Cities, Suburbs and Commute Length

MLewyn's picture

I recently discovered a fun tool: the Census Bureau's Census Explorer, which is full of maps about all kinds of things.  In particular, I spent some time exploring commute length.

One common argument against more transit-oriented cities is that because transit rides often take more time than car rides, city residents actually have longer commutes than suburbanites.  For example, New York is the nation's primary transit hub, and yet New Yorkers have longer commutes than anyone else.  This argument has a large element of truth: New York's outer boroughs have average commutes of over 40 minutes, longer than the city's suburban counties.  (On the other hand, Manhattan's 30-minute average is lower than that of some but not all suburban counties).  Similarly, Philadelphia's average commute is 32 minutes, higher than that of surrounding suburbs. 

But is New York typical?  Not really, not even as to transit-oriented cities.  The United States has three other urban counties where over 1/4 of commuters use transit: Suffolk County (Boston), Washington, DC, and San Francisco.* Suffolk County has an average commute of 29 minutes, slightly lower than that of neighboring Norfolk County and only one minute higher than Middlesex and Essex Counties.   In Washington, D.C., the average city commute of 30 minutes is lower than that of every suburban county but Arlington and Alexandria (the two least car-dominated suburbs).  Exurban Charles County, Md. tops the commute-hell list at 43 minutes, longer than New York's outer boroughs. 

In this regard,  San Francisco does better than some suburbs and worse than others.  San Francisco's 30-minute average is lower than that of Contra Costa County (clocking in at 33 minutes) but higher than that of some other suburbs.

A related argument is that because so many jobs have moved to suburbia, suburbanites actually have shorter commutes.  If this argument was true, residents of car-oriented urban cores would have longer commutes than everyone else.  But this appears not to be the case: for example, in Atlanta Fulton County (which includes most of the city of Atlanta) boasts shorter commutes than suburban counties.

*Transit use is equally high in the city of Chicago; however, it is part of a largely suburban county.




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