The average American commute grew to just over 27 minutes one way in 2018, a record high, according to data released in September by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Relative to 1980, the picture is even more grim: Since then, American workers have lost nearly an hour a week to their commutes, the equivalent of one full-time workweek over the course of a year. All told, the average American worker spent 225 hours, or well over nine full calendar days, commuting in 2018.
The shift is being driven in large part by an increase in the share of workers with long commutes. In 2010, about 8 percent of workers had a one-way commute of 60 minutes or more. By 2018, that share had edged up to nearly 10 percent. As of 2018, there were 4.3 million workers with commutes of 90 minutes or more, up from 3.3 million in 2010.
Rising commute times reflect the challenges of life in many metropolitan areas where new housing isn’t being built fast enough. As a result, many workers are forced out to far-flung suburbs and exurban areas in search of affordable homes.
Transit and infrastructure woes are another factor. Many metropolitan areas put off necessary spending on roads, bridges and public transit as their populations soared, creating congestion as people try to get to and from work. In Washington, D.C., daily Metro ridership has fallen by 17 percent since 2008 while the population of the greater metro region has grown by several hundred thousand, resulting in one of the worst commutes in the nation.
Research has shown that longer commutes are bad for workers, their families, their employers and the economy as a whole. People with longer commutes tend to be less physically active, with higher rates of obesity and high blood pressure as a result. Longer commutes are associated with higher rates of divorce, and the children of fathers with longer commutes tend to have more social and emotional problems.
On the employer side, longer commutes are linked to higher rates of worker absenteeism. One study from England found that a daily increase in commuting time of 20 minutes had the same negative effect on employee satisfaction as a 19 percent pay cut. Traffic congestion alone costs Americans $166 billion a year due to lost time and increased fuel costs, according to a Texas A&M study.
There is one bright spot in the latest census data: A small but growing share of American workers are opting to eliminate their commutes entirely and work from home instead (disclosure: I’m one of them). Just over 5 percent of the workforce telecommuted in 2018, a percentage that’s grown rapidly over the past decade. Telecommuting recently overtook public transit as the third-most-common commuting mode in the United States.
Research shows that even part-time remote work leads to employees who are more engaged with their jobs. A 2015 study of employees at a Chinese travel agency found that remote workers were 22 percent more productive than their office-bound colleagues, in part because they took fewer breaks and sick days. They were also more satisfied with their jobs and less likely to leave the company.
Rising commute times are likely to spur more workers and employers to experiment with remote work, particularly in the absence of a sustained push for more housing and infrastructure spending in the cities where they are based.