Quick Bite | Commuting to work is getting shorter

Most Americans still have to commute every day. Here’s how that experience has changed. The average American commute is about 27 minutes. While people in many industries were able to start working from home during the pandemic, recouping their travel time, nearly half of US workers kept devoting a good part of their day – sometimes an hour or more – to being in transit.

Pandemic-era commuting has widened several divides: between those who can work remotely and those who can’t, and between those who drive and those who use public transportation. The decrease in travel by those able to work remotely has changed the nature of commutes for everyone else – streamlining rush-hour traffic, for example, but making trains run less often.

The data below is for US cities – but where America goes, Australia tends to follow.

Source: New York Times


Christopher Wiese, an assistant professor of industrial organisational psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies commuting, says the “quality” of commutes depends less on the time they require, and more on how peaceful and predictable they are. The experiences of white-collar friends and family members whose working lives had suddenly become much more fluid can also make in-person workers feel relatively worse off.

In 2006, according to the US Census Bureau, the average one-way commute took 25 minutes. By 2019, it was up to 27.6 minutes. That gradual elongation happened because workers were moving farther from their workplaces, often forced to the margins by the rising cost of housing in job centers. “Super-commuters,” who travel hours to get to work, became more common.

Of course, commuting is associated with inequality: although the gap has been narrowing, blue-collar workers generally still have longer commutes than white-collar workers, and blue-collar workers are also disproportionately likely to hold jobs that can’t be done from home.

The march of longer commutes shifted into reverse during the pandemic. Although the US Census Bureau wasn’t able to collect solid results for 2020, by 2021 the average one-way commute had dropped by more than two minutes from 2019.

Why did that happen? In part, those who had longer distances to travel were more likely to stop making the journey, while people who lived closer to their workplaces kept going, bringing down the average. And with fewer employers demanding rigid 9-to-5 schedules, the morning and evening rush hours thinned out. People still drove a lot – running errands in the middle of the day between Zoom meetings – but those who had to commute at traditional times had less traffic to contend with.

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