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American commute times reached record highs in 2018

traffic MGN_Tony Webster_CC BY-SA 2.0_030119.jpg
Traffic (Image courtesy of MGN / Tony Webster / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The average American now spends 54 minutes commuting each day (27 minutes each way), or 20 minutes more each week and 17 hours more each year than they did a decade ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Commute times have been on the rise since 1980, The Washington Post reported this week. Over that period, Americans have sacrificed the equivalent of a full work week per year to the gods of congestion. Most of that increase is being driven by commutes at the higher end. In other words, a 5-minute walk to work in 1980 was still a 5-minute walk to work in 2018, but more and more people are being forced to commute much longer distances.

The Post report blames several contributing factors, including sluggish home construction in urban areas that has not kept pace with population growth, forcing those who cannot find (or afford) urban housing to live farther away from their workplaces. Decreased investment in infrastructure has also pushed urban and near-suburban residents out of buses and trains and into cars.



Though cars have become significantly cleaner and more fuel-efficient since 1980, most of the gains to be realized in passenger cars happened early in that period, and as traffic continues to worsen, it will impact sustainability efforts.

A recent study in Europe brought this issue into sharp relief. It points out that while the push toward electric vehicles and car-sharing may seem like the ideal tactic for reducing individual carbon footprints, the aggregate result may be a vast increase in the number of trips taken in cars, potentially creating nightmarish gridlock. The report described future congestion equivalent to "rush hour that lasts all day."

Electrification of personal transportation is an inevitability, even in fossil-fuel-friendly America, but its reliance on private vehicle ownership could complicate efforts to reduce gridlock and energy consumption in already-congested metropolises.

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