How’s your commute?
If you’re like most Americans, you probably drive to work in a car you own or lease. It takes a little less than 30 minutes each way, and you spend at least some of that time in slow or stopped traffic.
The vast majority of Americans commute in private vehicles – 85.3%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey. That figure accounts for both driving alone (76.4%) and carpooling (8.9%). Some commuters use multiple modes – for instance, driving to a nearby commuter rail station, taking the train into the city, and walking to the office once there. In such cases, the primary mode of commuting is rail, which is the longest leg of the trip.
Driving commutes tend to be shorter than public transit commutes. According to the Census Bureau, the average American commute took 26.9 minutes in 2017. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2017 National Household Travel Survey pegs the average driving commute at 25.01 minutes each way. By contrast, the average one-way public transit commute is over 58 minutes.
Cities and metro areas with more public transit commuters tend to have longer average commutes. Most of the U.S. cities with the longest commutes – such as New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle – are large, densely populated, and have robust public transit systems. They also have sprawling suburbs that, while significantly more affordable for middle-class homeowners, are far from job-rich city centers.
The Cost of Long Commutes
Drivers face a big trade-off for their shorter commutes: traffic. According to Newsweek, the typical American driver spends about 42 hours per year stuck in traffic. That’s nearly two full days. Bike commuting and public transit might take longer, but at least they allow you to pass the time by reading, studying, or catching up on work.
Also, if time is money, time spent in traffic comes at a high cost. As of June 2019, the average hourly wage for Americans employed in private, non-farm positions was $27.90, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means an average American worker with an average American commute loses approximately $1,171 per year to traffic. In Boston, where workers lose more time to traffic – 164 hours, per INRIX – than any other major U.S. city, the annual loss amounts to approximately $4,576. And unless you use it to get work done, time spent on public transit carries financial costs too.
Overall, the annual cost of U.S. traffic congestion is about $160 billion, or $960 per commuter, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard. They predict this figure will rise to $192 billion by 2020.
Wages and productivity aren’t the only things traffic affects. Traffic congestion racks up many costs that are more difficult to calculate. These inlcude the environmental impact of carbon emissions from idling tailpipes, the staggering cost of repairing and replacing beat-up road and bridge infrastructure, and the health impacts of gridlock-induced stress.
Worst U.S. Cities for Commuters
According to data compiled between 2013 and 2016 from INRIX, Trulia, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey, commuters in the following cities and metro regions have it worse than most.
Within each region, commuters who live in central cities and nearby suburbs generally have shorter commutes – and more transit options to avoid highway traffic – than commuters in far-flung suburbs. Trulia reports that renters often enjoy shorter commutes than homeowners because more renters live in neighborhoods close to city centers. In the ongoing debate over whether it’s better to rent or buy, that’s a point in renting’s favor. However, in most cases, the difference is slim.
1. New York, New York
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 37 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 133 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 50.1%
It’s hardly surprising that New Yorkers, especially those who commute by car, have terrible commutes. With an excellent transit system and walkable, bikeable neighborhoods, the nation’s largest city is also arguably among its best places to live without a car. Accordingly, the time disparity between public transit and car commuting is lower here than in many other areas.
Millions of New Yorkers take advantage of their hometown’s unique assets and forgo car ownership entirely. The problem is that sky-high housing costs in Manhattan force countless residents into the city’s outer boroughs where housing is slightly more affordable.
Even for those who don’t drive, longer distances and slower bus and train speeds mean many outer-borough residents spend more than an hour on the train each way. And though the city has invested millions of dollars in a first-class bike lane network, bike commuting here remains dangerous and stressful due to congestion and aggressive driving.
2. Jersey City, New Jersey
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 36.5 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 133 hours per year (New York metropolitan area)
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 35.8%
Many Jersey City residents cross the Hudson River each day to New York City. Non-drivers use the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s PATH rail system, which connects Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City with midtown and lower Manhattan. Commuter ferries cross the river at Jersey City as well.
Commuting by car can be a nightmare here, with persistent street congestion and frequent hour-long backups at the cross-Hudson Holland Tunnel. In many cases, taking public transit is quicker than driving.
3. Boston, Massachusetts
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 31.4 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 164 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 73.6%
Like New York City, Boston is a densely populated city hampered by over-stressed road networks. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority operates an extensive public transit system that includes multiple subway, light rail, and commuter rail lines. But commuters who live in suburban communities have few good options. For instance, the trip from northern suburb Lowell to Boston’s North Station takes 45 minutes by commuter rail and even longer in typical rush-hour highway traffic.
