Recently, the Census Bureau released a comprehensive report describing how Americans traveled to work in 2009. Once again, the New York metropolitan area was ranked as having the longest average commute in the country at 34.6 minutes, followed by Washington DC and Poughkeepsie. Great Falls, Montana has the shortest commute time of 14.2 minutes. Some have jumped to the conclusion that the New York region has the worst commute in the country simply because it has the longest, but a closer at the “Journey to Work” data can help explain the long commute lengths.
The figure above shows that residents in the New York City region are far more reliant on transit to get to work on a daily basis: 2.7 million commuters take transit to get to work on a daily basis, and 300,000 rely on a commuter rail system that primarily serves suburban areas. Transit commutes, on average, are more than 20 minutes longer than car commutes. In particular, since commutes by rail in the region average 70 minutes in length (almost three times as long as an average car commute in the country), and 43% of all rail commutes in the U.S. take place in the New York City region, where the modal share for commuter rail is almost seven times as high as the national average. It is clear that the high share of transit, particularly rail, commutes is responsible for skewing the average commute lengths, rather than congested roads or poor accessibility to job locations.
Among those who commute to Manhattan, the numbers are even more skewed towards transit modes: 73.2% of Manhattan workers take public transit to get to work according to 2009 Census data, a proportion that is more than 14 times as high as the transit modal share for commuters nationwide. The share of Manhattan commuters traveling by rail is 11.7%, which is more than 21 times as high as the rail modal share for commuters nationwide.
In July 2011, the prominent urban economist Richard Florida introduced several explanations of commuting mode shares and lengths in New York and other U.S. metropolitan areas, such as population density, weather and climate, residential development patterns, and occupational characteristics. However, he curiously did not mention job location patterns as an explanation of how we commute, since after all, the purpose of these trips is to get to the workplace in the most efficient and convenient way.
The New York City metropolitan area is unique because a high concentration of well-paying jobs are still located in a central business district such as Midtown Manhattan, whereas in other regions in the country, job opportunities are more dispersed in “technoburbs” and “edge cities.” Therefore, residents of the New York region, particularly those living in the suburban areas, still rely heavily on mass transit to get to work: a recent Forbes study ranked the top public transportation cities in the country by modal use, and all but two municipalities of the Top 10 were in the New York City region. These municipalities not only included New York and nearby cities such as Hoboken and Jersey City, but also distant suburbs such as Great Neck and Bronxville, located along major commuter rail lines such as LIRR and MetroNorth. Thus, transit is not only essential for commuting among city residents, but also residents of suburban areas and “bedroom communities” in New Jersey, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley, who take short drives to the nearest park-and-ride lot and take the train or express bus into Manhattan. These commutes are long, but convenient enough for suburban residents to choose them over a long, stressful, and increasingly expensive drive into the city.
In cities with more dispersed job locations, the best and, in most cases, the only way to gain access to those jobs is by driving, due to transit systems that provide limited, unreliable, or non-existent services to job locations. In metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Raleigh-Durham, job opportunities are not concentrated in the downtown central business district but dispersed across the region in office parks and strip malls off arterial roads. Thus, the most practical and sensible way to access the workplace is to drive.
These maps below show how job locations could play a major role in determining commuting travel modes and lengths.
NEW YORK CITY (jobs primarily clustered in traditional “C.B.D.” in Manhattan)
BAY AREA (metro area with high transit use, jobs clustered in traditional “C.B.D.”)
DALLAS (notice the dispersion of job locations along interstates, beltways, and arterials)
OKLAHOMA CITY (again, notice the distribution of jobs along major highways)