Cars & traffic

Mar 20, 2013

Do commutes take too long?

Time-consuming commutes are said to be bad for us but new data from the car-centric USA shows most commutes aren't that long. The key problem with commuting isn't time but how far we travel

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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.

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22 thoughts on “Do commutes take too long?

  1. Socrates

    Regarding the comments of Strewth and others on cities with declining coommuting times, I think we need to be careful to compare apples with apples here. Many Australian and North American cities have followed policies to increase inner urban redevelopmnet in recent years, as opposed to permitting further outward sprawl. This means that the average commuting distance may have declined. So the average commuting times are likely to decline regardless of mode chosen. Improved public transpoitr may facilitate the inner redevelopment, but that does not mean that the PT trips in themselves are faster than car trips of the same length.

    Inner Vancouver twenty years ago was quite run down and the inner city population was low then and much higher now. They were doing studies on the consequenecs of increased sprawl into the Fraser River valley as long ago as the mid 1990s. A lot of different policy interventions were used to achieve their current (changed) land use and tranpsort patterns. For example see a discussion here
    http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=iclr&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com.au%2Furl%3Fsa%3Dt%26rct%3Dj%26q%3Dvancouver%2520measures%2520to%2520reduce%2520urban%2520sprawl%2520land%2520use%2520policy%26source%3Dweb%26cd%3D3%26ved%3D0CDoQFjAC%26url%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Flawdigitalcommons.bc.edu%252Fcgi%252Fviewcontent.cgi%253Farticle%253D1002%2526context%253Diclr%26ei%3D5_1dUb6WI8POiAfl-oCgAQ%26usg%3DAFQjCNFOK3oopjisRJUIOH8-61g6dzI8yQ%26bvm%3Dbv.44770516%2Cd.aGc#search=%22vancouver%20measures%20reduce%20urban%20sprawl%20land%20use%20policy%22

  2. Stickey

    considering the essentiality of public transport, consider (1) a car takes up space and a rent is applicable wherever it is from time to time (2) shifting a government department or industry to a suburb or country town can materially alter transport needs (3) financing public transport can be a charge against property like utility charges (4) In W.A they did a survey on cars parked at Beeliar station and found 43% had been driven 800 metres to the station car park.

  3. Oldphart

    As one who has a commute of over an hour (usually around 70 minutes), my comment on the fetish about “how long” commuting takes bemuses me. I use the time listening to Radio National or listening to podcasts as well as just relaxing or observing my fellow commuters who are also doing their thing – everything from surfing Facebook to knitting.

    I arrive at work relaxed most days (it is usually a single bus trip with a 5 minute walk at the end.) I avoid the stress of driving in traffic, I don’t arrive all sweaty from cycling and I save money. I just wish I could travel on light rail rather than Canberra’s bus service.

  4. Dylan Nicholson

    Ika, yes, that’s true…I was writing from my own perspective where I really do need a seat in order to use my notebook computer. Further the only times I can’t sit down are when the train is so crowded there’s really not even room to read a book. Thankfully it’s only like that for a few minutes!

  5. IkaInk

    @Steve – While I’m sure some people struggle to stand and read at the same time, these are not mutually exclusive tasks. Especially with the prevalence of e-readers where you don’t even need to let go of whatever you’re holding onto to turn the page, but plenty of people manage books, reports, etc whilst standing.

  6. Dylan Nicholson

    Steve, agreed that if you’re standing on a train with no room to sit down, you can’t do anything very productive (though I’d suggest it’s still better for you than driving in heavy traffic) – and more needs to be done to reduce such overcrowding. One option would be a concerted effort to encourage bicycling – customers on relatively short routes on crowded trains would seem to be obvious candidates for switching to bicycle where possible. That obviously means spending some decent amount of money on better infrastructure – dedicated bicycle tracks along the railway lines, good parking facilities etc. etc.

