How Do You Get To Work? In A Major City, You Probably Drive Alone For 25.8 Minutes

May 20, 2015

Centuries from now, our descendants may look back in wonder and amusement at the automobile. (Assuming humanity hasn't destroyed itself, of course.) Cultural anthropologists will give tours of history museums, announcing with dramatic flair, "Back then, people had to leave their homes for work, and this is how they traveled!", before unveiling a Pontiac Aztec.

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But they won't be entirely right. While many people do, of course, commute by car, many others do not. Researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute reviewed census data from the 30 largest U.S. cities to examine current transit stats. Here are some of the study's major takeaways:

  • Nationwide, 95.5 percent of workers have access to a vehicle for their commute. However, that figure varies substantially from city to city. In Fort Worth, Texas and San Jose, California, the figure is 98.2 percent. In New York City, however, it's just 54 percent. Washington, D.C. (72.3 percent) and Boston, Massachusetts (78.1 percent) also have relatively large populations of commuters who make do without cars.  
  • That said, driving is the most common means of commuting -- and frankly, many people go it alone. In Louisville, Kentucky, a whopping 82.9 percent of those surveyed drive solo to work. Even in New York City, more than one-fifth of workers -- 21.4 percent, to be exact -- do the same.
  • As much as we talk about carpooling, it's not very common. Even in Memphis, Tennessee -- the most carpool-friendly city on the list -- just 12.4 percent of commuters get to work that way. At the other end of the spectrum, in New York City, it's 4.9 percent.
  • Studies have suggested that biking is becoming more popular with workers, but it still accounts for a small fraction of commuters. Portland, Oregon has the highest percentage of cyclists at 5.9 percent. In most cities, though, the figure sits below one percent. In fact, in El Paso, Texas, it's 0.1 percent.
  • Not surprisingly, walking is more common in compact urban cities with temperate weather. In Boston, 14.5 percent of employees work their gams to reach the office. In hot, sprawling Fort Worth, though, just 1.2 percent do the same. 
  • Mass transit is popular in densely populated areas and in cities that have invested in the necessary infrastructure. In New York City, 56.7 percent of commuters use buses, trains, ferries, and the like to reach their offices. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, though, that figure is 0.7 percent.
  • Not everyone commutes. In Portland and in Austin, Texas, 7.1 percent of employees work from home. At the other end of the scale, 2.1 percent of folks in Memphis do the same.
  • Those who do commute tend to leave at the same time mom and dad did. In Jacksonville, Florida, 73.5 percent of folks leave between 5am and 8:59am. Even in Detroit, Michigan, 59.8 percent of commuters do so.
  • Commuting times vary dramatically. On average, New Yorkers spend the longest time in transit -- a whopping 39.7 minutes. By comparison, Oklahoma City's 20.7-minute commute seems like a breeze. The nationwide average is 25.8 minutes.

All of which is very interesting. But what would've been more useful is seeing those numbers in context. Compared to census data from 10 or 20 years ago, are commuting times lengthening? Are more people taking public transportation? Are fewer people walking? If there's one thing we love, it's seeing trends play out. 

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You can find a PDF abstract of the UMTRI study here.


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