American Commutes Are Getting Longer

Graphic credit: Washington Post

Commutes have gotten longer in the past five years, reversing a ten-year tend in which they got shorter. So says the Washington Post based on the latest American Community Survey and Gallup polling data.

Even more discouraging for anyone hoping for less congestion, less gasoline consumption, fewer CO2 emissions and better public health, extreme commuting of 90 minutes are more is increasingly the most rapidly of all (by 8% in 2015 compared to the  year before) while the shortest commutes (less than five minutes) actually declined 2%.

The Washington Post data is national, and we cannot assume that the same trends are being replicated here in Virginia. In a cursory search this morning, I could not find long-term trend numbers for Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the Old Dominion but Virginia Department of Transportation data indicates that inhabitants drove 2.0% more in 2015 than in 2014 — 226.4 million miles. One year may or may not mark a trend.

Graphic credit: Washington Post

If there’s any consolation in the numbers, it’s that telecommuting continues what seems to be a slow, steady rise. This trend does not seem be correlated,  however, with length of commutes or vehicle miles traveled. Instead, the persistence of the trend probably reflects continued improvements to technology, increased deployment of broadband and growing acceptance of telecommuting in the workplace.

Longer commutes were not supposed to happen. Cities were revitalizing, suburbs were urbanizing, Millennials were shunning automobiles, developers were building more walkable communities, and states were investing in mass transit. But commuting defied expectations. The American people have confounded the experts and pundits (including me).

The Washington Post quotes Brookings Institution researcher Adie Tomer as saying suggesting that jobs are de-densifying, forcing people to drive longer distances, and suburban jurisdictions continue to develop low-density housing. Assuming that analysis is correct, the question is why. Frankly, I haven’t been following the urban-development blogs like I used to, so I don’t know what spin the Smart Growth people are putting on the data. And, sadly, no one in Virginia seems to be taking much notice.

Update: I corrected the percentage increase for Vehicle Miles Traveled in Virginia between 2014 and 2015. The correct percentage increase is 2%. Hat tip to alert reader Carol Bova.

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8 responses to “American Commutes Are Getting Longer

  1. hmm… seemingly contradictory data

    From MWCOG – Metro Washington Council of Governments

    Population up, but area travel holding steady

    First, let’s compare the region’s population growth with changes in driving and transit ridership. Between 2007 and 2015, the region’s population grew by about 670,000 people to 5.47 million – a 14% increase.

    But that population growth didn’t translate into more driving. In 2015 the total vehicle-miles traveled on area roads was just 1% higher than in 2007, and the average daily driving per person was actually 12% lower.

  2. Probably the biggest change in the D.C. Metro area is the major growth in the number of people telecommuting at least one day a week. Two big drivers: the federal government has accepted and is promoting telecommuting when it makes sense and not just when there are big snow storms; and WMATA’s Safe Track maintenance surge. A significant number of workers-both public and private-started working from home when their rail line was shut or partially shut and still do it today.


    The future of the nation, including Virginia, lies in its smaller towns . This includes those small towns, many historic and thriving before, that have been dying over the past 40 years. These towns are where our future lies. So our smaller towns, do downtrodden for so long, places where their children leave, now need to think of themselves altogether differently, live every day a new Paradigm, and now think of themselves as flowers that can now bloom if they attend to themselves, treat themselves right, and dress themselves up. Do this and our generations will come flooding back, leaving today’s burnt out nowhere urban and suburban places behind to settle in places with identity, convenience, lifestyles you can build healthy lives and families around. The nation needs to rescue our sick urban centers and our sick small towns. The time is ripe for both for altogether different reasons. If Smart Growth has a sustainable future it will helping entrepreneurs with guts, talent and vision help local smaller towns re-energize to catch the wave coming their way. Look at Edenton and New Bern, North Carolina.

  4. I don’t have an answer, just questions:

    *Is the trend the same everywhere? Or is there a difference between metros where central cities are still declining (e.g. Buffalo, Cleveland) and those with more prosperous cores (e.g. DC)?
    *Whose commute distances are increasing? Is it people moving further out into suburbia, or urban reverse commuters, or both?
    *Is there a difference between car commuting and transit commuting? Since transit commutes tend to take longer, it could be that increased transit ridership explains some of the growth in commuting times. Then again, maybe not.
    So bottom line: more research would tell us more.

  5. In the Washington MEtro area as well as Hampton Roads – they have either already instituted congestion tolling or more is planned.

    I-95 and I-66 in the Wash Metro and I-64 and the tunnels in Hampton

    Other Metros are also moving towards congestion tolling.

    This is going to change things. VMT – is vehicle miles traveled and basically counts how many vehicles are traveling how many miles but
    in the regions like Washington that have gone to congestion tolling – HOV with 3 or more get to rid in the toll lanes for free…

    Down Fredericksburg way- we are building more commuter lots and those commuter lots of full of cars during the day and empty passenger vans over night.

    VDOT has chosen the congestion toll path rather than widen existing commuter roads or build new ones. That happened when VDOT looked at the cost of trying to widen I-95 and saw that they’d have to be buying developed properties to do so and new lanes would cost billions – that it did not have nor had any reasonable prospect of getting… given the politics of gasoline taxes and more efficient cars..etc..

    Not to say that VDOT won’t build more roads – they will – but not so much in the urbanized areas where in order to do so – they have to tear down and pay out the nose for developed properties.

    the emphasis is shifting to congestion tolling, fixing bottlenecks, strategic connectors, computer-controlled … traffic signals that adapt in real time to conditions.. etc.

    None of this is going to stop at least some people from longer-distance commuting to places like Fredericksburg, Loudoun and other ring exurban places but the congestion tolling is going to incentivize more HOV.

  6. Jim, you ask why?

    In a Gallup poll report described a couple of weeks ago, in a Feb. 16 WaPo article (mentioned in the article you cite), “the report showed that the most engaged workers were those who spent 60 to 80 percent of their week, or three to four days, working from home, and a minority of their time in the office. Those who spent more or less time working remotely were less enthusiastic about their work, with the lowest numbers occurring among those who spent either all of their time either in the office or at home.”

    Anecdotally, I see evidence that work-from-home part time is a big factor in what going on nationally with commutes. When the commute occurs it may be longer for some; but in many cases it occurs less often. People who never believed they could put up with a commute from “the country” or a small cross-roads community are willing to do it if they can drive off-peak, or just a couple of days a week, or both. This makes all the more sense if the destination is not the downtown CBD but a “dedensified” suburban commercial office building on the near side of town.

    This is quite consistent with ReedF’s thesis, “If Smart Growth has a sustainable future it will be helping entrepreneurs with guts, talent and vision help local smaller towns re-energize to catch the wave coming their way. ” Like MLewen, instead of surmise, I’d like to know what the recent data show at this level of detail.

    • If you can do your job without coming into the office then I can hire your replacement in San Antonio, Belize or some other English speaking place where wages are lower.

  7. Jim:

    I thought everybody was moving out of the rotten suburbs and into the city centers. How do lengthening commutes square with your long held urbanization theories?

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