Life in the slow lane
October 16, 2006 12:40 PM   Subscribe

The Transportation Research Board released their 3rd edition of Commuting in America. Among their findings, a 50% increase in "extreme commuters", those with a one way commute of more than 60 minutes; 8% of Americans are now in this category. 25 years ago, 1 in 5 commeters carpooled. Today, only 1 in 10. And the dominant commuting pattern is now suburb to suburb or city to suburb. [via NPR]
posted by jaimev (31 comments total)
I'd reply to this post but I gotta catch a train.
posted by any major dude at 1:00 PM on October 16, 2006

I'm not an "extreme commuter" on most days (38 miles/45 mins. average, each way) but all it takes is one small fender-bender, a bit of rain or snow, or a lane closure for construction and suddenly my 45 minutes doubles, at least. Also, like a lot of others in the study, I've adjusted my hours earlier and earlier until I found a time that avoids the really heavy traffic - so now instead of 9 to 5 I'm working 7:30 to 3:30 or thereabouts.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:05 PM on October 16, 2006

I bet it's worse than 8%. From my anecdotal evidence, I find that many folks underestimate their commute time, giving an ideal time, rather than an average one. Sure, you can make it from Springfield to Capitol Hill in 20 minutes, but how often do you actually make it that fast? And are you counting the time looking for parking and walking from your car? Though I suppose the trend information is valid, as the same methodology was used in the various surveys.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:07 PM on October 16, 2006

Yowza, that graph of years-living-in-US-correlated-to-tendency-to-drive-alone is an interesting one, and not something I had ever considered. Yeah, I guess it's something of a cultural thing, being willing to hoof it or take the train.

Y'know what? I did my best. I really did. I live in the city, work 100 yards from a light rail stop in the suburbs, and was going to do the socially responsible thing and not get a car to commute solo. But, guess what? The public transit here (in a city where it's pretty pervasive, as opposed to the 98% of the country where you're lucky to find a bus) is so epically shitty that I'm going to throw in the towel. I understand the hand-wringing about traffic congestion and environmental impacts, but sweet tapdancing Christ, MBTA, if you're going to have hour-long delays on the trains three times a month, you're going to have to reconsider what you're doing.

Still, very interesting report... I'll have to poke through some of these graphs, as it looks like they're detailing a pretty major sociological trend.
posted by Mayor West at 1:09 PM on October 16, 2006

as an "extreme commuter" myself, when I heard the story this morning during my ahem, extreme commute. i was thinking how hard it would be for me to avoid my long journey. given that the tech downturn (and the microsoft contractor lawsuit) of a few years ago, caused tech positions to dry up and the ones that were left to be in 1 year, no renewal form. this makes it very difficult to find somewhere to live that is not an hour away from where you are currently working without having to move every year.

The fact that if I wanted to use mass transit to commute, magnifying my two hour a day commute to six, I don't really have a choice about driving either. I do carpool with my wife who thankfully has a permanant job at a fixed location.
posted by Dr. Twist at 1:14 PM on October 16, 2006

the only time my commute would take close to 60 minutes is when I ride my bicycle the 14 miles to the office. Though, I guess that's an 'extreme' of a different sort.
posted by bl1nk at 1:28 PM on October 16, 2006

The majority of commuters are heading into the suburbs? I don't understand where all the suburb jobs are. At least for tech, all the jobs are still in the cities.
posted by mathowie at 1:41 PM on October 16, 2006

nuts, and i was going to make an "extreme" bike commute joke.

i got a 15 minute bike ride to work, and it's thru an older part of town, so the going by bike is faster than by car. but dodging opening car doors in the rain can be extreme.
posted by eustatic at 1:44 PM on October 16, 2006

I went from a 15-min. bike ride (or 20 min. subway/walk) to a 45-min. car ride recently, it was a real bummer. The new job offers much more pay, etc., and I actually get home the same time or earlier despite the longer commute (old job were slave-drivers), so that's nice.

When I first started, I was taking the train. I'd either ride to the train station and take my bike on board (it's permitted to do so) or ride the subway to the commuter train. There were a few reasons I stopped - this commute took about 1:30 - 1:40 each way, and that's the biggest one, but a close second was the treatment I got from the ass-head conductor on the morning train.

He delighted in yelling at the 2-3 people who brought bikes on his half-empty train every morning, and would threaten to throw us off the train constantly, then inform us that he would only allow 2 bikes on board, and just generally fuck with people with bikes for no good reason. So now I drive. I would have broken down and gotten a car anyway, but this guy sure hastened that decision. Reminds me, I need to write a letter of complaint to SEPTA, the Phila.-area transportation malfeasance authority...
posted by Mister_A at 1:48 PM on October 16, 2006

The majority of commuters are heading into the suburbs? I don't understand where all the suburb jobs are. At least for tech, all the jobs are still in the cities.

In the DC area, they're in the suburbs (NoVA and Maryland.)
posted by callmejay at 1:54 PM on October 16, 2006

At least for tech, all the jobs are still in the cities.