  7. Steve777

    The idea of commuting time being time to catch up on work or reading only applies if you can be comfortably seated for the ride. Trains and buses within about 12 km of the Sydney CBD are packed in the morning and evening peaks, each of which runs for about two hours. So apart from listening to music, commuting time for those living close to the City is dead time.

  8. Smith John

    John Nightingale #12:

    The Brisbane bus review got the predictable slew of submissions from existing users who don’t want the slightest change to the status quo (many of them didn’t seem to realise that their ‘cancelled’ bus route was actually being replaced by a BETTER service nearby).

    That’s not a guide to how many people would benefit from a more freqent, more transfer based network, but didn’t submit because they are not existing users.

    As well, it appears that the government had not done its homework to get Brisbane City Council on side first.

    The fact that the government wimped out is unfortunate, but shouldn’t be taken as a verdict on the merits of the proposed changes or even public opinion on them. AFAIK no-one tried to sample public opinion in a statistically valid ways (as opposed to inviting submissions).

  9. Smith John

    Alan #10: Jane Jacobs: “It’s a fallacy to think that you can eliminate travel by putting people close to their work.”

    Yes, because ‘close to their work’ is an illdefined concept that implies a stability which does not exist. People change their jobs over time. Better transport allows them to seek work over a wider area, and that may be more valuable to them than reducing travel time.

  10. Krammer56

    My bus commute takes 35-50 minutes depending on the route/direction (longer in the evening due to less priority)/traffic/wait time/etc. Being a lazy sod, I actually chose a route with a slightly longer commute home (by about 5-10 minutes) to save an 800m walk and enjoy less crowding. I don’t care, because I relax and listen to my music, read a book, catch up on work reading or emails – it isn’t time wasted as it would be driving.

    I do agree though – making commutes faster only encourages people to look at more distant job opportunities. Thta is one of my biggest issues with the EW tunnel in Melbourne. To paraphrase Bill Connolly “Don’t build it it only encourages them!”

  11. Nightingale John

    Interesting that Brisbane bus commuters have, by their feedback against Translink’s plan to reform and simplify bus routes and speed commutes into the CBD by feeding buses to railway stations, rejected shorter commutes in favour of current practice. So strong was the backlash that the Newman govt has given the buses back to the BCC to do their worst. Chief Traffic and Transport Planner, Lord Mayor Quirk, tells us there is nothing wrong with Brisbane’s bus system (despite CBD congested with queues of buses). Commuters agree! The longest commutes, which the new plan would have cut by delivery to railway stations, saw the strongest rejection!

  12. Burke John

    The concept of “effective speeds” changes outcomes if considered.

  13. Alan Davies

    Jane Jacobs: “It’s a fallacy to think that you can eliminate travel by putting people close to their work.”

  14. Alan Davies

    Strewth #7:

    after all, reducing commuting times is a Holy Grail of urban planning and so rarely achieved that we should try and learn from any example where it’s happened.

    My point is that chasing shorter commute times is a false god. They’re already pretty short, the pay-off for the time investment is big, commuters will tend to use any time saving offered them to make longer commutes, and it cuts public transport off at the knees. Better to focus on shortening the distance of commutes and increasing PT’s share.

  15. Steve777

    Public transport does not necessarily reduce commuting times except to the extent that it relieves some of the congestion in the inner cores (and some larger suburban hubs) of large cities like Sydney. Public transport will always be slower – it will never pick you up at your front door when you’re ready to go and take you directly to your place of work.

    When I worked in the Sydney CBD, I lived about 10 km from work, within an easy walk from a railway station. The door to door time averaged about 35 minutes – about 21 minutes on trains (with a change in the City Circle), about 6-8 minutes walking and 6-8 minutes waiting, about as fast as one can expect. So my commute averaged about 18 km per hour. However, driving to work was just not practical because: (a) there was nowhere to park when I got there, unless I wanted to pay a minimum of about $100 a week for parking; and (b) It took just as long or even longer to drive in because of congestion, unless I was prepared to get up early and start work before about 7:45.

