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Rob Perks’s Blog

Commuting in America

Rob Perks

Posted March 5, 2013 in Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil

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My daily commute to downtown D.C. from the Maryland 'burbs takes about 45 minutes, but fortunately I don't have to drive to work. Living a short walk from a transit station and a straight-shot Metro train ride to within a few blocks of my office makes my commute pretty convenient.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for CommuteStats.jpgThat's not the case for many of my fellow Marylanders. Our state ranks second only to New York in terms of long commutes -- with an estimated 14.8% of Maryland workers  trekking long distances for their jobs -- according to the U.S. Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey. Nationally, about 8.1% of workers have commutes of 60 minutes or longer and nearly 600,000 full-time workers had "megacommutes" of at least 90 minutes and 50 miles. 

[UPDATE: From my colleague Deron Lovaas, here is more on commuting in America, with handy charts and graphs.]

The average one-way daily commute for workers across the country is 25.5 minutes, with one in four leaving their county for their job.  For workers with long commutes (60 minutes or more), 23% use public transportation -- like me.

"The average travel time for workers who commute by public transportation is higher than that of workers who use other modes," said Brian McKenzie, with the Census Bureau. "For some workers, using transit is a necessity, but others simply choose a longer travel time over sitting in traffic."

Amen to that! Traffic where I live is horrible. Plus, taking transit saves me money on gas, parking and wear-and-tear on my car. And I can relax or read while riding the rails, which is a lot more fun and less stressful than driving.

As the Washington Post reported:

One in five commuters in the region has a commute of one hour or longer each way. And the average commute is creeping up, too, from under 32 minutes in 2000 to 34 and a half minutes in 2011, when the information was collected.

The census figures reflect a sprawling region in which more than half of all residents work outside the county or city where they live. Sociologists and demographers say that is partly because the region’s affluence is built on households that pull in two incomes, so living close to the office of one breadwinner is not the priority it once was. But it also is a byproduct of an economy still heavily reliant on the federal government, with many workplaces rooted in the District. Three out of four jobs in the District are held by people who live outside the city limits, according to census data.

The paper profiled the extreme commutes typical in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. One woman living 74 miles away leaves home every day at 4:45am and drives 1.5 hours to get to her job downtown. In bad weather, the trip back home has can last as long as 5 hours. Another guy doesn't mind his hour-long 55-mile trek so much but the gas prices (more than $500 a month) are killing him.

My friend Megan lives about 5 miles from me and happens to work in the office building right next door to mine. While I take Metro to work, she chooses to drive every day -- mainly because her employer provides free parking. She told me that her morning commute takes about 30 minutes but coming home usually takes more than an hour. Besides the cost to keep her tank filled, since she started the job about a year ago she has had to replace the brakes on her car twice.

As the Eno Center for Transporation recently pointed out, the Interstate Highway System works very well at connecting cities, but has numerous flaws when it comes to serving commuters within a region.

The system was not originally conceived a means of serving metropolitan commuters, and it shows in the congestion and deterioration of our urban highways. Networks within metropolitan regions, where 82 percent of Americans live, are not functioning near where they should be. Our mass transit systems on average serve a small population in metropolitan regions. Our highway systems tend to be “free” -- and congested. Facilities for bicycles and pedestrians are growing but still meager. In short, there are few effective options for getting to work, and this is a substantial drag on the economy.

Therefore, one implication is that we need to provide more transportation choices for people, by investing in commuting options beyond automobiles.

Call me crazy but commuting by transit instead of by car makes sense (not to mention also dollars and cents!). I'm just glad I chose to live close enough to the city where I work that I can utilize transit. I just don't think I could handle commuting so far by car.

Now, I'm done for the day and off to catch my train. Ahhhhhh...

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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