Not in my city. Many of the tech jobs are out in low-rise office parks in the outer-rim suburbs. Rents are cheaper out there and the parking is free.
And for that matter, what about the Bay Area? A whole lot of the tech jobs seem to be in Fremont or Mountain View or places like that which look a whole lot like the suburbs too me. My company has offices in Fremont and when I was out there for a visit, I drove down from Oakland at 8:00AM and it looked like lots of folks were commuting from the city to their jobs in the suburbs.
posted by octothorpe at 1:59 PM on October 16, 2006

I don't know about other cities, mathowie, but here in Pittsburgh there are tons of low-level service jobs — phone work, filing, billing, record-keeping, light assembly and so on — in industrial parks outside town. I'm sure for every techie or executive on his way in to work, there are two or three call center drones on their way out.

I'd be willing to bet that the same is true even in tech-heavy cities. Even those sexy tech companies need lots of back-office work — shipping, credit card processing, phone support — and I doubt it's all going on downtown.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:00 PM on October 16, 2006

same with portland (OR) metro. the bulk of the tech jobs are in the Beaverton/Hillsboro suburbs. There are a few downtown and on Eastside, but compared to the 'burbs it's a drop in the bucket (especially the 17,000 Intel employees)
posted by Dr. Twist at 2:01 PM on October 16, 2006

If your local government made fast home connections cheap, people who work mainly through a computer could easily telecommute once or twice a week (go in for face time the rest of the week), reduce local commute traffic for everyone, have more time for sleep and sex, and make the building of new roads unnecessary. If you put it up for a vote -- whether to spend all road construction (non-maintenance) funds on network infrastructure improvement instead, so that everyone in town could, for example, download movies in off-business hours (try not to mention free porn + working in your underwear = mayhem until you adjust) -- I think it would win.
posted by pracowity at 2:01 PM on October 16, 2006

I haven't read the report but practical experience seems to contradict the idea that 'burb ot 'burb and city to 'burb is now the majority. Until recently my wife commuted from city to 'burb and it was a 28 miles in 22 minutes commute. We finally just moved to the 'burb (because I started working form home) and now on occasion when I need to do that drive in the reverse direction it is a 28 mile 45 minute commute.

But I do know a lot of people who commute from Dublin (CA) to Walnut Creek). And one woman who commutes from Truckee (though I don't know what category that would go in, neither city nor suburb) to Dublin three days a week.
posted by obfusciatrist at 2:05 PM on October 16, 2006

At least for tech, all the jobs are still in the city just for the jobs, tech or otherwise, where no one actually lives. Thereby insuring that everyone has to commute.
posted by thivaia at 2:10 PM on October 16, 2006

Let me try that again:

Here, in my neck of the woords, they actually created a new city just for the businesses, thereby insuring that everyone has to commute
posted by thivaia at 2:13 PM on October 16, 2006

I'm always puzzled by people who commute a long way. I have given up 20% more money to take a job that was five miles from home as opposed to 20 miles from home, ten minutes travel versus more than an hour. Who wants to live somewhere that, you know, you never get to actually enjoy because you're always stuck in the car?

We don't have traffic problems, we have a cultural problem.
posted by maxwelton at 2:13 PM on October 16, 2006

I love that, between the privacy post, the congressmen post, and this, the front page is basically "America sucks, but no one cares! Oh well."

And, yeah. Oh well.
posted by blacklite at 2:22 PM on October 16, 2006

One more reason to explore telecommuting, when it's an option.
posted by msali at 2:25 PM on October 16, 2006

We don't have traffic problems, we have a cultural problem. You got it. That's the big issue.

But we do have practical problems as well. Cities and regional transit agenices have been set an impossible task, which is to fund themselves and provide safe, clean, reliable public transportation. And many are struggling while some succeed. Most are struggling.

No one likes the idea that a good public transportation system might be a money losing prospect, even though overall it might make your city more attractive in retaining existing businesses, attracting new businesses and attracting tourists (and keep them coming back). Part of the cultural problem is the standard American problem that everything is about the bottom line and that there's no connection between an invested in something like public transit and an overall more desirable location for business that will bring money into the area.

San Francisco's MUNI and the Bay Area's BART are suffering tremendously because they insist that these entities fund themselves as much as possible, and they still receive funding and struggle. The reality is that public tranist is a long term investment for your city and the surrounding area and a city and the surrounding areas should really face up to the fact that it's vital infrastructure and not a bare-bones option. If it's just three things all the time, it can ultimately make a profit some years, break even some years, and lost money some years: safe, clean reliable. That's it. The equipment can be old as long as it's clean and realible and there are staff available to keep all areas of a line safe.

There are plenty of internal problems as well. Entrenched bureaucracy keeps a lot of systems from being flexible and nimble and changing with the times. Bad managemnet abounds, so it's no wonder so many of these agencies are really crappy. And a lot of them are stuck in thankless positions with impossible demands of city governments on one side and union and legal issues on the other. I sure as hell wouldn't want to be the head of ANY public transportation bureau in the US right now.
posted by smallerdemon at 2:53 PM on October 16, 2006

maxwelton: Granted my experience has been mostly with Chicago and Indianapolis burbia but here are some factors.