    In fact, Sydney in its current form could not exist without the rail and bus network. Who knows, maybe that would be a positive. There’d be no way to get hundreds of thousands of car commuters within coee of the CBD in any reasonable time without demolishing whole suburbs to provide freeways and car parks. Or employment would need to be much more decentralised, with the loss of whatever advantages agglomeration in a large CBD and larger suburban centres brings.

  16. Strewth

    I’m not putting Vancouver forward as evidence for a general hypothesis that increasing PT mode share reduces commuting times. But it does count somewhat against the hypothesis that “policies designed to increase public transport’s mode share will in many cases lead to longer commutes” (to quote the original article).

    It’s also putting forward a compelling example for us to follow per se – after all, reducing commuting times is a Holy Grail of urban planning and so rarely achieved that we should try and learn from any example where it’s happened.

  17. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #5:

    It may be the exception because it’s the only city that’s worked out how to do it successfully

    I think that’s Strewth’s point, but (a) the evidence isn’t very strong and (b) one swallow does not a summer make (or words to that effect).

  18. Dylan Nicholson

    AD, it may be the exception because it’s the only city that’s worked out how to do it successfully – hence should be an example to learn from. Hard to imagine what else there would be unique about Vancouver.
    But I’ll bring up my normal point about ‘productive time’ vs driving time. I’m quite happy to spend an hour commuting by train a few times a week, because I can work for most of that time, and of the remaining time it’s mostly either a) walking (enjoyable and good for my health) or b) sitting/waiting for a relatively short period, which is mostly restful, unlike trying to navigate heavy traffic in a car. But I’ll be honest, if I had a self-driving car, I’d almost certainly prefer to use that, as I could work for the whole trip, and it would more comfortable, more peaceful, and almost certainly faster.

  19. Alan Davies

    Strewth #2:

    As far as I’m aware it’s the only city in the world to have accomplished this.

    There are hundreds of large cities in the world so you have to allow for the possibility that Vancouver’s the exception rather than the rule.

    In any event, the evidence isn’t very compelling. Paul Mees shows a reduction in commute time in Vancouver from 70 minutes in 1992 to 67 minutes in 2005. But that’s for all modes and PT’s share of that is only circa 10% (see here and here).

    In fact there’s no directly comparable info on mode share changes but he refers to other data for 1994-2004 showing PT’s mode share increased from 10.2% to 10.8%.

    I think Dr Mees also said that post-2005 the direction of average commute times in Vancouver went backwards? I’ll have to check that.

    Burke John #3:

    As noted in the article, the bigger US cities are likely to have more long distance commuters. For reference, more than half of all one-way trips to work (54%) in Melbourne take 30 minutes or less. Only 12% take longer than an hour and 3% more than 90 minutes.

  20. Burke John

    Urban sprawl is a mostly a consequence of engineering cities to suit cars. Besides 25 minutes getting to work would drive me nuts.

    Also I have the impression that the US has lots of towns, a population unit that might give a commute time of eg 2 or 3 minutes skewing results. Australia’s population conversely lives mainly in a few cities.

    A comparison with some other countries might be interesting but I’m not sure that this set of statistics is particularly informative.

    Btw I have heard of 4 hour commutes in Jakarta

  21. Strewth

    Public transport (especially rail with its smoother ride) does take a lot of the stress and boredom out of long commutes, so it’s definitely favoured by many of those who travel long distances to work. But it doesn’t follow at all that shifting car trips to public transport will make commuting times longer. Vancouver has for years been increasing the mode share of public transport at the expense of the car, and average commuting times there have actually reduced. As far as I’m aware it’s the only city in the world to have accomplished this.

  22. hk

    Sedentary travel is not health benefitting. So the more time is spent sitting in cars, trucks and to some extent PT the greater the burden from avoidable diseases becomes within a community. Integrated land-use and transport planning and design needs to facilitate peoples’ opportunities to participate in active transport where ever and whenever practical.

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