Woo hoo, Wonks! Interactive Map Shows Average Commute Times by Zip

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If you squint real hard, you can see the map above displays Virginia and parts of surrounding states. The color codes mark the average commute time by zip code. The dark purple indicates zips with the shortest average commutes and the pinkish-yellow colors the longer commutes. To view the specifics for any given zip code, check out the interactive map created by AutoAccessoriesGarage.com, an online auto accessories retailer.

The Washington metropolitan region appears to be the commuting hell-hole of the country. Only the New York and Los Angeles metros come close. Maryland ranks 1st among all states for the longest average commute (31.9 minutes), while Virginia ranks 4th (28.6 minutes). Even the most cursory glance at the map above shows that in Virginia the longest commutes are centered on the Washington metro and outlying jurisdictions.

Interestingly, commute times in the center of Washington, D.C., are relatively short — some in the vicinity of 20 minutes. Commutes are tolerable in zips near the core in jurisdictions like Arlington, Alexandria and even in areas farther out such as Tysons, Reston and Herndon. But average travel times become brutish on the outlying fringes of the metropolitan region, sometimes exceeding 50 minutes.

Urban cores across the state have shorter commuting times. That applies to Norfolk, Richmond, Charlottesville, Roanoke, Lynchburg and Virginia’s smaller metros. Another pattern that strikes the eye  is the line of purple along the Interstate 81 corridor from north of Harrisonburg through Staunton, Lexington, Roanoke, and Blacksburg all the way to Bristol.

There are patches of pinkish-yellow in rural Virginia where, presumably, inhabitants have to drive great distances to jobs — the West Virginia phenomenon.

The map vividly shows that the biggest transportation dysfunction in Virginia is the mass movement workers from the bedroom communities of far-flung Washington exurbs to jobs in the metro core. What the map doesn’t reveal is how to solve the problem, which is rooted in counter-productive zoning and land use policies. This map shows symptoms, not causes. Still, even a map of symptoms has its uses.

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10 responses to “Woo hoo, Wonks! Interactive Map Shows Average Commute Times by Zip

  1. You know. What might be interesting would be to look at urban areas with the lowest/shortest commute times with an eye towards judging that as a more successful “functional” settlement pattern.. eh?

    and the ones with the terrible commutes – maybe tell you something about the nature of the urban area and it’s appeal or non-appeal such that significant numbers of people CHOOSE to do terrible commutes..

    gotta be something to that idea.. IF there actually ARE differences in the commutes between different urban areas..

    recognize also -that urban areas with significant commuting also adversely affect the people who do live in the urbanized area – as TMT and DJ, Acbar will no likely attest to.

  2. Proper historical city growth is job growth first, then meet the housing demand which follows. County settlers started up a farm and built their own home on site. When population was great enough, they’d seek a charter so as not to have a long ride to the courthouse. Counties are units of law and order. The court, sheriff and deedbook set up and maintained ownership records for land, the agreements basic to private property. A centrally located town gets chosen as county seat. Towns were located at crossroads or travel routes. That’s where craft and trade people had a market of local farmers and travelers. Tidewater counties often had no towns, as the plantation had its own craft people in the slave population. A courthouse was built at a central location without an incorporated town. Towns and cities that grew with crafts and industry, expanded by annexation to meet that demand. Boom and bust would occur. Municipal subdivisions platted that did not build out could be reconfigured later, consistent with property law. The Virginia Independent City, having both municipal and county functions, enabled these municipal corporations to provide public services required for growth. As any corporation can err, the Dillon Rule was used for oversight. Counties, having to provide education to the families they housed, wanted economic growth. Conversion of a farm field to building lots, then adding homes gave a short term boost in valuations and revenue – a boom, but as the houses filled with children, service demands quickly exceeded new revenue and existing school, library, recreation facilities, fire and rescue, etc. There was no offsetting industrial or commercial development for taxbase. Increases fell on existing farms, land and the housing. Population growth first was not followed by jobs. Having done the analysis in 1980 for Planning District 7, the Northern Shenandoah Vallley, as I-66 was being completed, the recommendation to counties was to seek industrial and commercial development first. It was easy to get housing, hard to get industrial and commercial. The more housing/bedrooms, the less industry was welcome. As counties had to cover revenue from housing, the goal became new units had to add to tax base enough to cover cost of kids generated. As inflation took over in housing costs, tax rates did not have to be increased, as valuations grew and the wealth effect made people feel good, since they couldn’t afford to buy where they lived. They’d gotten in early. Commuting distances grew rapidly, as land was bypassed. The only correction is to get jobs closer to housing. For a few years, telecommuting was believed capable of doing that, but it didn’t. The solution is in the past. Carpooling is not easy because of the wide dispersion of home and job locations. It is difficult to make a match.

    • Tom, Good commentary. I would pick one nit. You wrote, “The only correction is to get jobs closer to housing.”

      That’s not the only correction. Another correction is to get housing closer to jobs.

      Admittedly, that runs afoul of zoning codes and NIMBYs. But I am beginning to see the outlines of a solution that may keep us going for another four or five decades. As demand for office space shrinks, as retail re-configures around online, as malls and big boxes implode, our jurisdictions may find themselves with a surplus of land zoned commercial and industrial. If we can rezone these for mixed-use development at higher density, perhaps we can get more people living closer to jobs without provoking the NIMBYs in the neighborhoods of single-family dwellings.

      • Thanks. I entered on my phone and apologize for lack of paragraphing. One final thought from the 1980’s analysis. There was a direct correlation between population increase of a county and the county budgets. There was a small exception in that the higher population in Towns, the less County budgets increased. Warren County and Front Royal and Culpeper and Culpeper County were best in this regard. Whether a home is built in Town or in the rural County, the real estate tax for the County was the same. In the case of the Town residents, additional services they might require were covered by the Town and funded by Town taxes. There is no double taxation. Sheriffs deputies could not patrol like Town Police, even though that’s what homeowners expected. Real rural residents would go to Town once a week. Suburbanites in the rural county drove to work everyday and were hardly self-sufficient on their five acres with a riding lawnmower.

        Close-in housing is more expensive. Though Northern Virginia has the highest average incomes, their average housing prices are much higher. The median household income can not buy the median value home. That is why there is the drive to qualify. There are few options in the housing market. Either you can afford it, or not. While transportation options are limited, there are still more options there – drive alone, pool, VRE in some cases. People will also think that after five years they can get a job closer to home. People can afford a 10% salary cut, not 40% – the wage gap if your job is in your home county. Many try to start businesses. Driving so much everyday gives people an opportunity to think – “How do I get out of this stupid commute?” Many who started 20 years ago with what was a hour commute, now have a two hour drive – same distance.

        The problem is that since the 1960’s transportation has been the automobile. In the 1970’s, transportation was the 15th criteria of about 17 for home buying according to marketing information. If you had a car, you could live wherever you wanted/could afford. As a consequence, in the 1980s Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) grew faster than – lowest to highest growth rates – population, households, employment, vehicles owned, VMT.

        Virginia Cities are landlocked – can’t annex, so they will have to go vertical to add more households, and some population. Average household size should decline – the kids should move out an set up their own households. Most cities have grown in the number of households, maintaining in the process, net population – which looks like no growth. Border to border urbanization in a County generates a high population. Build out projections of zoning and subdivisions give astronomical numbers. In reality, it doesn’t take much land to house a lot of people.

        Jobs closer to housing; housing closer to jobs – that is the only thing that will cut commute times and distances. Home buyership – most people don’t own the ranch free and clear – makes it difficult to move. Where there more rental stock, then people might more easily change residences when there’s a job change. Since renters were not considered to be the upstanding citizens that homebuyers were, subdivision and zoning favored the S-F style, providing little new land for apartments. It wasn’t until 1970s I recall, that renters could be called for jury duty.

        Here’s some history on the reason housing dispersion was deemed wise in the 1950s. I didn’t learn this until 2004. Comparing promotion of urban density to what was being built in Virginia, I posited that American had a “fear of density”. My planning peers did not agree. In 2004 I learned about “urban vulnerability”, the fear of nuclear attack that underpinned dispersion policies. As a 1946 boomer, I grew up with that fear of attack. Going to Milwaukee for Braves baseball – 1956-7-8, I recall the Interstate highway, then under construction, being signed for Emergency Evacuation. Why the low density, automobile dependent suburbs in the U.S.? Urban Vulnerability-Fear of Nuclear Attack led to U.S. Policies to Disperse Population in the 1950’s-Oops, that’s Sprawl

        • re: ” In reality, it doesn’t take much land to house a lot of people.”

          but it does take a whale of a lot of supporting infrastructure.

          I remember a planning exercise used in various forums called “Reality Check”

          I think Bacon has even written about it.

          the basic premise was that population will increase and cities grow and you have to put those people “somewhere” ..

          domino-type blocks were used – each one represented x number of people and the exercise was basically designed to encourage people to find place to stack the dominios.. ergo… “problem solved”.

          in real life – it’s not that easy to just re-zone an area to be much denser if you don’t already have in place – the infrastructure and facilities needed to provide services and mobility to a denser population.

