Commutes get longer, more rural

Census shows it now takes longer to get to work in West Virginia than in Silicon Valley.

Americans are spending more time than ever getting to work. But don't blame longer commutes on big cities or crowded suburbs. The biggest jumps are coming from places that barely qualify for a stoplight.

Places like West Virginia.

During the 1990s, the typical West Virginia commute rose from 21 minutes to 26.2 minutes. That's the biggest percentage increase of the 41 states for which the Census Bureau has released data so far. West Virginians in 2000 spent on average six seconds more getting to work than residents of Silicon Valley did – and two minutes more than the average Connecticut commuter.

How about Vermont? People in that rural state saw their commuting times rise 20 percent during the 1990s, nearly double the increase of Houston.

Such figures point to sobering trends for America's transportation future. For starters, it represents a huge waste of time. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that traffic congestion costs the US an estimated $78 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel every year. Despite these costs, America's love affair with the automobile is growing more ardent than ever, census figures suggest.

Not only are more workers taking to the road, they're more likely to drive alone and carpool less. Such conventional prescriptions for cutting congestion and oil consumption are being stymied by today's more complex and diffuse traffic patterns.

"Behind those numbers is a decades-long and profound shift in how we define space and how we define mobility," says Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria. "It's about the diffusion of commerce, which reduces ... the opportunities to carpool and increases distances."

When the Census Bureau releases its national summary next Tuesday, it will almost certainly show that America's average commute time rose much faster in the 1990s than in the 1980s. In the earlier decade, it rose 42 seconds to break the 22-minute barrier. During the 1990s, data so far suggest a jump of perhaps three minutes or more.

The change, while it may stem in part from new data-gathering methods, is significant. Every extra minute Americans spend going to work means, presumably, at least an extra minute returning home, which translates into more than eight hours of lost time per person in a year – or 450,000 years of lost time for the nation. That's a productivity drain that cellphones and other wireless gear probably haven't made up for.

Stranger than the jump in commuting times is where it's coming from.

Typically, stories of increased commutes conjure up images of harried New Yorkers or Los Angelinos sitting in traffic. And both cities did see already-long commutes grow by more than 3 minutes during the '90s. (New York area residents now have one of the longest commutes in the nation – 40 minutes – although much of that is spent on public transportation.)

So it comes as something of a surprise that those cities' 10 to 12 percent rise in commuting time was dwarfed by North Dakota's rise (up 22 percent).

No one can accuse North Dakota of congestion. The state barely eked out a population gain during the 1990s, and most rural areas lost people. But those rural areas are where the big jump seems to be. Its biggest city, Fargo, reported only a 10 percent rise in commute times.

Or consider Georgia. Surely, Atlanta caused that state's five-minute rise in commuting times? Not exactly. Although the metro region saw a hefty increase, it didn't top the statewide 22 percent gain.

It's a pattern repeated again and again across America. Of the 41 states with data available, two-thirds showed a larger statewide boost than either their largest city or largest metro area. Put another way: Americans may not be spending more time getting to work because of traffic jams; they may be driving longer distances across relatively uncongested roads.

"As the jobs move out to suburban metro areas, they become increasingly attractive to people in rural areas," says Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant in Falls Church, Va., and author of "Commuting in America." "People are staying in their rural area where there are no jobs and they're commuting to the fringes of the metropolitan area."

Of course, rural roads on the edge of suburbs have a knack for becoming congested as an area develops, analysts point out. And several factors could cause this spreading-out of jobs and homes to reverse itself: a big runup in fuel prices, restrictions on sprawl, smart-growth incentives for other modes of transportation. Americans aren't wedded to their cars by love, only practicality, argues Tim Lomax, research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute, a research arm of Texas A&M University in College Station.

"We have not only set up incentives for them to favor the car," he says. "We also haven't created a lot of alternatives."

carpooling, for example, has fallen on hard times. In only five states of the 41 released so far – Alaska, Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and Washington – did a larger proportion of commuters share rides in 2000 than in 1990. Virginia was more typical: carpooling fell 12 percent.

Another solution to longer commutes – telecommuting – gathered momentum during the 1990s.

But so far, the work-at-home movement hasn't grown big enough to make much difference in commuting time. In Nevada, for example, numbers have doubled but only 2.6 percent of workers said they usually work at home.

More employees – not counted by the census – work from home only one or two days a week. Ironically, their telecommuting may enable longer commutes, says professor Lang. "You have to go into the office, but you don't have to go in five days a week."

A third solution – mass transit – reveals mixed results. Public transportation is enjoying a mini-renaissance, according to the American Public Transportation Association in Washington. In the past six years, the number of trips taken on public transportation has risen 23 percent, rising faster than the population (8.4 percent), highway use (14.7 percent), or domestic air travel (12.5 percent).

"We attribute it primarily to an increased investment ... and more public/private partnerships," says says Donna Aggazio, the association's spokeswoman.

But nearly half the public-transit trips are made by shoppers and others not going to or from the work, Ms. Aggazio says.

Meanwhile, that old-fashioned commuting solution – walking – has been declining in popularity every decade since 1960.

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