Last week, the Washington Post published an article repeating an old-refrain in transportation journalism—the horror of long commutes.
According to the Post, more and more Americans are commuting longer and longer distances to work each day. There’s growing scientific evidence that long commutes are bad for your physical and mental health, reduce happiness, and even cut into civic participation.
But if you look closely at the data cited in the Post article, it’s pretty clear that long commutes are quite rare, and aren’t really becoming more common.
A 2013 Census study defined “mega commuters” as those traveling more than 90 minutes and more than 50 miles each way. They found that while mega commuting grew from about 1.6 percent of all commuters to 2.7 percent between 1970 and 2000, the share of such long commutes was flat to declining from 2000 to 2011.
Who are these mega-commuters? The Census report says that they’re most likely to be male, with a higher than average salary, older, and married to a spouse who doesn’t work. Also, most mega-commuters are commuting from one metropolitan (or micropolitan) area to another one—not just traveling from a very far-flung suburb to a business district in their own region.
In just the last two years, stories detailing the horrors of long commutes or describing strategies for coping have appeared in:
The Atlantic: The rise of the outrageously long commute
Men’s Fitness: Long commutes can kill
While articles about mega commuting imply that it’s a stable, externally imposed lifestyle, we don’t know that mega commuting isn’t temporary, isn’t a lifestyle choice, and isn’t closely related to telecommuting for many of these workers. Census data are snapshots of a single point in time—if a person living in one metropolitan area accepts a far away job, and chooses to commute a long distance while looking for housing, but later moves closer to work, that wouldn’t be captured in the Census data.
It’s surprising how much attention mega-commuting gets given how uncommon it is. About eight times as many Americans have “micro-commutes”—they either work at home or have a commute of five minutes or less—as mega commutes. The 2014 American Community Survey reports that nearly 20 million Americans, about 16 percent of all commuters, have self reported commute times of 0 to 5 minutes. Instead of fretting about the problems of an extremely small group of commuters, maybe we should be thinking about how we build communities and arrange work so that at even larger fraction of the population can enjoy the benefits of micro-commutes. That would be the best way to reduce the “human cost” of commutes.
One of the regular findings of historical analyses of commuting times is that despite huge variations in wealth and technology, humans have generally commuted an average of about half an hour to work—an observation generally termed “Marchetti’s constant.” More formally, several scholars have modeled commuting behavior using a “travel time budget” to reflect these seemingly consistent time choices.
To be sure, some people, in some very large metropolitan areas, travel long distances to work—at least for a time. Whether these patterns are temporary or stable is another question. The author of a Grist story citing the Washington Post’s lament recorded that she, herself, once suffered a long period of driving excessive distances to work in North Carolina—before she decided to move to Seattle, where she now has a pleasant and relatively short walk to work.
Part of what this should highlight is the important role that personal choice plays in commuting. Most people consciously make choices about where they want to live, where they will look for work, and how long a commute they can endure. For some people, the appeal of a particular job, or the the special amenities of a particular house or neighborhood, and our tolerance for hours spent in a car or bus may mean that a long commute is a reasonable choice. For many households, the extra time a prime breadwinner spends commuting may be the functional equivalent of “sweat equity” because frequently by commuting a longer distance a family can afford a bigger house—a phenomenon real estate professionals call “drive ‘til you qualify.”
In a sense, house prices, home sizes and commute times are like the famous shop sign: “Low Price, High Quality, Fast Delivery: Choose Any Two.” It would be great if everyone could get big houses at low prices with short commutes, but in reality, in most large metropolitan areas every household has to make its own decisions about how to trade-off one or more of these characteristics to get more of the things it wants. And, as we never tire of pointing out, the demand for urban living (and shorter commutes), in the face of a relatively slowly expanding supply of great urban neighborhoods has lead to a shortage of cities. The solution to our travel problem may be more in building cities than building roads and transit.
While we think the Post has mis-stated the trend, it’s hard not to agree with the basic premise of the article: Americans waste lots of time commuting. Some of that is the product of personal choices—some of which may make sense, and other less so. But a lot of it has to do with how we build our communities, and the kind of options we create about where people can live, and how they can travel from home, to work and other common destinations.