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Press Release · February 28, 2006

More Commuters But Shorter Commutes? Changing Patterns Keep Many Commuters’ Times In Check

Median Commute in California Shortens, But State Average Remains Higher Than Nation’s

SAN FRANCISCO, California, February 28, 2006 — For Californians, old commuting patterns have given way to a veritable hodgepodge of travel routes and modes, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The unexpected consequence of so many variations on the traditional suburb-to-city pattern is a stabilizing effect on commuting, helping to keep in check the time many Californians spend getting to work.

From 1990 to 2004, California’s median commute time dropped by 9 percent, to 20 minutes – despite an increase in the size of the workforce. “What we have is not just a case of a few long-established commute patterns intensifying,” says study author, PPIC policy analyst Elisa Barbour. “Routes, destinations, and commuter behavior have diversified, which can make it easier to absorb more commuting without major time effects.”

Nevertheless, even though commute times for the typical worker have dropped, enough Californians have such exceptionally long commutes that the state’s average time increased by 10 percent, to 27 minutes, over the past decade and a half. Moreover, the proportion of workers who commute 45 minutes or longer increased from 15 to 18 percent. California’s average commute time is 10 percent higher than the nation’s as a whole. “Despite the fact that a typical worker’s commute time went down, the increase in the state average underscores the huge variation in commuting,” says Barbour.

But through all the variation weaves a common thread — the suburbanization of jobs. Commutes going to suburbs comprised nearly half (48%) of all commutes in the state in 2000, up 3 percent as a share of all commutes from 1990. Moreover, 33 percent of commutes started and ended in suburban locations, a 2 percent increase from a decade ago, and 12 percent of commutes began in central cities and ended in suburbs, a nearly 2 percent increase. On the other hand, commutes beginning in suburbs and ending in central cities increased by only about a half a percent, and commutes within the same central city decreased by over 3 percent.

“The decentralization of jobs and homes has a complicated effect on commuting, leading to both long, congested suburb-to-central city commutes and relatively short suburb-to-suburb commute times,” says Barbour. “As policymakers invest in transportation, it’s critical to consider changing commute patterns because investment choices will help shape public demand by influencing travel options and development patterns.”

One example of investment affecting demand is in public transit commuting. Here, California bucked the national trend of steadily declining transit use, and instead saw a slight increase in transit’s share of the commute throughout the 1990s. Although marginal (less than 1%), it’s likely the state went in the opposite direction of the nation because of substantial recent investments in new transit systems. Still, the preference for driving remains clear: Statewide, 75 percent of Californians drive alone; 9 percent ride in two-person carpools; 4 percent ride a bus; 3 percent bike or walk; and 1 percent take a subway, train, or ferry. And as far as commute times go, public transit generally cannot compete: Solo drivers have the shortest average commute time (26 minutes), and public transit users have the longest (47 minutes).

Commute experiences vary substantially across regions. The report, Time to Work: Commuting Times and Modes of Transportation of California Workers, provides a detailed look at commuting behaviors and statistics in the state’s major regions and counties. Below are just some of those findings for the fifteen most populous counties:

  • Longest commute by county (2004): Contra Costa County (32 minutes), followed by San Joaquin (31 minutes), Riverside (31 minutes), Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Francisco (29 minutes) Counties.
  • Longest commute by city (2000): Oakley and Brentwood (44 minutes), Palmdale (43 minutes), Tracy and Antioch (42 minutes).
  • Greatest share of solo drivers (2000): Santa Clara and Orange Counties (77%), followed by Ventura (76%) and Sacramento (75%) Counties.
  • Lowest share of solo drivers (2000): San Francisco County (40%).
  • Greatest share of public transit users (2000): San Francisco County (21% buses, 11% walk/bike, 9% subway/streetcar).
  • Greatest share of two-person carpools (2000): San Bernardino and Riverside (13%) and Kern (12%) Counties.
  • Greatest share of three-person carpools (2000): Kern County (6%).
  • The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.