According to the Census, there were a little over 139 million workers commuting in 2014. At an average of 26 minutes each way to work, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, that works out to something like a total of 1.8 trillion minutes Americans spent commuting in 2014. Or, if you prefer, call it 29.6 billion hours, 1.2 billion days, or a collective 3.4 million years. With that amount of time, we could have built nearly 300 Wikipedias, or built the Great Pyramid of Giza 26 times -- all in 2014 alone.
Instead, we spent those hours sitting in cars and waiting for the bus.
Of course, not all of us have 26-minute commutes. Roughly a quarter of American commutes are less than 15 minutes one way. On the other hand, nearly 17 percent of us have commutes that are 45 minutes or longer. And the prevalence of these long commutes -- and of really, really long commutes -- is growing.
In 1980, for instance, fewer than 12 percent of American workers commuted for 45 minutes or more one way, according to the Census.
The Census didn't even bother separating out 60- and 90-minute commuters in 1980, since it was relatively rare. But they began tracking these mega-commuters in 1990. That year, 1.6 percent of workers commuted 90 minutes or more one way. In 2014, 2.62 percent of workers were commuting this long, an increase of 64 percent over the prevalence in 1990.
These 90-minute-one-way workers -- 3.6 million of them -- spend a huge chunk of their lives simply going to and from work. Consider this: If your commute is the typical 26 minutes each direction, that works out to a total of nine full days a year spent traveling to work and back. That's more than you'd like, probably, but it's not a huge number.
By contrast, a mega commuter with a 90-minute commute is spending three hours a day on the road. That works out to more than a full month out of the year commuting. Imagine spending the entire month of August -- 24 hours of every day -- stuck in your car or riding the bus. That's what it's like for 3.6 million American workers.
This is a terrible way to live. People hate their commutes more than just about any other activity in their lives. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and economist Alan Krueger asked a group of 900 Texas women to rate how they felt during various daily activities and found that the morning commute came in dead-last in terms of positive emotions, behind work, child care, and home chores.
Speaking more abstractly, there's a huge pool of more or less untapped human potential currently locked up in long commutes. Thought experiment: Let's say we could wave a magic wand and reduce the commute times of the most extreme commuters -- those commuting for 90 minutes or longer one way. And let's say we could reduce their typical commute from 90 minutes down to, say, 30 minutes -- closer to the national average.
Consider the transformational effect this would have at the individual level, giving these folks two hours of their day back. And then multiply that two-hour time savings by the 250 work days in a typical year -- that's 500 extra hours a year. Multiply that by 3.6 million workers, and you come out to about 1.8 billion man-hours of potential productivity released back into the economy. That's the time-equivalent of 900,000 full-time jobs.
Now if you give a person two free hours, he's probably not going to spend that time working. He'll watch TV or play Candy Crush or drink beer with his friends, or do other things that are not necessarily productive. But over time, that person will have more time to be civically engaged. He'll have more time to take care of his kids or his health or his marriage. He'll be better-rested, and a better worker for it. The benefits are potentially limitless.
Of course, we don't have a magic policy wand we can wave to make this happen. But it remains a useful illustration of just how much those super-long commutes are costing society.
Commutes are often framed as a question of consumer preference, and to a certain extent they are: There's a delicate balancing act between "living close to work" and "living in a bigger home," and many workers opt for the latter -- especially when they have children.
Working from home is becoming more common, although perhaps not as rapidly as its earliest boosters envisioned. In 2014, 4.4 percent of the workforce worked primarily at home, according to the Census. That share has nearly doubled since 1980, when 2.3 percent of workers worked from home.
Certain types of jobs will never be amenable to telecommuting. Surgeons can't operate from home, for instance. Cashiers need to be at the register to ring you up. But plenty of work -- from writing code to answering phone calls to data entry -- can be done in a home office just as well as in a cubicle.
Companies can be understandably squeamish about remote work for any number of reasons, from IT concerns to fears about employees missing out on the benefits of casual workplace interactions.
Meanwhile, though, the workforce is suffering the very concrete ill-effects of longer commutes, which affect not just the workers but their families, companies and communities, too. And as the Census data show, those commutes keep getting longer -- and are likely to continue doing so.