Commute Time and Method of Transportation

The time and money spent traveling between home and work adds up quickly, making a big impact on workers’ mental health, the environment, and household budgets. Traffic congestion, crowding, and unpredictability can cause stress during one's commute; negative experiences during the commute can also spill over into how people feel and perform at home and work.[1] In terms of the environment, bus transit saves on fuel emissions compared to passenger cars; according to one analysis, a car with one occupant emits 89 pounds of CO2 per 100 passenger miles, while a full bus emits 14 pounds.[2] Transportation can also be costly. According to the annual Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),[3] the average American in 2021 reported paying 12.1% of their pre-taxed household income on transportation (for any reason) annually over the previous two years.
Two variables from the ACS—how people usually got to work in the last week and the total amount of time in minutes that it usually took them to get from home to work in the last week—are used to report the commute time and method of transportation of residents in San Diego County. In 2021, as shown in Figure 1, the vast majority of workers in San Diego County drove to their jobs, whether that be in an auto, truck, or van (79.7%) or on a motorcycle (0.5%). Only 2.6% of residents in San Diego County relied on public transportation, 3.0% on walking only, 1.1% on some other method of transportation, 0.5% on biking to work, and 12.7% worked at home and did not commute.
Figures 2-5 illustrate commute method of transportation by demographics in San Diego County in 2021. More White and Multiracial people in San Diego County worked from home than any other racial/ethnic group. A disabled worker was twice as likely to take public transportation to work than a non-disabled worker.  
Despite carpool and bus lanes, taking the bus (and other public transportation) still often means a trade-off for time because buses make stops along their routes and it takes time for bus riders to get to and from bus stops at home and their destination. Figure 6 shows that the average commute time reported by people taking public transportation was 49 minutes, compared to 26 minutes for those driving private vehicles, in San Diego County in 2021. Bicyclists reported an average commute time of 20 minutes and those who walked to work reported an average of 12 minutes.
In Figure 7, White residents of San Diego County had shorter average commute times than residents of most minority races and ethnicities.[4] Longer commute times may be due to living further away from the workplace, the relative likelihood of taking public transport, or some combination. Figures 8-10 show the average commute times among those employed by sex, disability status, and immigrant status.
Transportation can be influenced by geography. In regions that are fairly spread out or where residents live far from employers, people must spend more time on the road getting to and from work. In 2021 in San Diego County, the commute times were longer for workers in the eastern parts of the county (Figure 11).
One option for reducing the negative well-being, environmental, and financial impacts of commuting on workers is to increase opportunities for remote work when possible. Remote and hybrid options reduce or eliminate commutes that can be stressful, expensive, time-consuming and usually unfriendly to the environment. Policies that close the digital divide by subsidizing or providing reliable, high-speed internet (see Internet Access), reward companies for offering remote or hybrid working models, or support childcare for those who work from home could help eliminate additional commutes. Of course, remote work is not possible in all occupations and remote-capable jobs are not equally accessible. Workers in restaurants and hotels, for example, mostly cannot work from home. They also have relatively low wages, making the financial costs of commuting particularly high. Remote workers tend to be higher educated and higher paid.[5] To ensure that benefits of lower commute times are widely and equitably distributed, maximizing remote work alone is not a complete solution.

Data Information
Figures 1-10 Data Source: 2021 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates from IPUMS USA.
  • Persons of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity may belong to any race group. All categories except Hispanic or Latino include persons for whom race is known but ethnicity is non-Hispanic or unknown.
  • The ACS produces estimates based on a sample of the population. Percentages at or near 0% or 100% should be interpreted with caution.
Figure 11 Data Source: 2021 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates, Table S0801.
  • Unavailable data include ZCTAs that are not defined by the U.S. Census Bureau and ZCTAs with missing or censored data.
References 
  1. Chatterjee, K., Chng, S., Clark, B., Davis, A., De Vos, J., Ettema, D., Handy, S., Martin, A., & Reardon, L. (2020). Commuting and wellbeing: A critical overview of the literature with implications for policy and future research. Transport Reviews, 40(1), 5–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/01441647.2019.1649317
  2. Lowe, M., Aytekin, B., & Gereffit, G. (2009). Public Transit Buses: A Green Choice Gets Greener. Center on Globalization Governance and Competitiveness. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/294579836
  3. Calendar two year means tables by geographic areas: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://www.bls.gov/cex/tables/geographic/mean.htm#msa
  4. The difference between the longest and shortest average commute times is about 25%. It would also be interesting to look at the range and standard deviation of these measures.
  5. Bartik, A. W., Cullen, Z. B., Glaeser, E. L., Luca, M., & Stanton, C. T. (2020). What jobs are being done at home during the Covid-19 crisis? Evidence from firm-level surveys (Working Paper No. 27422). National Bureau of Economic Research. https://doi.org/10.3386/w27422
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Updated February 7, 2024