Reality Check: Commuting Times Are Getting Shorter

The conventional wisdom holds that traffic congestion is getting worse and worse, that commuting times are getting longer, and that citizens are enduring increasingly unbearable frustration while stuck in traffic. But what if that’s not true? What if, while nobody was looking, commuting times actually got shorter? What if the reality on the ground was at total odds with the political rhetoric?

New census data, which the Axis of Taxes (which includes most of the media) conveniently chose to ignore, suggests that there may be a chasm between perception and reality. According to a September statement by the AAA, the Census Bureau has released data indicating that commuting times actually got shorter between 2000 and 2005.

The average daily commute to work has shrunk from 25.5 minutes in 2000 to 25.1 minutes last year, according to data released this week by the Census Bureau.

“We all should hold a celebration,” said Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America. “We’re saving 0.4 minutes!”

I don’t know if Pisarski, a prominent Northern Virginia transportation consultant was speaking sarcastically or not. But I, for one, find the news quite encouraging.

Of course, national averages can obscure local trends. Commuting times in the Washington metro area, third longest in the country, actually got “slightly longer” between 2000 and 2005, AAA reports without providing details. A U.S. Census press release singles out Prince William County, Va., as a suburban county with one of the longest average commutes, 36.4 minutes — fifth longest in the nation. (Which may explain the blind frustration motivating the freeze on new home building there.)

Average commuting times for Virginia in 2005 were 25.8 minutes, ninth longest in the nation. How does that compare to 2000? AAA didn’t say. But the Bureau of Census, god bless ’em, puts its data online. Go here and see for yourself: That’s down from 27.0 minutes in 2000!

A decline of 1.2 minutes in averaging commuting time would be so dramatic and so counterintuitive, that one must consider the possibility that some of the change can be accounted for by the margin of statistical error in Census data or some other change in the way data was collected and compiled. But until such a case can be made, I can only presume that the conventional wisdom just may be wrong.

The commuting data also might explain why, despite the media- and politician-generated hysteria over traffic congestion, most Virginians stubbornly refuse to endorse the idea of higher taxes for transportation.

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15 responses to “Reality Check: Commuting Times Are Getting Shorter”

  1. E M Risse Avatar

    Down below on the “Wealthier Whites Prefer the Urban Core” (NOT “city”) string there is a note on changes in the MSAs recently. Under political pressure, Census change MSA and thus the basis for measuring commuting.

    They changed MSA designations in the wrong way. It has been pointed out on this Blog before that most of the longest communtes are now not counted. New Urban Region data would indicates a completley different picture.

    This is just more “Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels” See column from 20 September 2004.

    There can be expected to be some drop off in mid-range commuting because “you cannot get there from here.” This is killing some desireable Beta Communites that should be developing a balance of J / H / S / R / A but have been relying on “commuters” for economic base.

    See “The Commuting Problem” column of 17 January 2006.


  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Ed, I suspected there might be a methodological issue behind the remarkably cheery numbers. Your explanation makes total sense for MSA-level data. But wouldn’t state-aggregated data pick up the commuters from far outlying counties? Why would state-level data show a decline?

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    I’m not following the objection.

    The census survey doesn’t worry about whether you work within or without your MSA – it looks at where you live, where you work, how long it takes you to get to work, and what time you leave for work.

    The commutes for an area are counted by destination, and at the state level should wash out any MSA changes. They also show commutes from out of state.

    I think Waldo had the census data for C’ville commutes on his web site recently, at least it was on a C’ville blog about C’ville commutes, and included counts of commuters both within and without.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    If one subscribes to conventional wisdom – then more people = more cars = more congestion = longer commute times.

    So – the other metric to look at would be the AADT for peak hour for the major roads from one year to the next.

    If the AADT Peak Hr is flat or declined it could indicate that people are starting to utilize strategies that would range from telecommuting to time-shifting (flex-time work hours), to higher useage to VRE/METRO or even bus and van pools or slugs.

    Some experts believe that congestion is self-limiting. That when it reaches a certain level – that people start altering their habits to avoid it.

    What this tells me is that congestion pricing would probably yield spectacular results because there are already indications that people are open to altering their habits to avoid bad congestion.

    I’d also point out that while a lot of folks, especially those that want to hype the need for “doing something” – usually a euphenism for raising taxes – the dreaded G word – Gridlock – seldom occurs because of traffic congestion – rather it’s usually snow and/or multiple major accidents that result from bad weather.

  5. E M Risse Avatar


    Re your state data question: I would have to look under the hood to see how the data is gathered and aggregated.

    One guess is that since the two largest New Urban Regions, and some smaller community-scale urban agglomeration in Southwest Virginia fall in two or more states, that may impact data. I know it has a big impact on Wash-Balto NUR that falls in four states plus the Federal District.

    I usually do not respond to Anon posts but 3:40 illustrates a common misconception. The every ten year census does note origin and destination but:

    The first question is “How is the data aggregated?”