          But places like NoVa are essentially a musical chair conundrum where the losers have to move further out to find “affordable”…. housing – not just any kind – the kind that is single-family detached on a lot in a cul-de-saced subdivision where family can live the stereotypical American dream life – the cost – a gawd-awful, never-ending, daily commute to hell.

          Okay – so the “dense functional settlement pattern” / reality-check crowd .. apparently have no answer for this.. in fact, are still scratching their proverbial heads over it and truth be known – been at that for a while!

          NoVa is not unique with respect to commuting. It’s pretty common in most urban areas that more often than not are ringed with exurbia!

          What HAS changed is VDOT’s stance towards their response to it. They’ve gotten out of the road-widening, capacity-adding response and gone to the HOT Lane, managed congestion world where “choices” are actually owned by those who made them rather than putting VDOT behind the 8-ball.. on trying to keep up.

          It’s really not a decision VDOT made when it had choices .. most ring roads (beltways) around urban areas are basically out of available right-of-way to add contiguous segments of new lanes – without having to condemn and tear-down very expensive developed property – on the taxpayers dime – to the tune of 100 million or more – per mile – as opposed to the nominal cost of 5-10 million per mile for just raw, undeveloped land.

          Millions of people HAVE made the transition to an apartment/condo from a vision of a 3-bedroom detached with a yard… so it’s not like it’s not a choice… though millions of others have rejected that choice to commute instead.

          so just how “functional” is en masse exurbia commuting to Urban “functional” settlement patterns ?

        • First, kudos on your comments. Quite interesting.

          This comment is general to all. What’s wrong with choice in housing? If someone wants to live in an expensive apartment in Tysons; a small, post-WWII house in Arlington; a 70s-80s colonial in Annandale; or a big, house in Stafford County, let them chose.

          And let’s remember, Tysons is the world’s biggest experiment of repurposing a successful suburban office park to an urban area. It’s starting with mixed reviews, but the planning period extends to 2050. I suspect few of us will be there to see the results.

          The problem with local budgets are many fold: 1) slow economic growth, 2) overly generous and unaffordable public sector pensions, 3) unfocused citizens who don’t provide counter-pressure to spending activists, 4) inefficient and ineffective agencies, such as WMATA; 5)the aging of many communities, and 6) the wholesale importation of poverty — very needy people (who are often extremely hard working) that don’t pay sufficient taxes to cover the costs of the services they need. I think a stronger case can be made that these factors are driving local and regional budgets more than settlement patterns.

        • Yes, Good comments, Tom –

          Perhaps out in countrysides we are looking at

          1/ building density and mix of uses and demographics around crossroads,

          2/ building density and mix of uses and demographics upon the good bones of stronger old towns such as for example Bridgewater Va., and

          3/ in some places starting over by contracting inward, building new places on old and even ancient models such as Coursegoules, France.

          Here, we wrap settlement patterns far tighter, replacing all of our many iterations of American sprawl with new American variations of Coursegoules, France found in such places as Vail Colorado and/or hybrid solutions thereof – places like Telluride and Ouray and Aspen and Taos and Silverton and Durango – and do it all in Virginia inflected through more eastern models of a new southern style living taken from out of state Eastern Seaboard – now successful places now like New Bern in N. Carolina or St. Michaels and Chestertown in Md. – or Warrenton in Piedmont, or Winchester in Valley.

          There’s no reason why Virginia anywhere – whether it be in the Tidewater, Piedmont, or inland Valley cannot put out and spread around a far better and more productive version of own local and historic spin and thus build anew on new versions of old ways of rural living.

          Keys here might be:

          1/ auto limited primarily to inter-urban travel, whether it be between towns and.or suburban places, or across country sides.

          2/ build more intense mixed uses lieu and replacement of spread out sprawled big box or long strips of today’s roadside trash),

          3/ built for permanence (not for more sprawled country side toss away commercial lite trash),

          4/ build for all generations and pack those generations together and intermixed, not separated and apart from one another by age, occupation, income, social status, making gated communities illegal.

          5/ break up eyesores, promote social responsibility, demand respect, get people rubbing shoulders and talking to one another face to face, taking responsibility for one another again, and getting shamed if need be.

  3. Good commentary – thoughtful.

    but Dillon aside -there must be something organic about the process of urbanization that occurs seemingly more or less the same no matter the variations in land, law and governance.

