Study: Commutes are Longer When Cities Fail on Transit

Traffic. It's what happens when there's not enough transit.
Traffic. It's what happens when there's not enough transit.

Commutes in America are a tale of two cities — those who take public transit face commutes in some ares that are nearly twice as long as those who drive to work.

In 12 of the country’s 20 largest metropolitan areas, drivers get commutes that are 12 to 26 minutes faster than transit riders, whose average commutes are longer than 50 minutes, according to an analysis of commuting times by Geotab, a firm that promotes tech-connected vehicles

Californians relying on the Los Angeles Metro Rail or buses need an average of 54 minutes to get to work, the longest commute in the country, followed by straphangers in Atlanta, Dallas, New York, Detroit, and Orlando which are in a five-way tie for second place with 53 minutes, Geotab’s “Time to Commute” study shows.

Motorists on the other hand, zip into work more quickly than riders in cities bereft of expansive rail systems.

“Cities such as San Diego and Orlando were mainly built with the car in mind. Instead of a tight grid, they are sprawled out and have cul-de-sac-heavy suburbs,” said Geotab spokeswoman Kelly Hall. “Commuters who can’t afford a car in these areas are forced to take multiple buses to get to their destination. Because of this, a commute that would typically be 20 minutes via car could be doubled or even tripled, depending on the route and potential traffic delays.”

Los Angeles’s 1.2 million drivers commute an average of only 33 minutes — despite the area’s legendary traffic. The average commute for Dallas’s 558,846 drivers is only 30 minutes — and 98 percent of them can get to work in under an hour.

Yet tens of thousands of straphangers living in the outskirts of cities face commutes that rival a “Game of Thrones” episode.

One out of four city dwellers who don’t use cars in LA, New York, Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, and San Diego take more than an hour to find their way to work. In Detroit, nearly one out of three transit riders experience hour-long journeys.

A small number of commuters are wealthy or fortunate enough to live close to their employer. Only 7 percent of Angelenos, or 8,863 people, and only 6 percent of New Yorkers, or 112,134 people, regularly have commutes under 30 minutes. A mere 3,341 Atlantans, or 10 percent of transit riders, can depend on arriving at work within a half hour.

Having a vehicle is a necessity in car-dependent cities such as San Diego and Atlanta if you can afford it.

Atlanta's MARTA. Photo: Scott Ehardt via Wikimedia Commons
Atlanta’s MARTA. Photo: Scott Ehardt via Wikimedia Commons

In San Diego, which Geotab named the city with the shortest commute time, the average commute time is 26 minutes, half as long as their neighbors without cars. The average commute for Atlanta’s drivers is 35 minutes — and 43 percent of Peachtree City drivers can get to work in under 30 minutes.

And here’s why Atlanta has been so slow to expand its transit: Geotab’s numbers show that 39 times more drivers have sub-half-hour commutes than transit riders in Atlanta.

“This research also highlights the need for ongoing investment in transportation infrastructure across the country,” said Maria Sotra, vice president of Marketing at Geotab. “The stark contrast between how many cities are easily reachable by car versus those that are easily reachable by public transit suggests that there is still some way to go.”

Geotab analyzed American Community Survey responses from 2012 to 2016 in census tracts in the 20 largest American metropolitan areas to determine commuter times. The numbers show the need for rail and bus networks that stretch beyond city centers and into city outskirts and suburbs where people have been moving for less expensive housing.


12 thoughts on Study: Commutes are Longer When Cities Fail on Transit

  1. An hour on transit versus 30 minutes driving? The situation is actually worse than that because people who would have had to endure even longer transit commutes have already self-selected driving as a mode because it is much faster.

    For example in google maps try randomly selecting start points in residential areas and end points in office areas and see what times it computes for transit versus driving. In Silicon Valley if you choose residential areas in the south valley and businesses in the northern end you will find transit times of 1.5 to 2 hours. Compare that to driving times of 15 to 30 minutes. No wonder most people drive.

    With a few exceptions, Silicon Valley’s transit system is not designed for commuting. Instead it is a transportation provider of last resort for those who cannot drive.

