Commuting in the U.S. is hellish — but at least it’s not getting worse

March 5, 2013

The average commuter in the United States travels about 25 minutes each way to work. But that's an average. And as a new Census report details, the average can obscure a lot of seriously grueling commutes.


Bad, yes, but is it extreme? (The Washington Post)

About 1.7 million Americans have "extreme" commutes that take 90 minutes or more each way. About 2.2 million workers have "long-distance" commutes that span at least 50 miles in each direction.

And then, at the intersection of the Venn Diagram, there are the "mega" commuters, who travel 90 minutes and 50 miles each way. About 600,000 people make this journey each workday — with about a quarter of them living in and around the Washington D.C. area.

The bad news? Researchers have amassed evidence that miserably long commutes are associated with all manner of bad outcomes, from increased odds of divorce to neck and back problems to less sleep to sheer unhappiness.

The better news? The Census found that American commutes aren't any more grueling, on average, then they were back in 2000. After a sharp rise during the 1990s, the portion of "extreme" commuters has stayed roughly constant over the years, and average commute times haven't really budged in the last decade:

Extreme commutes rose nearly 95 percent during the 1990s — driven by a rise in two-income families and job sprawl. But they've tailed off over the past decade. Why? One possibility is that the weak economic growth during the 2000s and the financial crisis have suppressed job growth and put a damper on overall congestion.

Another possible factor is that telecommuting has become more commonplace. The Census found that the number of workers who spent at least one day a week at home has risen from 6.9 percent in 1997 to 9.4 percent in 2010. That's a significant jump.

In any case, the Census has plenty of more ways to break down extreme commuting here. Not surprisingly, the vast bulk of long commutes are people living outside large metropolitan areas commuting into the city. New York, Maryland, and New Jersey had the largest percentage of long commutes. What's more, a disproportionate fraction of commutes longer than 60 minutes took place on public transit (see chart), in part because average travel time for public transit is longer across the board. Curiously, a small portion of Americans walk or bike 60 minutes to work each way.

Further reading: My colleagues Carol Morello and Mark Berman interviewed some of the "mega-commuters" in the D.C. area:

Even in a region where marathon commutes are commonplace, Angela Barber’s trek to work is brutally long.

She rises in her Hagerstown, Md., home at 4:45 a.m. and heads out the door half an hour or so later. It usually takes her two hours to drive down Interstate 270 and Connecticut Avenue to her Dupont Circle job as a legal secretary at a nonprofit. In bad weather, the trip home has taken as long as five hours.

“I can’t afford to leave this job, and I can’t afford to move,” said Barber, 46, who has been making the commute for nine years. “I have a good job, it’s just 74 miles from home.”

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Ezra Klein · March 5, 2013