As the economy heals and gas prices moderate, more Americans are enduring “killer commutes” and the trend is expected to worsen in the future, according to new research from transportation experts.
“One unfortunate result of a better economy is that traffic congestion increases. Lower unemployment means fewer cars on the roads,” says Alan Pisarski, a transportation policy consultant and author of the “Commuting in America” book series.
Until recently, average one-way commuting times had stayed flat at about 25.5 minutes. But as the economy eases and more people return to work, commuting times are ticking up again — especially in major cities.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says Americans are logging more miles than at any time since 2008. “More people driving means our economy is picking up speed.”
But that’s small comfort to those in areas where congestion is mounting.
“Since the recession ended, those commuting in the metro areas that surround Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles have been hard hit. One major factor is that online retail sales from companies like Amazon have snapped back. That means many more trucks on the roads,” Pisarski says.
Washington, D.C. ranks at the top of the notorious “most congested” category. There traffic delays due to congestion have increased to 67 hours per year, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which reports on transportation issues throughout the nation.
By comparison, commuters in the Los Angeles-Orange County region suffer with 61 hours of delays annually.
The impact of long commutes is hardly trivial.
A study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine links the time spent driving to an increased risk of cardiovascular death. The research looked at the impact of a long commute on health over a seven year period.
The researchers, including Christine M. Hoehner at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, also linked long commutes by car to a greater risk of anxiety, social isolation and depression. All of these factors can impair the quality and duration of life.
What defines a killer commute? Pisarski uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s classification of any roundtrip commute of 90 minutes or longer as “extreme.”
“Some people say it’s worth driving that long ‘because of what’s at the end of the road.’ But I say any commute of that length has a tremendously negative impact on your family life. For example, it means you’ll always be home too late for the PTA meeting at your kids’ school,” he says.
How can consumers improve their commutes? Here are five pointers from Pisarski:
• Note the drawbacks of extreme commuting.
“It’s true that on average commuting times are still only inching up in most parts of the country. But there are now more “outliers,” meaning people who spend more than 60 to 90 minutes. That’s absolutely crazy.”
“One factor is the ‘doughnut’ metro, which involves big traffic flows going into and out of the deep suburbs. Accepting a job in a far-flung suburb nearly always involves an extreme commute.”
• Don’t assume using public transit would shorten your commute.
“Amazingly, some of the longest commutes—and these are usually in big metro areas like New York—are by public transportation. Very often these long commutes are by train.”
“However, some folks still prefer a long commute by public transit to one in a car. On a train you can at least get out of your seat and move around. You might even get to know fellow commuters and have a relaxing beer with them on your way home.”
• Consider the risks of biking to work.
“In most cases, riding a bike is a very bad option. When you have cars interacting with bikes on the roads, it’s just too threatening. These days you hear lots of promotion for biking to work. But less than 1 percent of workers now bike to work and most only do so because they can’t afford a car.”
• Challenge the belief that leaving early is always a time saver.
“In recent years, there’s been a significant increase in the number of people leaving for work before 6 a.m. But leaving early doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a break because many others have the same idea. So all this means is that the backups start earlier.”
• Try to talk your boss into letting you “commute” from home.
“I’ve worked from home for 25 years and I love it. This is my best trick for taking control of my time. It also really extends the life of my 1997 BMW, which sits in the garage most of the time and still runs just fine. ‘Telecommuting,’ as some people call it, is the fastest growing means of commuting and now involves nearly 5 percent of the workforce.”
“Besides enjoying longer and healthier lives, people with shorter commutes usually have better family relationships. So these intangibles are well worth factoring into your decisions about career and job choices.”
“Obviously some people—such as firefighters and surgeons—can’t telework. But a growing number of white collar folks can now work from home and still be competitive—so long as they own a computer, a phone, a printer and a scanner. If your company lets you work from home at least part of the time, I say grab the opportunity.”