The changing face of American commuting

Oct 27 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

More Americans are commuting to work by car than ever before, more are travelling from suburb to suburb, more are stuck in their cars for over an hour and more are having to leave their houses at an ever-earlier time in the morning just to get in on time.

According to the a new analysis of commuting trends, the number of new solo drivers grew by an astonishing 13 million from 1990 to 2000. The number of workers with commutes lasting more than 60 minutes grew by almost 50 per cent over the same period, while compared with the previous decade, more Americans are leaving for work between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m.

The Commuting in America study, compiled for the Transportation Research Board, also found that more commuters are travelling to work from suburb to suburb rather than the traditional commute from suburbs to city centres.

But commuting trends are changing as baby boomers near retirement age at the same time that a large immigrant population has joined the U.S. labour force. While the personal vehicle is still the most common way to go to work, transit and carpooling are increasing in many areas.

"One of the most significant changes will probably come from newly arrived immigrants," said transportation consultant Alan Pisarski, author of the report.

This immigration bubble is changing the nature of the work force and overall commuting patterns, he argues..

"Unlike most native-born Americans or immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than five years, many new immigrants either carpool, bike, walk, or use public transportation for their daily commute."

Although immigrants make up less than 14 per cent of all workers, they represent about 40 per cent of those in large carpools. The percentage is particularly high among Hispanic immigrants, who are largely responsible for the recent growth in carpooling after 30 years of decline.

Another trend that could significantly affect commuting in the future is the increasing number of people who work from home, the report says. The latest census data shows that 4 million Americans now work from home - more than those who walk to work - and that a growing number of those over age 55 are doing so.

Yet the affect of this on the roads is hard to predict because it is difficult to project how many immigrants will arrive and enter the work force and how many baby boomers will keep working after age 65, the report says.

The general direction of commutes also has shifted. As more employers move out of cities to be closer to skilled suburban workers, the suburbs now account for the majority of job destinations.

From 1990 to 2000, about 64 per cent of the growth in commuting in metropolitan areas was from suburb to suburb, while the traditional commute from suburbs to a central city grew by only 14 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of Americans commuting from the city to the suburbs increased by 20 per cent.

"In the 1970s the arrival of the baby boom generation on the work scene changed the entire dynamic of commuting trends," said Pisarski, who has now authored three reports on this topic.

"That era is coming to a close. The needs of Americans Ė more affluent, more involved in global issues, more free to live and work when and where they want Ė are creating new challenges that should be recognized and addressed if Americans' commuting experience is to improve."