1: People with families sometimes choose proximity to a good school over proximity to job.

2: The nature of suburban sprawl can make it difficult to find two jobs, and reasonable housing within a 20 mile radius.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:53 PM on October 16, 2006

smallerdemon: Certainly, it's a cultural thing, but it's a cultural thing that is enforced by economics, concrete and steel. Many people are forced into some painful compromises. I've certainly interviewed for that job in the office park 3/4ths of a mile off the interstate surrounded by Applebee's, Micky D's and acres of new housing development with the golf course and private lake. And I've had to juggle in my head the benefits and costs that would come with that position. Do I take the job? Or spend another 4,5,6,12 months on the market? Tough choices. Didn't get that one though.

I know a couple that just had to take jobs 70 miles apart in Athens, GA and Atlanta, GA. It wasn't what they planned when they moved there, but things change.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:02 PM on October 16, 2006

I live a 5 minute walk away from Caltrain, and commute to somewhere a block away from a station. My total commute is on the order of 6 miles one-way. I tried taking the train, but I am crossing a "zone" that's right next to my town, so it costs me about $4 to travel each way. And because of scheduling and smaller, non-express stations, a 20-minute drive can take me almost an hour on the train if I miss one, or if an all-too-frequent delay materializes. I'm used to the subway, so I wanted to take mass-transit, but it's just too much hassle.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:10 PM on October 16, 2006

At least for tech, all the jobs are still in the cities.

Matt, aren't you forgetting about Silicon Valley?
posted by gyc at 8:55 PM on October 16, 2006

i live 2 miles from where i work. w00t!
posted by StrasbourgSecaucus at 9:16 PM on October 16, 2006

No one likes the idea that a good public transportation system might be a money-losing prospect...

Worse, not many people recognize that the local public transportation system is not just a train system or just a bus system, but is the entire system, including the roadways on which trucks and cars operate, the parking lots and street parking, and the toll booths, which are more important as traffic regulators than they are as points at which to collect operating money for the system. The transportation system taken as a whole has to work as one and has to make financial sense for the entire community, and that may mean running a portion of the transportation system at a loss (maybe buses, in terms of direct receipts) so that the entire city system (including all the businesses that depend on smooth customer and employee transportation) can run at a profit. Some supposedly loss-making parts of a system may be the grease that makes the entire system work.

Where I live, certain shopping centers on the outskirts of the city run their own free private bus systems to circulate between the shopping centers and housing areas closer to downtown. If considered independently, these private shopping-center buses operate at a complete loss -- the stores pay for the bus, driver, maintenance, fuel, and parking, and the passengers pay nothing -- but the passengers are jumping out at the shopping centers, spending an hour or two shopping, then resting and eating at restaurants, then shopping some more, and then riding home again on the free buses. The result is happy store owners and happy customers.

Cities need to recognize that their businesses depend on public transportation to make downtown employment, shopping, dining, and recreation possible and pleasant, and that such circumstances make their cities livable.
posted by pracowity at 1:32 AM on October 17, 2006

How about the way public transportation makes it possible for those less well-off to be able to even have a real job, rather than running the dead-end cycle of crap job, unemployment, welfare, crap job, unemployment...

Oh, that's right. That doesn't count, because those people are just lazy.
posted by Goofyy at 2:28 AM on October 17, 2006

Speaking on city to suburb: Metro North, NYC's commuter railroad to the northern suburbs and Connecticutt, recently started charging peak fares during morning rush hour when leaving the city.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 2:38 AM on October 17, 2006

Cities and regional transit agenices have been set an impossible task, which is to fund themselves and provide safe, clean, reliable public transportation.

Exactly. Highways don't have to pay for themselves, but mass transit does. When money's tight, service gets cut, which drives more people off mass transit.

Then, of course, there's the "You're not putting a rail link here, that would let "those people" in." Heck, that's a big part of the driving ethos as well. "I don't want to deal with "those people" on the train, so I'm driving."

Why do they live so far from work? To stay away from "those people."

Then, of course, there's the stupid mix of mass transit and rapid transit. Mass transit rarely works. Rapid transit almost always does.

Taking two hours to get from point A to B if you can drive in 20 minutes means that you will do everything you can to drive. If it takes 30 minutes, suddenly, that looks more workable. If it takes 30 minutes while the highway is backed up....

The extreme example is the most expensive rail ticket, per mile, in the world -- the Heathrow Express. Some 11 miles, currently 14.50GBP one way.

How in the hell does this train stay running? Simple. It gets you from Heathrow to Central London in 15 minutes.

Time is money, and if you can show people they're saving time, they'll spend money to do it.
posted by eriko at 5:39 AM on October 17, 2006

maxwelton, I would also give up my four hour a day commute from a city to the suburbs (at least it's via decent Mass Transit, so I relax and can read on the way) for a job that pays far, far less money, if only I had been offered one! After 8 months of hitting brick walls and becoming destitute, this is my only option. Not everyone has those kinds of choices available to them.
posted by stagewhisper at 9:40 AM on October 18, 2006

« Older Privacy? Who cares?   |   Those ribbons aren't made of kevlar, are they? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments