September 23, 2014
Former Research Associate
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 (%)|
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.
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.