Commute Trends: Steady Times; Solo Drivers

by Kathleen Scalise

Drivers may think highways are growing more congested, but commute times aren't changing much, says a new Berkeley report that ranks American cities by how long it takes to get to work. What has changed, however, is that drivers are more likely to spend their commute alone.

Travel time changed less than a minute between 1980 and 1990 for most of the cities studied by Elizabeth Deakin, associate professor of city and regional planning.

At 33.2 minutes, New York City had the longest commute as measured in median travel time, meaning half the drivers took longer and half were on the road for less time.

Second longest was Washington, D.C., at 30.1 minutes, followed by Chicago, where drivers took 28.4 minutes to get to work. New Haven, Conn., and Providence, R.I., registered the shortest drives, 18.9 and 18.4 minutes.

One surprising finding was that residents in Atlanta, Houston and Baltimore spend more time in their cars than do Los Angeles commuters.

"Los Angeles' secret is its multiple employment centers, which tend to reduce trip length and travel times compared to, say, Manhattan or downtown San Francisco," said Deakin.

Deakin is co-author of the new report by the Institute of Urban and Regional Development with graduate student Chris Porter.

People have a fixed amount of time they'll allocate toward getting to work, which averages between 20 and 30 minutes, Porter said. If freeways become more congested, people move or jobs move.

In this case, it's the jobs that are moving, said Deakin. Commuting from the suburbs to work in city centers usually is the longest commute. However, jobs are leaving urban centers, shortening the drive.

"As jobs have moved to secondary urban and suburban locations," Deakin said, "trip lengths have tended to shorten somewhat. Equally important, speeds for those trips tend to be quite high because suburban roads still aren't as congested as those leading to the central cities."

This also explains why drivers are going solo more often. Along with cheap gas and plentiful parking, Deakin said commuters are finding reasons to turn away from mass transit and carpools and hit the road alone in their own vehicles.

Deakin's data shows the number of single drivers increased 10 percent or more in many parts of the country, including San Francisco, Boston, Kansas City, Hartford, Providence, Buffalo, Norfolk, Milwaukee, Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. In fact, driving alone increased at least 5 percent in every city studied except Los Angeles, which edged up only 1 percent.

Looking to the future, Deakin sees trouble because highway travel is growing much faster than highway capacity.

"It's beginning to catch up with us," she said. "Suburban congestion has become an increasing problem. Here in California, after a pause resulting from a stagnant economy, it looks like traffic levels--and congestion levels--are again going to rise."

Deakin's work was funded by the Federal Transit Administration and the UC Transportation Center.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail