(September 2014) Sitting in traffic, waiting for a train or bus, navigating bike lanes and sidewalks—these are things that can be stressful for commuters getting to work. The average full-time worker in the United States spends almost 26 minutes commuting to work, according to just-released data from the 2013 American Community Survey.1 As traffic congestion and commuting distance have increased, average travel time to work has also increased (see top map).



In addition to psychological stress, commuting can affect overall health. Longer commutes are associated with less physical activity, lower cardiorespiratory fitness, higher rates of obesity, and elevated blood pressure.2 Automobile commutes are associated with higher levels of stress than active (walk or bike) commutes.3 Although biking to work can be associated with risks such as traffic accidents and inhaled pollutants, a 2010 study found that the exercise benefits of biking versus driving outweigh these risks.4

The number of bike commuters in the United States has gone up sharply in the past decade from 488,497 to 882,198 since 2000, although bicyclists still account for less than 1 percent of all commuters. However, over the long term, commuting has become more sedentary (see table). Walking to work has dropped sharply, from 10 percent in 1960 to less than 3 percent in 2013. While the share of commuters taking a car, truck, or van to work dropped slightly in the past decade, the change is due to a decline in carpooling. The share of workers driving alone continues to rise. In 2013, more than three-quarters of workers drove alone as their primary means of commuting to work.


Workers in the United States Are Spending More Time Traveling to Work

    Car, Truck, or Van
     
  Average Commute Time to Work (minutes) Drive Alone (%) Carpool (%) Public Transit (%) Walk (%) Bike (%)
2013 25.8 76.4 9.4 5.2 2.8 0.6
2000 25.5 75.7 12.2 4.7 2.9 0.4
1990 22.4 73.2 13.4 5.3 3.9 0.4
1980 21.7 64.4 19.7 6.4 5.6 0.5
1970 - - - 8.9 7.4 -
1960 - - - 12.1 9.9 -

Note: "-" indicates data not available.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Census 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and American Community Survey 2013.


While 4 percent of workers are telecommuters and have no commute at all, a sizeable proportion of U.S. workers have lengthy commutes. More than 8 percent of U.S. commuters have a commute to work of 60 minutes or more, and almost 3 percent have extreme commutes of 90 minutes or more one way. Almost 600,000 full-time workers are "mega" commuters, traveling at least 90 minutes and at least 50 miles one way to work.5 In 2013, nearly 24 percent of workers worked outside their county of residence, up from 18 percent commuting across county lines in 1980; and nearly 4 percent worked outside their state of residence, up from 3 percent commuting across state lines in 1980.

  • Teens are more likely than those in other age groups to be active (walk or bike) commuters. About 9 percent of workers ages 16 to 19 walk to work. However, walk-commuting declines with age. For all commuters age 25 or older, less than 3 percent walk to work. Workers ages 45 to 64 drive alone more often (79 percent) and walk to work less often (2 percent) than workers under age 45.
  • Workers with the lowest annual earnings, less than $10,000, are most likely to walk (6 percent) and are least likely to drive alone (67 percent) to work. Walk-commuting dips below 2 percent for those with earnings above $35,000. Driving to work, whether alone or as part of a carpool, peaks for those with annual earnings between $35,000 and $65,000. In that earnings range, nearly 90 percent of workers drive or carpool. Driving declines a bit among those with higher levels of earnings. Workers with earnings of $75,000 or more are slightly more likely to walk, bike, or take public transit to work or to work from home than workers in the middle of the earnings distribution.
  • Residents of Maryland and New York face the nation's longest commutes; each has an average one-way commute of more than 32 minutes. Commutes are shortest, fewer than 18 minutes on average, in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Residents of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee are most likely to drive alone to work. Residents of the District of Columbia are least likely to drive alone to work.

The District of Columbia boasts the nation's highest rates of active (walk or bike) commuting, with more than 18 percent of commuters biking or walking to work (see bottom map). The District almost quadrupled bike use from 2000 to 2013, owing to investments in biking infrastructure and planning policies. Despite extreme weather, Alaska ranks second as the most active-commute state, with nearly 10 percent of commuters walking or biking to work. In Alaska, residents in small communities often work near home and they may not have a vehicle.


Beth Jarosz and Rachel T. Cortes are research associates in U.S. Programs at PRB.


References

  1. The American Community Survey asks respondents about the average number of minutes they commute one-way to work.
  2. Christine M. Hoehner et al., "Commuting Distance, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Metabolic Risk," American Journal of Preventative Medicine 42, no. 6 (2012): 571-78, accessed at www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797%2812%2900167-5/abstract, on Aug. 15, 2014.
  3. Erik Hansson et al., "Relationship Between Commuting and Health Outcomes in a Cross-Sectional Population Survey in Southern Sweden," BMC Public Health 11, no. 834 (2011), accessed at www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/11/834, on Aug. 15, 2014; and Birgitta Gatersleben and David Uzzell, "Affective Appraisals of Daily Commute: Comparing Perceptions of Drivers, Cyclists, Walkers, and Users of Public Transport," Environment and Behavior 39, no. 3 (2007): 416-31, accessed at http://eab.sagepub.com/content/39/3/416, on Aug. 15 2014.
  4. Jeroen Johan de Hartog et al., "Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?" Environmental Health Perspectives 118, no. 8 (2010): 1109-16, accessed at http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/0901747/, on Aug. 15, 2014.
  5. "Megacommuters: 600,000 in U.S. Travel 90 Minutes and 50 Miles to Work, and 10.8 Million Travel an Hour Each Way, Census Bureau Reports" (March 2013), U.S. Census Bureau press release, accessed at www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2013/cb13-41.html, on Aug. 15, 2014; and Melanie A. Rapino and Allison K. Fields, "Mega Commuting in the U.S.: Time and Distance in Defining Long Commutes Using the 2006-2010 American Community Survey," accessed at www.census.gov/hhes/commuting/files/2012/Paper-Poster_Megacommuting%20in%20the%20US.pdf, on Aug. 15, 2014.