(December 2000) What will commuting patterns in the United States look like in the future? Flexibility will be key, particularly if there is a sellers’ market in labor services and if the economy and technology permit workers to live and work almost anywhere. Flexibility with respect to housing and work location, work hours, commuting route, and means of transportation will all be important.

This new world of commuting will include more women in the commuting population and more older Americans. It will also include more people who are contending with multiple time pressures.

The greater involvement of women in the labor force in recent decades has proved a very positive force in humanizing the workplace. Employers have been forced to recognize the needs of employees in terms of childcare and other family duties. Given the other forces at play, the flexibility of the workplace will probably continue to expand in the future. Days worked per week and hours worked per day will be less fixed, and the times when work is conducted will be more open. Employees will be more likely to work at home on an occasional basis. A lot of work will look like what we think of today as part-time work.

In many ways, the work patterns of the older population will resemble those of many women in the workforce, particularly in the amount of freedom they have to set the time and location of work. Despite this flexibility, the impact of the differing needs of the older driving population in the traffic stream could become a complicating factor in future commutes.

The recent story of commuting has been that of people immensely pressured for time. Those time pressures have tended to push people toward chaining together multiple activities with their work trips. This tendency causes people to use their cars more often because of greater speed and flexibility. Rising affluence also has the effect of increasing the value of time to travelers, increasing their intolerance for delays.

The advent of the cell phone must be recognized as a dramatic force in commuting. The cell phone permits people to be less disconnected from the world, notably their families, while in their vehicles. It sharply reduces the pressures of being caught in traffic and out of touch. As its availability expands, it will further ameliorate one of the major negative factors of congestion.

The Influence of Commuting on Location

One question that needs to asked is: What is the influence of the commute trip on decisions about home location or job location? Where does it stand in the array of factors that go to determine these choices? A further question is: Will the influence of commuting increase or decrease in the future?

There are no final answers to these questions, but observations over the years indicate that few people make decisions about work or home with the goal of optimizing their commute. Instead, such factors as attractiveness of the neighborhood, safety and security, quality of schools, housing costs, and mortgage availability play more important roles. Often the commute is what falls out as the result of a series of decisions regarding the factors that people value most. More significantly, the commute can be seen as the trade-off that householders make, especially younger householders. If commute costs and housing costs are seen as a joint cost that householders seek to optimize, then the ultimate rationality of the process is clearer.

As congestion worsens in the future, the commute may become a more important factor. More and more people may take into account the effects of their decisions on their travel times and the share of their day that it consumes. If so, what will people do? Will they move inward toward the center city? Outward? Change homes? Change jobs? What response will employers make? History suggests that moving outward is the relief valve for crowding. If the decision process is seen as a joint one involving both housing and commuting costs, then increased costs of commuting would serve to reduce the range of choices on housing and housing location. This may be the real cost of congestion.

A perhaps more pertinent question is: Will congestion continue to worsen? Certainly attempts to use congestion as a tool of public policy, either by consciously increasing it or by allowing it to increase, to force the societal changes some see as necessary or desirable is now seen as a bankrupt approach-both antisocial and ineffective. Typically, the pressures of increased congestion are felt most strongly by newcomers to the high mobility society — minorities, immigrants, and lower-income populations.

A similar question can be asked about the other costs of travel. If the price of fuel were to double or triple, what pressures on commuting patterns would develop? History in the United States and Europe suggests that marginal rather than dramatic shifts would occur. Since the cost of fuel amounts to about 10 percent of the cost of operating a vehicle, tripling it would not be a determining factor in most decisions. Its greatest effect is often on the size of the vehicle used in travel.

Alan E. Pisarski is chair of the National Academy of Science’s Transportation Research Board Committee on National Transportation Statistics. He has been involved in U.S. transportation policy for almost 30 years, during which time he has held several positions in the Office of the Secretary in the U.S. Department of Transportation.