  2. And this also explains why ride hailing is so popular.

    CA’s talk about being green and fighting climate change is just that…talk. It’s taking how many decades to get Caltrain extended to downtown? Forget any notion of extensive subways and commuter rails linking transit-oriented developments where people don’t need a car to get around for work or play.

  3. Commuters make decisions on door-to-door travel times.

    Driving will almost always be notably faster than transit – unless the persons’ homes AND destinations are very close to the transit stations AND the transit vehicles come every few minutes. Add a 4 block walk on either or both ends of the trip plus transit vehicles scheduled only every 15 minutes (or longer), and driving wins the evaluations easily. Note that Uber & Lyft also provide the door-to-door times plus other advantages including privacy, comfort, etc .
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  4. Not all commuters care about door to door time given how popular Caltrain and employer buses. Many commuters – like myself – focus on minimizing “unproductive” commute time. Driving for me would be an hour+ of unproductive time every day.

    Walking plus train has only around 10 mins of time where I can’t be working on my computer or cathing up on work on my phone. This makes it a far more efficient commute option.

  5. I’m lucky with my Bay Area commute. Transit takes 30-35 minutes. Biking takes about the same. Driving takes 15 minutes in the hypothetical no traffic situation. But during commute hours it takes 25 minutes.

    In my case the transit “penalty” is minor. And I don’t have to pay for parking. But it is a two seat ride. 1 block walk to the bus, bus to BART, BART ride, walk 2 blocks.

    I prefer transit for the zone out/reading time. Biking for the mind clearing benefits. And driving in congestion is just torture.

  6. I think the headline could be shortened to: Commutes are Longer .. on Transit. My rule-of-thumb is that transit will take twice as long as driving. If your transit time is less than twice as long, then you’ve found a good transit connection.
    When I think about it, when driving your own car, there aren’t any headway times either.

  7. The Bay Area is served by so many local agencies, but their networks are optimized for intra-system service; there is very little inter-system connectivity or coordination of schedules. I live in western San Francisco and commute to North San Jose near Milpitas; commuting by transit was a nightmare. Imagine a trip via Muni-Caltrain-VTA, Muni-BART-Caltrain-VTA, or Muni-BART-Capitol Corridor-VTA. Some days the journey was more than 3 hours (one way). There are so many people making the same trip that I do every day, but there is no coordination between agencies at SF Caltrain/Muni, Milpitas BART/Caltrain or Coliseum BART/Capitol Corridor, which also features a lengthy walk between modes. I stuck it out for two years, then finally bought a car. I’m carpooling on every drive and I’m so much happier. I have a feeling that a metro area in most places in Europe with similar population, GDP, and geographic extent would have much better regional service.

  8. I actually miss my longer transit trip. I got about 30 minutes of walking in a day which made it easier to wake up and be ready to work. Unfortunately in suburbia the trade off of a 15/20 minute drive to a 1 hour commute on the bus just is too much to bear and the frequencies are too low for me to feel comfortable working late.

  9. My commute on Caltrain & skooter from San Mateo to FiDi in SF is about 40 minutes. Driving would take between 35 minutes and 2 hours, depending on traffic (likely 60 minutes on average).

    Driving would cost me 30$/day in parking instead of 10$/day. My life would be cut short from the stress of dealing with sociopathic drivers. I get to relax and read the newspaper in peace on the train instead. The choice is clear, nobody would prefer driving a car when good public transit is available.

  10. There must be a mistake in the numbers. If 8,863 people were 7% of Angeleno, Los Angeles would have a population of under 130,000. Off by a factor of 30.

  11. My current work commute from North Hollywood to Glendale is 20 minutes by car, and 45 minutes by express bus and walking. Due to my low tolerance for dealing directly with both heavy traffic and distracted drivers, I chose the latter transportation option, even though it takes a little longer. I can relax, sleep, or web surf on my phone using the express bus (which also uses the HOV freeway lane), and the walk between my bus stop and my office is very relaxing. After relying on my car nearly 100% of the time during the past 11 years, it’s nice to leave it parked on the street during the week.

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