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Fall 2006 Vol. 6 No. 3

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The Long Drive Home

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Changing Work Force Will Dramatically Shift America's Commute

Most Americans will tell you that their commute is getting worse. A new report from the Transportation Research Board says that not only is it getting worse, the transportation system is not keeping up with growth and other challenges as well as it has in the past.

Have our roads reached a saturation point? "Yes," said Alan Pisarski, author of the report. "There are weaknesses in our transportation system's services that are not being addressed as effectively as during the 1970s." He also added that people are being forced to adjust behavior to avoid heavy congestion in the peak periods.

The report analyzes census data from 1990-2004 to examine trends in commuting and consider patterns to watch.

The personal vehicle is still the most common way for people to get to work, the analysis revealed, finding that 88 percent of people commute in vehicles, with 76 percent of commuters driving alone. New solo drivers grew by 13 million in 10 years. Transit use and carpooling are increasing in many areas as well, and more commuters are traveling from suburb to suburb rather than from suburbs to central cities.

©Photodisc A major trendsetter will be baby boomers and the effect they will have as they reach retirement age. During the coming decades, many baby boomers -- who will start turning 65 in 2010 -- will leave the workplace and stop commuting. The nation should see fewer commuters as this generation starts to retire, but the increase of working immigrants will partly offset this decrease. In fact, immigration in the past decade increased far more than expected -- there are about 8 million more immigrants in the country than the Census Bureau projected. This "immigration bubble" is changing the nature of the work force and overall commuting patterns. Although immigrants make up less than 14 percent of all workers, they represent about 40 percent of those in large carpools, a mode of travel whose use has spiked for the first time in 30 years.

"One of the most significant changes to commuting patterns will probably come from newly arrived immigrants," said Pisarski. "Unlike most native-born Americans or immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than five years, many new immigrants either carpool, bike, walk, or use public transportation for their daily commute."

Another pervasive trend that could significantly affect commuting in the future is the increase in people who work from home, the report says. The latest census data shows that 4 million Americans now work from home.

The data also show that more Americans are leaving for work between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., and are taking on longer commutes -- between 60 and 90 minutes.

Other findings in the report include:

  • Men make up the majority of early-morning commuters, from midnight to 7:30 a.m. Women tend to commute later and make up the majority of commuters after around 7:30 a.m.
  • The number of Americans who "reverse" commute from the city to the suburbs has increased.
  • Fewer people are walking to work.
  • Older female drivers will increase dramatically as boomers work past age 65.
  • Car ownership among blacks has increased significantly.
  • Twice as many Hispanics carpool than non-Hispanics.
  • 30 million vehicles were added to households from 1990 to 2000, and 13 million of those were added to households that already had two or more vehicles.

What does the future hold? Pisarski says that we will see more people making longer commutes to live and work where they want. And employers will be forced to offer more flexible schedules as well as the option of telecommuting.   -- Maureen O'Leary

Commuting in America III: The Third National Report on Commuting Patterns and Trends. Transportation Research Board (2006, 196 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09853-X; available from TRB's bookstore, tel. 202-334-3213; $60.00).

The study was authored by transportation consultant Alan E. Pisarski and sponsored by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and the Transit Cooperative Research Program, both managed by TRB.

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences