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U.S. commutes among the world’s shortest

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Over at the New York Times’ Economix blog, Catherine Rampell digs up an unexpected chart showing that Americans enjoy some of the shortest commutes in the developed world. As much as we might hate our grinding trips to the office, we have it easy compared to Italy or Japan:

But why is this? Isn’t the conventional wisdom that Americans have brutally long, soul-crushing commutes? Part of the trick here is that “average commute times” can obscure a lot of variation. Looking through the most recent census data, the basic pattern in the United States seems to be that people who live in big cities have longer commutes, and people who live in small towns and rural areas can get to work more rapidly. New York City and Washington have average commutes of about 34 minutes, which is near the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average. By contrast, Decatur, Ill., sports an average commute time of less than 17 minutes. Great Falls, Mont.? Just 14 minutes. (Note that these times are all one-way, so the Census seems to be suggesting longer commute times than the OECD.)

A lot also depends on whether a person drives or takes public transportation. The Department of Transportation found that, in 2009, commutes by private car took, on average, 23 minutes. Public transportation, by contrast, took an average of 53 minutes. You could read that as an argument that more people should drive so that their commutes are shorter or as an argument that we need to bolster public transportation.

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