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A commuter town is an urban community that is primarily residential, from which most of the workforce commute out to earn their livelihood. Many commuter towns act as suburbs of a nearby metropolis that workers travel to daily, and many suburbs are commuter towns. Commuter towns belong to the metropolitan area of a city, and a ring of commuter towns around an urban area is known as a commuter belt.

A commuter town may also be known as a bedroom community or "bedroom suburb" (Canada and U.S. usage), a dormitory town (UK Commonwealth and Ireland usage), or less commonly a dormitory village (UK Commonwealth and Ireland). These terms suggest that residents sleep in these neighborhoods, but mostly work elsewhere; they further suggest that these communities have little commercial or industrial activity beyond a small amount of retail, oriented toward serving the residents.

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 Jerseymarker and Emeryville, Californiamarker, remain industrial when they become 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 Yorkmarker or Tiburon, Californiamarker, a town loses its main source of employment, leaving its residents to seek work elsewhere. In other cases, a pleasant small town 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 affordability in Californian metropolitan areas to historic lows, spawning exurban growth in adjacent counties. For example, most cities in Riverside County, Californiamarker can be considered exurbs of Los Angeles and San Diego. , over 80% of the workforce of Tracy, Californiamarker was employed in the San Francisco Bay Areamarker.

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, Wyomingmarker has spawned several nearby bedroom communities, including Victor, Idahomarker; Driggs, Idahomarker; and Alpine, Wyomingmarker, where the majority of the Jackson workforce resides. Many of the workforce who serve The Hamptonsmarker 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 Londonmarker and Berlinmarker, commuter towns were founded in response to bomb damage in World War II. Residents were relocated to semi-rural areas within a 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 Stevenagemarker, Basildonmarker, and Crawleymarker – were built for this purpose by the Commission for New Towns.


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 U.S.marker, the UKmarker and Irelandmarker 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 Londonmarker to suburbs such as Harrowmarker and out of London itself, to commuter villages in Buckinghamshire or Hertfordshiremarker. 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 are not unique to the United States. They are also found in other land-rich developed countries, notably Canadamarker and Australia. Reasons for exurban growth vary. In the 1970s, rampant crime and urban decay in U.S. cities was the primary 'push force', whereas exurban growth has continued in the 2000s even as most U.S. cities experience plummeting crime and urban revitalization. However, house prices have skyrocketed, so middle-class people who want a large yard or farm are pushed beyond suburban counties.

Exurbs vary in wealth and education level. Exurban areas typically have much higher college education levels than closer-in suburbs, and 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, Virginiamarker outside Washington, D.C.marker and Ozaukee County, Wisconsinmarker near Milwaukeemarker) have some of the highest median household incomes in their respective metropolitan areas.

Then and now

Commuters from early exurbs, such as the end of Philadelphiamarker's Main Line and Upper Westchester County, New Yorkmarker, reached the city center via commuter rail and parkway systems.

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 may feature some cultural institutions or universities of their own. Others, by contrast, 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, Queensmarker and Garden City, New Yorkmarker often become a later decade's suburbs, surrounded and absorbed into a belt of infill.


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 governed by careful inner-city land-use politics while communities outside are more willing to develop greenfield sites.

Some environmentalists, architects, and urban planners consider exurbs to be manifestations of poor or distorted planning. Extremely low densities – often featuring large lots and large homes – create heavy car dependency. This also makes the construction of municipal infrastructure and deployment of services unusually costly and inefficient. Such communities typically include big box stores, fast food chains, and large shopping malls, but lack amenities such as parks and cultural institutions. Nevertheless, relatively cheap land, cheap fuel, and low taxes fuel rapid economic and population growth in many exurbs. Many Middle class families with children are attracted to low costs, ample private space, and the lower crime rates compared with more intensively developed areas.

In Britain, there is very strict regulation about building on Greenfield sites, so planning in these areas is quite rare. Instead developers more increasingly find themselves building on Brownfield sites around British cities.

On Paradise Drive

In his book On Paradise Drive, conservative writer David Brooks commented on the massive growth of American exurbs in the 1990s and early 2000s, and noted that these communities are now dependent on industries contained in office parks in the suburbs rather than in the city center, producing (and attracting) populations with no connection to urban city life. Brooks attributes the victory of George W. Bush in the 2004 election to votes from exurbs and states his belief that the Democratic Party failed to connect with voters in exurbs.

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