4. Washington, D.C.
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 30 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 155 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 76.1%
D.C. has a robust transit system that includes several subway lines. However, high and rising housing costs in and around the city have pushed thousands of middle-class families deep into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Spread-out housing patterns raise region-wide commute times and increase traffic along the major arteries feeding into the District and surrounding employment centers, including Crystal City, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland.
Car-free commuters don’t have it much better. The D.C. Metro is famous for service interruptions and has undergone billions of dollars in repair and upgrade work since 2010. However, due to the region’s dense, widespread traffic, the disparity between car and public transit commute times isn’t as great here as in other cities.
5. Newark, New Jersey
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 35.3 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 133 hours per year (New York metropolitan area)
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 64.3%
Just west of Jersey City, Newark has robust transit options, including direct connections to Manhattan via the PATH network and the NJ Transit commuter rail system. Barring delays, rail commuters can get from central Newark to New York City’s Penn Station in less than 30 minutes – though getting out of the crowded, labyrinthine station is another story.
However, like the rest of northern New Jersey, Newark suffers from crippling highway and road traffic. Locals who drive to work farther west to places such as Morristown and Parsippany often face commutes much longer than the regional average.
6. Los Angeles, California
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 30.8 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 128 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 85.0%
Long famous for its car culture, Los Angeles has epic traffic jams that waste 128 hours of the average commuter’s life each year. That’s worse than almost anywhere else in the United States. Though the nation’s second-largest city has a comprehensive and growing public transit system, huge swathes of its vast urban area remain underserved at best.
Despite its reputation for urban sprawl, Los Angeles is densely populated. Curbed reports that the L.A. metropolitan area, which includes dozens of smaller cities in the L.A. Basin, is the most crowded metro area in the country. And more than three out of four Angelenos drive to work every day, a far higher ratio than in many other densely populated cities.
The good news is that public transit ridership is rising in many parts of Los Angeles. So is bike commuting, though the city’s bike-share program lags behind those of many comparable cities. And at approximately 10%, L.A.’s carpooling rate is higher than the national average. Still, public transit users face much longer commutes here.
7. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 32.7 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 128 hours per year (Los Angeles metropolitan area)
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 90.3%
Known as the Inland Empire, the sprawling San Bernardino-Riverside-Ontario region extends for dozens of miles east of central Los Angeles. Many locals commute west to major employment centers such as Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Orange by car, wasting hours of their lives each year on the handful of freeways connecting the region with the coast.
Both Riverside and San Bernardino are connected to downtown L.A. and Orange County cities such as Anaheim by Metrolink rail. But travel times are excessive – approximately 90 minutes from Riverside to L.A.’s Union Station, and nearly two hours from San Bernardino to Union Station, for instance. Accordingly, the disparity between car and public transit commute times is high here.
8. San Francisco, California (San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward Metro)
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 34.4 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 116 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 66.8%
San Francisco packs a lot of sights, sounds, and smells into its compact 49 square miles. It’s a wonderland for tourists but a nightmare for residents who commute to and from the suburbs every day. Drivers and transit riders coming from far-flung areas, such as San Jose and the East Bay suburbs beyond Oakland, can easily spend an hour or more traveling to and from work each way.
Commuters based in the East Bay are more likely to stay on their side of the water, commuting to major employment centers such as Berkeley and Fremont. The East Bay’s rugged topography limits development, creating two distinct population zones on either side of a high range of hills.
For years, highly paid tech workers have snapped up prime properties in the city’s most convenient, charming districts, pricing out much of its middle class. Many of these workers commute on comfy, amenity-rich coach buses to jobs in the string of suburban communities between San Francisco and San Jose. Though they sit in traffic just like other drivers, cushioned seats and high-speed Wi-Fi have a way of making the journey more bearable.
9. Chicago, Illinois (Chicago-Naperville-Elgin Metro)
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 31.8 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 138 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 77.6%
Many of Chicago’s biggest employers reside in suburban office parks with limited transit access. Others cluster in the central city’s Loop, the nation’s second-largest business district.
On paper, the Loop is extremely well-connected to surrounding areas via the Chicago Transit Authority “L” rail network and Metra commuter rail system. But Chicago’s rail transit system, the first line of which was built in the 1890s, shows its age. Track fires and other safety hazards cause slowdowns and stoppages with alarming frequency. Even in perfect conditions, trips on the creaky L drag on forever; for instance, traveling the Purple Line from Linden station in suburban Wilmette to Adams/Wabash in the Loop takes nearly an hour.
10. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington)
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 30.3 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 112 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 80.4%
Philadelphia’s sprawling development pattern, coupled with above-average transit usage, pushes the metro’s average commute times well above the national average. Plus, transit coverage is uneven here. Millions of people in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania suburbs live within walking, biking, or short driving distance of a SEPTA rapid transit or commuter rail line. But the city’s New Jersey side is comparatively underserved by the single-line PATCO rail authority.
11. Baltimore, Maryland (Baltimore-Columbia-Towson Metro)
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 31.5 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 94 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 84.5%
Barely 40 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., Baltimore is sometimes overshadowed by its more prosperous and powerful neighbor. But it almost measures up to D.C. when it comes to stressful, time-consuming commutes.
Built around a twisting tidal river, Baltimore has two underwater tunnels (Fort McHenry and Harbor) and one over-water bridge (Francis Scott Key). All of them are gridlocked in rush hour. The I-695 beltway, once intended as a speedy bypass around the crowded core, now serves busy suburban office parks that flood it with tens of thousands of cars during the afternoon rush. And the uncertain local economy has many Baltimoreans commuting an hour or longer to the D.C. area for steadier, better-paying work.
For car-free Marylanders, the picture is mixed. The Maryland Transit Administration provides above-average bus and rail connections within the city and surrounding suburbs, but political gridlock has hampered efforts to expand service further. City authorities finally approved a small-scale bike-share program in 2016, several years after regional neighbors such as New York and Boston, but the program failed in 2018. Lime and Bird, two private companies, provide some dockless bike-share coverage.
12. Houston, Texas (Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land Metro)
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 29.9 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 98 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 90.3%
Everything is bigger in Texas, including the traffic jams. Sprawling Houston’s elegant, comprehensive highway network and growing METRORail rail and bus system can’t keep up with locals’ mobility needs. Houston’s average commute times are kept low by the high proportion of car commuters. However, workers who commute downtown from distant suburbs, such as Rosenberg and The Woodlands, can easily spend an hour or more in their cars each way.
To further complicate matters, many of Houston’s largest employers occupy remote office parks miles from the city center. For example, energy conglomerate ConocoPhillips is located off Interstate 10, about 10 miles west of downtown Houston.
13. Atlanta, Georgia (Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell Metro)
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 32.2 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 108 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 86.4%
Like Houston, Atlanta is a sprawling southern city with a high percentage of car commuters. Though its traffic jams aren’t quite as epic, the region’s spread-out geography results in longer average commute times.
Though the MARTA system provides decent coverage in Atlanta itself, public transit service is lacking in outlying areas.
Many of Atlanta’s largest employment clusters are in its northern suburbs, and spotty transit coverage can be a problem for people who don’t want to drive to work every day. In recent years, suburban development has crept northeastward toward desirable areas around Lake Lanier and the Appalachian foothills, further distorting the region’s shape and exacerbating its commuting woes.
14. Honolulu, Hawaii
- Average Commute Time for All Commuters: 28.8 minutes
- Average Time Drivers Spend in Traffic: 92 hours per year
- Percent of Commuters Who Drive: 78.0%
With a population of approximately 350,000 in the city proper and around 1 million in the surrounding urban area, Honolulu is a manageable size. Most outsiders know it as a beautiful seaside vacation town, a popular honeymoon destination, and the principal gateway to the rest of the Hawaiian islands.
But Honolulu’s unusual geography and concentrated city center mean daily headaches for commuters from its outlying neighborhoods and the towns beyond. Most major employers and institutions, such as Hawaii Pacific University, are located downtown. Thanks to encroaching mountains, the urban area spreads in a ribbon along the seashore. The Washington Times reports that many commuters from Honolulu’s western fringes – where commute times are much higher than the regional average – beat traffic by leaving home in the wee hours of the morning and catching an extra hour or two of sleep in their cars once they arrive at work.
While getting to and from work isn’t a joyous experience anywhere, some U.S. cities are known for quick, low-stress commutes. These places tend to be smaller and less congested than cities known for nightmare commutes. Many are located inland, where there’s plenty of available land for roads and housing, or struggle with long-term economic problems. For example, Buffalo, New York – which has lost half its population since the mid-20th century – has the shortest commute times of any major city, according to Trulia.
Nevertheless, there are some commuter-friendly surprises. Trulia calculates that San Diego has the ninth-shortest average commute of any major U.S. city, despite its prime coastal location, growing population, and geographical constraints on development. Virginia Beach and West Palm Beach, which have similar issues, are even higher on the list. That said, you may pay a premium to live in the parts of these cities with quick, easy commutes.
If you’re sick of your commute, you don’t have to move to the boonies or find a job that lets you work from home. You just have to be more intentional about where you put down roots.
Where do you commute to and from? What is your commute like?