Percentage of Workers Living in State With Commutes of 60 Minutes or Longer: 2011

A new release from the US Census Bureau throws light on the issue of time spent travelling to work and the pressure on policy-makers to do something to shorten commutes.

Many researchers argue time spent commuting is implicated in some of the ill-effects of modern suburban living, from poor physical and mental health to low levels of social capital.

During the Prime Minister’s recent sojourn in Western Sydney there were reports some residents of the region commute more than four hours per day.

Concern about long commutes is one reason the Victorian government is backing the goal of a “20 minute city” as a key plank of the forthcoming strategic plan for Melbourne.

But in the nation with the highest car orientation in the world, the 2011 annual American Community Survey reveals a less worrying picture.

What’s especially interesting is the finding that the average one-way commute in the US isn’t the interminable slog on congested freeways the popular stereotype would have us believe. It’s 25.5 minutes.

A little over 40% of workers commute less than 20 minutes one-way and 64% commute less than 30 minutes. In fact 85% of US commuters get to work within 45 minutes.

Just 8.1% of workers have “long commutes”, defined as more than 60 minutes.

It’s all the more interesting because American workers like to travel by car.

Of those who leave home to go to work, a whopping 90% travel by car, either as a driver or passenger. Only 5.3% commute by public transport and 4.8% walk, cycle or use other modes.

The majority of those whose commute takes longer than 60 minutes get to work by car, but they’re also the biggest users of transit. They’re more than four times as likely to use public transport as other commuters.

This does not sound like a nation being fattened up by long commutes. There’s also 4.3% of the workforce who’s home-based.

That figure rises to 8.3% when those who work from home at least one day a week are added (Marissa Mayer take note).

These are national figures though. There will be considerable variation at smaller geographies, like cities.

Unfortunately the data isn’t available at metropolitan level but it’s likely very big cities – and especially the small number in the US with well-developed rail systems – have the longest commutes.

State figures show only ten States have a higher proportion of 60 minute plus commuters than the 8.1% national average and only seven exceed 10% i.e. California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York (and Washington DC).

Those seven states include all or parts of some of the largest urbanised areas in the US e.g. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Boston, New York. A number of these also have extensive commuter rail systems.

The high proportion of relatively short duration commutes at the national level is explained by a number of factors, including the size distribution of US cities (most aren’t megalopolises), the high degree of suburban job decentralisation, and the speed advantage of cars in non-congested conditions.

I think we need to be wary of the contemporary push to “demonise” commuting for the time it consumes.

The journey to work is one of the most critical trips we make. It shouldn’t be surprising that we’re prepared to travel longer for a better-paying job, a more secure job or, given the number of hours we spend at work, to get to one that’s more pleasant and rewarding.

Travellers are inclined to operate on a time budget. On average, they take advantage of an increase in speed to travel further within the same time envelope – to expand their job and/or residential options – rather than to shorten their commute.

We also need to recognise that public transport commutes take considerably longer on average than work journeys by car. In Melbourne, for example, the median commute by public transport takes almost twice as long as by car.

That means policies designed to increase public transport’s mode share will in many cases lead to longer commutes. The difference will be largest in conditions where driving speeds aren’t slowed severely by heavy congestion.

Transit tends to be slower in part because it involves walk, wait and transfer times. Buses and trams – like cars – have the added burden of being delayed by traffic lights and congestion.

It’s also in part because some forms of transit – notably trains – operate in their own right-of-way and hence are fast over long distances.

Radial train systems enable workers in large cities with a dense core to trade-off travel time for the opportunity to reside in a better dwelling (that usually means bigger) at a more distant location.

Yet they can travel to work by train considerably faster, in more comfort, and at lower cost, than if they drove. However while it’ll be faster than driving, in most cases it’ll still be a long (duration) commute.

The main issue with commuting isn’t time but the distance that drivers travel. Average commute times by car only grow marginally over long periods, but average commute distances increase significantly, with consequent increases in negative externalities like emissions.

Reducing journey to work distances by car is problematic (pricing is one option), but there’s scope to make private vehicles more fuel-efficient and to behave in a more civilised way.