Long-Distance Commuting Hits a Wall

The time it takes the average American to commute hasn't changed much since 2000, according to the Census Bureau.

The new Census data on commuting in America contains a fair amount of information but little reason to celebrate. The big takeaway is that almost four in five American workers commuted alone by car in 2011. Nationally, only about 5 percent of workers commute via transit.

But amid the lousy news are a few reasons for optimism.

The Census Bureau reports that the average American’s journey to work takes 25.5 minutes each way — very similar to what Americans reported in 2000. Commuting lengths aren’t ballooning quite the way they did in the 1990s, notes Brad Plumer at the Washington Post.

The percentages of Americans doing both long-distance (at least 50 miles each way) and “mega” commutes (at least 50 miles and at least 90 minutes each way) were roughly unchanged since 2000, as well. Both long-distance and mega commuters were concentrated around the country’s largest cities, in metro DC and New York.

Nationally, just more than 8 percent of workers commute more than an hour each way, barely higher than the 8 percent rate in 2000. Transit riders are overrepresented in this group, comprising about 23 percent.

Plumer says stagnating commute lengths could be due to the softening economy. The relative decline of the exurbs could also be helping slow the growth in commute lengths. In addition, experts have long theorized that most commuters lose patience with a commute of more than 30 minutes, so growth from here is likely to be moderate.

The rise in telecommuting might also help explain why long commutes are no longer on the rise. The Census Bureau reports 13.4 million American workers now telecommute at least one day per week. That’s a 34 percent increase over 1997, or an additional 4.2 million people. These workers weren’t counted in the average commuting time. If they had been, it’s possible we would have seen an overall drop in commuting times since 2000.

In addition, the Census Bureau reported 0.6 percent of Americans are biking to work (compared to 0.55 percent in 2009) and 2.8 percent are walking.

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