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What Do We Really Know About Commuting? What Do We Really Know About Commuting?

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What Do We Really Know About Commuting?


Heavy traffic exits the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan in New York. STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

My daily commute was awesome during the government shutdown. My fellow nongovernment-employed Washingtonians agreed. We could find seats on the Metro. We could drive the speed limit on the Capital Beltway. We could get over the 14th Street Bridge in less than five minutes.

These are the kinds of anecdotes that make up most peoples' understanding of the daily trip back and forth from home to work.


It turns out that the transportation professionals don't know much more than we do, but it's not for lack of trying. Here's what we do know, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which recently released parts of its Commuting in America 2013 report:

* Commuting to and from work constitutes 28 percent of a person's vehicle miles traveled, but only 16 percent of total trips. Transportation to and from work defines the traffic situation in any given area.

* Eight-four percent of commuters make no stops on their trips from home to work and back. Just over 12 percent make one stop.


* Thirty percent of all bus, train, and subway trips are to and from work, according to 2009 data from the Transportation Department. Other research puts the figure at about half.

* There are 43 million two-vehicle households and 22 million three-vehicle households in the United States. There are 10 million zero-vehicle households. Not surprisingly, the zero-vehicle households make up almost 30 percent of the densest populated areas.

Here's what we don't know, according to AASHTO's researchers:

* The relationship between commuting habits and fuel prices.


* The impact of telecommuting on actual commuting.

* The impact of car sharing on vehicle ownership and transit use.

* Patterns of commuting for people with more than one job.

* Patterns of commuting that involve more than one mode of travel.

In other words, we are only scratching the surface in understanding one of the most fundamental activities of working Americans. It would help urban planners and developers tremendously to have a robust data picture of our commuting habits so they can spot trends and problem areas and respond accordingly. That picture, like the economy, will change. But those changes, like economic indicators, also provide valuable clues for innovators who could make our lives easier. And they don't even need to shut down the government.

What are the most important questions that need to be answered about Americans' commuting habits? What are the challenges to answering those questions? What are the biggest changes on the horizon? What role does car ownership play? What role does mass transit play? What role does the employment market play? Does the data need to be nationwide or can it focus on individual regions? Who should be responsible for conducting this kind of research, if anyone? Why isn't there better data available now?

From the Transportation Insiders

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