Why Transit Takes Twice as Long to Get to Work

COST Commentary:

Transit takes twice as long as driving, but that delay is not an issue to some transit users, Randal O’Toole writes in his blog, The Antiplanner, article below. In that case, O’Toole suggests, self-driving cars will completely alter people’s perceptions of travel time. “If people who own self-driving cars are willing to travel 50 minutes to work, instead of just 25, it will quadruple their housing choices and completely change the shape of urban areas.”

Self Driving technology is advancing rapidly. At least four states have allowed a total of hundreds of thousands of test miles on their highways. Self-driving cars are projected to significantly increase the capacity of roadways, perhaps double today’s capacity, and to be much safer. Self driving will also significantly alter the use of expensive land such as in Central Business Districts (CBD) by reducing the need for large numbers of parking spaces as self driving vehicles can park remotely. In addition, transit use will experience major changes and the use of 19th century technology train transit will be greatly reduced. In total, mobility will be far more cost-effective.

Why Do Transit Commuters Take Longer to Get to Work Than Drivers?

by Randal O’Toole in his blog, The Antiplanner

Nationwide, the average worker spends 24.7 minutes, each way, traveling to and from work. People who drive alone spend 24.4 minutes; people who carpool spend 28.0 minutes; people who walk take 11.9 minutes; and people who take transit take 48.7 minutes.

In other words, people who take transit spend almost exactly twice as much time en route as people who drive alone. Why? The simple answer is that transit is slower. But this flies in the face of the idea that people have a travel-time budget that limits the total amount of time they are willing to spend traveling each day (or week).

Is the travel-time budget idea wrong? Or do people who take transit have different travel-time budgets than people who drive? Or is the travel-time budget different if, when you are traveling, you can relax and read your iPad or do something else entertaining than if you have to face the work and stresses of driving?

The travel-time budget notion implies that we arrange our lives so we won’t have to spend more time than we want getting to and from work. That means we choose our home location partly based on where we work and we accept jobs only within a certain distance from home (or move if the distance is too great). If a new technology, such as streetcars in the 1890s or automobiles in the 1910s and 1920s, increases our commute speeds, then the distance we are willing to travel can increase without increasing the time we spend en route.

The fact that transit takes twice as long, on average, than driving leads many to conclude that transit riders have less choice than auto drivers. Perhaps they are victims of racial or income discrimination in housing and forced to live farther from work than they would like. Perhaps they are one of two earners in a household that can only afford one car, and their home location is determined primarily by the work location of the other income earner.

To test this, we can look at data for individual urbanized areas. Average travel times to work can be calculated using tables B08136, Aggregate Travel Time to Work by Means of Transportation to Work, and C08301, Means of Transportation to Work, of the American Community Survey (ACS) for urbanized areas. The same tables are available for cities, states, and other geographic units, but urbanized areas are the best in this case as each urban area is something close to a single economic unit (at least, closer than any other geographic area).

Divide the aggregate travel times by the numbers of people using each mode to get the average times. Table B08136 only has driving alone, carpooling, transit, walking, and “other,” so we can’t break out bicycling. Table B08136 is also not available for some important urban areas, such as San Antonio, even going back to 2010. But the numbers are available for most other major (and many minor) urban areas. For this discussion, I’ll use 2013 data unless otherwise noted; the numbers don’t change much from year-to-year.

The first thing to note is that, where transit travel times average twice driving times on a nationwide basis, in the New York urban area transit times are just 76 percent more than times for people who drive alone. This isn’t because New York transit is so much faster than in the rest of the country; average transit travel times in New York are actually longer, at 50.3 minutes, than the national average of 48.7. Instead, it is because New York drive times are so much slower, at 28.6 minutes for driving alone (vs. 24.4 nationally). This isn’t necessarily because New York is more congested; instead, it is at least partly because it is a much larger urban area than most, so the data pick up more people who are willing to travel long distances to work.

New York also has a very high percentage of workers who live in households without cars: 23.8 percent vs. the national average of 4.5 percent. New York also has the highest share of transit commuters earning $75,000 or more per year (it’s 32.9 percent for New York state; unfortunately, these data, in table B08519, aren’t available for urbanized areas). In other words, a lot of people who take transit in the New York urban area could afford to own cars, but they take transit anyway despite the transit time penalty.

Based on these data, it is clear that people who lack choices and are forced to take transit despite the time penalty are only partly responsible for the time penalty. Instead, at least some of the penalty is probably because people who take transit don’t think their time is wasted and so don’t count it as a penalty.

Of course, transit supporters have been saying for years that this is an advantage of transit over driving. While this argument has failed to persuade many more people to ride transit, it does suggest that self-driving cars will completely alter people’s perceptions of travel time. If people who own self-driving cars are willing to travel 50 minutes to work, instead of just 25, it will quadruple their housing choices and completely change the shape of urban areas.

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