit the client at their office, email them or teleconference on the phone," said Joy Soodik, 56, chief operating officer for Clarfeld Wealth Strategists who makes a daily drive from her Brooklyn penthouse to Tarrytown. The financial investment firm relocated there in 1999 when the lease on its Park Avenue headquarters hit $85 per square foot. Opting out to a larger $22-per-square-foot space on White Plains Road for its 80 employees was a "no brainer," she said.

But she admits that reverse-commuting can be stressful, even behind the wheel of her 2011 Audi A4. There have been snow days where she never made it into work. On a good day, she can zip into Tarrytown in 45 minutes flat. "But if one of the highways craps out, it can be tiring," she admitted.

Still, the convenience that cars offer makes them the most popular way to get to work, reports NYMTC.

Commuting can be work

Westchester-based employees like Danny Garcia are the happiest reverse commuters because the journey to work is short, sweet and cheap. "I go door to door for $70 a month; a driver would spend that much in a week," said the 35-year-old product development specialist for Con Edison. For the past six years, the Bronx resident has settled into a 10-minute ride from Metro-North's Fordham Road station to the White Plains stop. From here, he boards a free, private bus shuttle provided by Con Edison's Valhalla landlord.

His past jobs in the city involved riding a subway where "you always have somebody sitting on your shoulder," said Garcia, who travels with his Nook opened to a newspaper app while playing Words with Friends on his iPhone. "But now I can actually enjoy the commute."

But getting to the exactly same work locale is a challenge for John Goldworm, 32. The Words with Friends app on his iPhone is not enough to get him through a 90-minute slog from Union Square in lower Manhattan that involves making subway-train-shuttle bus connections to reach Con Edison.

"I hate my commute," said Goldworm, who was hired as a solar product developer in February. "I'm going to start driving." He said his transportation costs would be about the same under both options: about $300 per month. But despite the expense, he won't quit the city because life "is so much fun. I like having 15 friends within five blocks of me. And there are a hundred bars."

NYC's bedroom community

Persuading reverse commuters to work, play and spend their money living in suburbia is the hope of local officials. "You want the strong economic benefits of having people live and work in Westchester County," said Laurence Gottlieb, the county's economic development director. "What you don't want is to switch roles and now have New York City become our bedroom community."

Sakura Garden owner Tony Weng, 28, is starting to see the potential of relocating. Everyone employed at his family-run sushi restaurant reverse-commutes from Queens, home to New York City's largest Asian-American population. While Weng sometimes gives individual staffers a lift to work, he doesn't run a shuttle van, which is the commuting solution of choice for many suburban Asian restaurants.

Instead Weng's employees, who include relatives and friends, take Metro-North's Hudson line to the Hastings stop. Or, they can stay overnight at a pied-a-terre he rents near the restaurant. But with the apartment's lease expiring soon, he is debating whether to renew it, buy a van -- or maybe a house. "Customers tell me that Hastings has a good school system and I have two sons," Weng said. "Why pay rent? For the same money, we can pay a mortgage."

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