    Second, and why Anon is at sea, the post is about changes from 2000 to 2005 the next census with comprehensive data is not until 2010, if there is money for a census by that time.

    We found some interesting things in the 1990 to 2000 data refered to in the prior post’s para about “mid-range” commuting.

    Also see “Regional Rigor Mortis” 6 June 2006 at


  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Just goes to show that there are all kinds of ways to cope. It takes me ten minutes or more just to drive to my nearest neighbors, so a 28 minute commute gets me pretty much to the middle of nowhere. As a consequence, I tend not to go anywhere unless the trip is pretty important AND multitasking.

    Right now there are dozens of new offices and industrial sites going up in Manassas. This follows the ususal pattern of jobs following housing. Eventually we may find that things sort themselves out and people are able to avail themselves of suitable jobs closer to home.

    Unfortunately, closer to home does not mean quicker. If I moved to my Alexandria home, I’d be forty miles closer to my present assignment, but only about thirty minues shorter in time: it would still take 40 minutes to get to my job location, and longer than that by transit. And the rent is MUCH higher.

    Fortunately, this assignment is likely to be temporary, but I have no idea whether the next one will be better or worse. Consequently, I have a hard time believing that how we design things makes a lot of difference in how far we travel: there are far too many other variables.

    I think Larry is right, we need more and better metrics, a fact echoed in the Texas Transportation studies year after year. I also think congestion pricing will lead to spectacular results, just not the results that some expect.


    It might be that most Virginians are opposed to more taxes for transportation, but PW and Fairfax have already been lavishly spending their own money, while stll contributing to the state coffers. Spotsylvania is also spending money. How many counties have to sign up before they constitute a majority of Virginians?

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I dunno about lavish – but the essential point is that the same voters who answer POLLs saying that they are not in favor of raising general revenue(income) and/or gas taxes for transportation say they are willing to pay TOLLs and they WILL also agree to LOCAL taxes for transportation.

    These POLLs show quite clearly that citizens are willing to pay more for transportation but they do not want the money sent to VDOT to continue a discredited status-quo process that have proven to be ineffective and wasteful.

    As long as VDOT and the Northern Va Trans Authority (and others) continue their wish list mentality .. without ranking and prioritizing projects according to performance metrics – and accountability measures – it’s not going to “sell” to most voters.

    The pro-tax folks cannot get this through their heads. They want the money.. in hand.. in an exchange for murky and vague promises with respect to reform – and a high likelihood that the baseline approach will be the status quo that voters are adamantly opposed to.

    What part of “No Way” do pro-taxers not understand?

    What the voter wants is a direct quid-pro-quo. Pay a toll – and get a ride.

    What the pro-taxers want is a TOLL, no ride, and the money diverted to VDOT pot in Richmond for them to fiddle with at their leisure and then return to “inform” a locality how their money will be spent.

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I agree we need a better way to manage the money, but it won’t make any difference if there is not money to manage.

    There are plenty of interests at stake here, and all of them should chip in a little.

    Deferring work that is needed has the same effect as borrowing money: in the end the price tag is higher. But the difference that if you raise the money somehow, you at least have the benefit of the goods. Otherwise you pay twice: you pay extra for the congestion and pollution while you are waiting, then you pay more for the goods later.

    Somewhere in between there is a least cost, most benefit nexus.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    “One guess is that since the two largest New Urban Regions, and some smaller community-scale urban agglomeration in Southwest Virginia fall in two or more states, that may impact data. I know it has a big impact on Wash-Balto NUR that falls in four states plus the Federal District.”

    Nope. I’ve seen how the data is gathered and aggregated – that’s why I posted. The data elements are begin address, end address, how long it takes you, and when you leave.

    I’ve also seen the aggregates, and they INCLUDE out of state commutes in the mix.

    The fact that someone is coming from another state is irrelevant to how this data is aggregated and summarized – the data is the distance you commute, when you leave, and how long it takes you to get there.

    >The every ten year census does note origin and destination but:
    It isn’t just the every ten year census. The link on the original post has a sample of the questions asked – and the questions are asked more frequently than that – we were one of the folks quizzed about it by the Census Bureau LAST YEAR.

    Not every ten years – LAST YEAR.

    Finally, if you want to know why folks post anonymously, ask Will Vehrs.

    “Second, and why Anon is at sea, the post is about changes from 2000 to 2005 the next census with comprehensive data is not until 2010, if there is money for a census by that time.

    I was quizzed by the Census Bureau about this LAST YEAR, so apparently I’m not the one “at sea” on this particular topic.

    Why are you so hostile to folks pointing out errors? Most academics I know enjoy a good intellectual debate – you just attack anyone who disagrees with you. If your ideas can’t hold up to questioning, then what does that show?

  10. Please, my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts.

    I’ve noticed the same thing. I’ve even been accused of waffling just because I present contradictory facts, both for and against what I think is my (current) position.

    We need better metrics.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross


    the concept of contradictory “facts” is a puzzler to me –

    Aren’t facts by themselves – realities? I mean one mile is 5280 feet no matter how much someone wishes it were not.