    Over and over down Fredericksburg way when the subject of the terrible commute comes up – the answer is always the same – “I cannot afford a house in NoVA”

    To make clear – it’s not that they cannot afford “housing”.. they cannot afford “the” House they want to live in when they are not at work.

    Down our way – frustrated and desperate people say – “bring the jobs to us”.

    and the employers up in NoVa – say : “NO WAY – we need a RELIABLE and plentiful labor pool; we do not want to hobble our agency by moving to the exurbs with the labor pool is much thinner ”

    The question remains – are their urbanized areas where people can afford to live and thus are not forced to long and terrible commutes?

    Could we rank cities according to terrible commute?

    Just for the record, I think NoVA is a hell-hole but for some reason – Richmond is not.

    Charlotte is a hell-hole – Raleigh is not.

    Houston is a hell-hole, Austin is not.

    I admit to bias… on these judgements.

  4. LarrytheG, Reed Fawell 3rd, TooManyTaxes (and Jim)
    Thanks for all the comments. I’m at the deadline for a big project, and then off to Boston for American Association of Geographers Wednesday, so I can’t respond to every point now, but would like to participate in a longer term discussion. To Larry’s thought “there must be something organic about the process of urbanization that occurs seemingly more or less the same no matter the variations in land, law and governance” I have a working theory, though it is not urbanization, a muddy term that covers everything from an unicorporated place with enough waster and sewer services to support 2500 people to Manhatten. The historic pattern is settlement building, which began using the same tools used for hunting, only to make shelter/lodging grouped for security and agriculture, which provided some lesisure for the invention of more technology and civilization. It grew to be The City, the original development district.

    Every City/Town serves a region, or regions. City-States became Empires in a few cases; Nations came later – bounded regions that protect the network of City/Town regions which may be in bounded county-region, multiples of which are states/provinces, sub-national regions.

    The early settlers to America wanted to build “the shining city on a hill”. The knew then it took 300 or more years to build a city. A German traveler in the 17oos, according to Warren Hofstra, wrote “Virginia had no cities of substance and wouldn’t have any for 300 years.” He did so at a Living Towns event in the 1990s, but now hasn’t got the reference written down. Still, the point is, 300 years ago, they knew city building took time.

    As for Reed’s thoughts on new cities, my view is that the original settlers found the best locations. Neither Reston or Columbia are great successes. Reston had no jobs nearby. They talked U.S.G.S. into building next to it, which saved the development from bankruptcy.

    Existing Towns and Cities are the best bet, but they will be slow to adapt to 1950s housing density. At the core of most Towns and Cities you can find three story, brick apartment buildings from the 1950s. Front Royal has several. Stairwells and elevators enable building up, the elevator car being the most efficient form of mass transportation. A roadway is a horizontal shaft, where everyone must have their own car.

    Anything of high value is high maintenance. Dumb gold requires expensive security. The infrastructure which creates location, location, location is what gives value to a parcel of land, not zoning or subdivision. Coloring maps doesn’t do that, but it does fuel speculation. Land isn’t wealth all by itself, though its control once was. Private infrastructure is possible, but limiting. You can’t have much economic activity based on well and septic. Homeowners Associations can support some infrastructure, but it is a challenge. Municipal corporations are designed for self-perpetuating communities. They have no end date. Likewise, Counties and States are on the “in perpetuity” track. Community motive is what enables it.

    Virginia is blessed by a simple government structure. They promoted local planning and regional coordination of planning as the means to economic development beginning in the 1930s. The Planning District Commissions organized in 1968 paid off with an alignment of standard sub-state regions. Prior to Governor Holton issuing an Executive Order that State Agencies, other than VDOT and Courts, were to use the 22 Planning District or multiples if they had sub-state districts. Prior to this there were 400 variations. I’m not aware of any other State that used this public administration common sense to align sub-state districts for efficiency. VDOT did come to find the PDs valuable, since they could not talk about landuse, but PDs could. The PD plan is strategic, local plans are Comprehensive for Land Use and other factors as set out in the Code of Virginia. In 1960, Virginia was 14th in terms of income. In 2010 it was 9th. A good move. Localities across the state are struggling with the challenges of the current time. They all have planning tools and various experience in dealing with change.

    Here’s a PowerPoint, now working on the next iteration for June, 2017: Be a City, Serve a Region~A Built-environment Scaled Network Vision for Local Planet Earth – RSA-Atlanta July 14, 2016

    Here’s some background on the corporation: “municipal corporations” from Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

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