New UC Berkeley report ranks American cities by commute time and comes up with some surprises

by Kathleen Scalise

Berkeley -- Drivers may think highways are growing more congested but the time it takes to get to work isn't changing much, says a new report from UC Berkeley that examines commute times for major U.S. cities. What is changing, however, is that more drivers are commuting 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 the University of California at Berkeley. (A table showing 40 cities by commute time follows.)

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 co-authored the new report for UC Berkeley's 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, he said, people move or jobs move.

During the study period, it's the jobs that moved, said Deakin. Commuting from the suburbs to work in city centers usually makes for the longest commute. However, jobs are leaving urban centers, shortening the drive.

"As jobs have moved to secondary urban and suburban locations," Deakin said, "trips 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 reason to turn away from mass transit and carpools and hit the road alone in their own vehicles.

Deakin's data shows the number of solo commuters 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, solo commuting 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 U.S. Department of Transportation -- Federal Transit Administration and the University of California Transportation Center. Data was culled from 1990 and 1980 census figures.


Note: After March 4, Elizabeth Deakin will be at her sabbatical location in New Hampshire, (603) 495-3971, fax (603) 495-3756, and email

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