    Isn’t it how facts or sets of facts (realities) are viewed, perceived, portrayed where things go astray sometimes?

    In other words… it’s when one decides to “use” facts to portray something that seems contrary to realities – that “works” only when it is one’s personal view and not tested/challenged by others.

    If the argument goes like this: assertions using questionable data – portrayed as fact(s) – challenge/responses utilizing the actual/referenced/validated facts results in backtracking and then morphs into a plea for “better metrics”.

    Would it be better to say: … “sorry I used non-factual data or I used factual data as support for a faulty assertion?

    I find much debate springs often from non-facts and/or individuals views based on non-facts.

    People will vociferously disagree about the “facts” themselves from the get go which, in my mind, leads to unproductive dialogue along the “he said – she said” lines of reasoning.

    I like the Wikipedia approach – cite your references and show clearly where your logic emanates from – and fess up when you err with a fallacious argument AND cite the references that proved you were in error….

    just keeping us honest, folks. Credibility is earned not claimed.

  12. E M Risse Avatar


    Right on.

    The problem is that this takes a lot of time and effort, especialy if governance practitioners have an ax to grind and a job to keep and so obsure the facts.

    The role of collecting and making facts avaliable is that of public agencies.

    In this area I have stated several times that the answer to Jim’s questions requires a look under the hood. None of our current clients have seen fit to support that effort as of yet.

    I do know from past work, including serving on committees that advise the Census Bureau that the data is badly collected, aggregated and disceminated.

    Posters who do not know the difference between the sample size and methodology of the every ten year census and the other data the Bureau put out need to keep their harsh comments to themselves.

    Also Larry, add to your list posters using their names. If they have a job that would be in jeopardy then they need to work from the inside to improve the system, not attack those with whom they disagree.


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    EMR –

    Just a couple of comments.

    I don’t have an axe to grind, or any financial motivation to obscure any facts. I have no investment in real estate other than my own home.

    I made no harsh comments. Go back and read them. How thin skinned can you get? Questioning the validity of the design of someone else’s study, which weakness in fact Jim had already pointed out, as have a number of reporters? Pointing out that data does in fact include something that you suggested it might not, which I believe Jim also verified?

    I have some idea of the difference between the ten year census and the other data, as I have a background in statistics and an interest in the subject.

    No one is attacking you, but I have to say – your attacks on me every time I post even mild dissent doesn’t strengthen your argument.

    My family is pretty much lousy with academics, and I don’t know of a one of them that would react to such questions with anything other than immediate marshalling of facts – not opinions – including links to data I could check for myself.

    The difference is pretty striking.

    If you want to make a difference in policy, you need to convince people like myself – professionals who have no particular axe to grind on the subject.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    anon postings DO allow folks inside the system to be part of the dialogue and to contribute useful insight but without knowing on a per anon basis – what their qualification and legitimacy is – places the same requirement on them as others – cite your references and sources or lay out in chapter and verse your rationale if you’re gonna claim knowledge or insight. Otherwise.. all you got .. in what others have – an opinion.

    I don’t know what the blog equivalent of a “informed government source” is.

    If there was a way to “tag” some bloggers with that moniker then just having those folks make comments could be useful but unsubstantiated statements walk/talk and act like personal opinions if the source of an assertion is not provided.

    For instance, if ex VDOT head Phillip Shucet says: “In my opinion” … it’s going to carry a hell of a lot more weight than some smuck named Gross – BUT – even then – no free lunch – tell us WHY and support your arguments with facts and references.

    Assume an anon is the Gov – … if he blogs anon and say’s “taxes are the only way” – he’s going to get no more respect for that unsupported statement than a truly anon smuck….

    so blogs level the playing field but those than can substantiate their rationales are going to have more “legs” than those that don’t .. IMHO (In my humble opinion).

  15. Sometimes I find facts that lean one way, and sometimes another. Both of them may be correct as far as they go.

    The problem is that we tend to pick and choose the facts that support our predilections. When I find one that doesn’t fit what I think is my (current) position, I’m happy to share it. It may modify my position, or you guys may tear it to shreds.

    I’ve said before that I prefer a systems approach. It is far to easy to focus on a single fact that appears to be “the truth” only to find out that the system responds in ways we didn’t consider. We almost always spend more than we save.

    Putty and insulation are not glamorous, but they save a lot more than solar panels. Turns out that the single best investment you can make to save household energy is usually (depends on your house) a programmable thermostat.

    That, and a couple of warm sweaters.

    In graduate school I studied energey economics and environmental economics. The environmental economics class consisted of a number of case studies in which certain policies were implemented with the goal of achieving certain environmental and economic results.

    The results were revisited years later with alarming and/or amusing consequences.

    Almost never did things work out the way the planners and beaurocrats thought they would. This course had a profound effect on me because I had already spent eight years in the environmental business and saw first hand what a debacle it is. The course confirmed my earlier suspicions and experiences.

    I’m convinced that the best thing we can do for the environment is to kill all the environmental lawyers.

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