Transit Commutes Twice as Long as Driving

Americans spent an average of 25.2 minutes to get to work in 2016, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Average travel times are calculated by dividing aggregate travel times in table B08136 by the number of commuters in table B08301, and both tables break the data down by driving alone, carpooling, transit, and walking. Other modes, such as taxi, motorcycles, and bicycles, are lumped together, which isn’t very useful as there is no reason to think that the would take about the same amount of time.

People who commuted by transit took nearly twice as long as people who drove, spending an average of 50.1 minutes vs. 25.4 minutes for people driving alone. People who walked took just 12.3 minutes, suggesting that people who walk live well under a mile away from their work. Carpooling added about 2.6 minutes to the times required to drive alone.

One reason transit takes so long is because it is slow. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s 2016 Transit Fact Book, transit speeds average just 15.3 mph. Driving in most American cities is twice that fast.

At the same time, transit riders may be willing to spend more time because they can read or write when they are aboard transit vehicles, so they don’t regard the time as wasted. Yet at least some transit riders who don’t have cars are captive transit riders and forced to spend more time than they would like.

Census data indicate that the average time spent commuting has increased slightly over the past few years. The average was 25.2 minutes in 2015, 24.2 in 2010, and 24.0 in 2006. But 2006’s average was less than the 24.7 minutes of 2000. Averages were significantly lower in earlier censes: just 22.4 minutes in 1990 and 21.7 in 1980.

Some of these differences are due to changes in methodology. Before 2000, for example, census takers did not have the option of recording commutes longer than 99 minutes, so anyone reporting a 100-minute-or-longer commute was put down as 99 minutes. There were also some changes between 2000 and 2006, but there have been no significant changes since 2006, so the growth in times since then probably reflects congestion and similar genuine changes in urban transportation.

Average commute times are longer in large, congested metropolitan areas, averaging 34.6 minutes in the New York urban area, 31.9 minutes in Washington DC, and 30.0 in Chicago compared with 20.1 minutes in Dayton and 20.3 minutes in Buffalo. No matter what urban area, transit takes longer, ranging from 1.5 times as long as driving alone in the Washington DC urban area to 2.5 times as long in San Jose.

The American Community Survey only reports data for geographic areas for which it has enough sample data to be statistically reliable. Surprisingly, for the annual aggregate travel time table, B08136, this doesn’t include some states such as Alaska and some major urban areas such as Tampa-St. Petersburg. So I downloaded a table that uses data from past five years of surveys for states, counties, cities, and urban areas. This included all states but still leaves out a few urban areas such as Cincinnati and Oklahoma City.

To calculate average travel times, I also downloaded the five-year table giving numbers of commuters by mode for each of these geographic areas. I transferred the numbers from this table to the aggregate travel times table for states and the largest urban areas and calculated average travel times by mode for each of those states and urban areas. The calculations are shown in columnsZ through AE; states are rows 4 through 55 while the top urban areas are rows 8305 to 8360. You can pick out individual cities or counties from each of the tables and calculate average travel times for those areas.

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