15 U.S. Cities With the Worst Traffic & Longest Commute Times
How’s your commute?
If you’re like most Americans, it probably involves a single-occupancy vehicle that you own or lease and takes a little less than 30 minutes each way. You spend at least some of that time in slow or stopped traffic.
The vast majority of Americans commute in private vehicles – 85.8%, according to the census bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. That figure accounts for both driving alone (76.4%) and carpooling (9.4%). Some commuters use multiple modes – for instance, driving to their a nearby commuter rail station, taking the train into the city, and walking to the office once there. In such cases, the primary mode of commuting is rail, because it’s the longest leg of the trip.
Driving commutes tend to be shorter than public transit commutes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American commute took 25.7 minutes in 2014. The 2009 National Household Travel Survey, the most recent available, pegs the average driving commute at 22.85 minutes. By contrast, the average public transit commute stretches to nearly 53 minutes.
Cities and metro areas with higher rates of public transit commuting therefore tend to have longer average commutes. Most of the U.S. cities with the longest commutes are big, densely populated, and have robust public transit systems, such as New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. They also have sprawling suburbs that, while significantly more affordable for middle class homeowners, are far from job-rich city centers.
Drivers face a big trade-off for their shorter commutes: traffic. According to Newsweek, the typical American driver spends about 42 hours per year stuck in traffic. That’s nearly two full days. Bike commuters and public transit users might take longer to get to work, but at least they don’t have to sit behind the wheel amid a sea of steel, silently celebrating every time they inch forward. Public transit users also have the added benefit of full concentration, and thus greater productivity – they can read, study, or catch up on work as they ride to and from the office.
If time is money, time spent in traffic carries a very real cost. As of July 2016, the average hourly wage for Americans employed in private, non-farm positions is $25.03, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means an average American worker with an average American commute loses approximately $1,051 per year to traffic. In Los Angeles, where workers lose more time to traffic (81 hours, per INRIX) than any other major U.S. city, the annual loss amounts to approximately $2,027. If it’s not spent as productively as time at the office, time spent sitting or standing on buses and trains carries financial costs too.
Overall, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute calculates the annual cost of U.S. traffic congestion at some $160 billion, or $960 per commuter. TTI predicted this figure would rise to $192 billion by 2020.
It’s not just wages and productivity that are affected. Traffic congestion racks up many costs that are more difficult to calculate, such as the environmental impact of carbon emissions from idling tailpipes, the staggering cost of repairing and replacing beat-up road and bridge infrastructure, and the health impacts of gridlock-induced stress.
According to data compiled between 2013 and 2016 from INRIX (traffic data), Trulia (average commute times and renter-versus-owner differentials), and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey (average commute times), folks who live and work in and around these cities and metro regions have it worse than most.
Within each region, commuters who live in central cities and close-in suburbs, where jobs are more plentiful, generally have shorter commutes (and more transit options to avoid highway traffic) than commuters who live in far-flung suburbs. According to Trulia’s data, many regions’ renters enjoy shorter commutes than their homeowners, because more renters live in close-in neighborhoods. In the ongoing debate over whether it’s better to rent or buy, that’s a point in renting’s favor. However, in most cases, the difference is slim.
Washington, D.C. emerged from the Great Recession largely unscathed, thanks in part to the continued growth of the Federal Government. After taking a temporary hit from deep federal budget cuts in the early 2010s, growth resumed. According to The Washington Post, D.C.-area job growth hit 2.2% in 2015, outpacing the national average for that year.
Though D.C. has a robust transit system that includes several subway lines, high (and rising) housing costs in and around the city have pushed thousands of middle class families deep into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. Spread-out housing patterns raise region-wide commute times and increase traffic along the major arteries feeding into the District and surrounding employment centers, such as Crystal City, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland.
Car-free commuters don’t have it much better, as the D.C. Metro is famous for service interruptions and has undergone billions in repair and upgrade work since 2010. However, due to the region’s thick, widespread traffic, the disparity between car commute and public transit commute times isn’t as great here.
It’s hardly surprising that New Yorkers, especially those who commute by car, have terrible commutes. With an excellent transit system and walkable, bikeable neighborhoods, the nation’s largest city is also arguably among its best (and easiest) places to live without a car. Accordingly, the time disparity between public transit and car commuting is lower here than in many other areas.
Millions of New Yorkers take advantage of their hometown’s unique assets and forgo car ownership completely. The problem is, sky-high housing costs in Manhattan force countless working New Yorkers well out into the city’s outer boroughs, where you don’t need an investment banker’s salary to afford a one-bedroom New York apartment. Even for those who don’t drive, the relatively long distances and slower bus and train speeds result in higher average commute times, as many outer borough residents spend more than an hour each way on the train. And, though the city has invested millions of dollars in a first-class bike lane network in recent years, bike commuting here remains dangerous and stressful due to congestion and aggressive driving.
Located right across the Hudson River from New York City, Jersey City is a bustling business center in its own right, drawing thousands of commuters from surrounding New Jersey communities. But many Jersey City residents cross the Hudson each day on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s PATH rail system, which connects Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City with midtown and lower Manhattan. Commuter ferries cross the river at Jersey City as well.
Commuting by car can be a nightmare here, with persistent congestion the norm on surface streets and hour-long backups common at the cross-Hudson Holland Tunnel. In many cases, public transit commuting is actually quicker.
Long famous for its car culture, Los Angeles doesn’t disappoint. The city’s epic traffic jams waste 81 hours of the average commuter’s life each year, worse than anywhere else in the United States. Though the nation’s second largest city has a surprisingly comprehensive (and growing) public transit system, huge swathes of its vast urban area remain under-served at best.
The root of the problem is simple. Despite its sprawling reputation, Los Angeles is actually quite densely populated. Curbed reports that the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which includes dozens of smaller cities in the L.A. Basin, is the most crowded metro area in the country – beating out New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, among others. But more than three out of four Angelenos drive to work every day, a far higher ratio than many other densely populated cities.
The good news is that public transit ridership is rising in many parts of L.A. So is bike commuting, though the city’s bikeshare program lags behind those of many comparable cities. And, at approximately 10%, L.A.’s carpooling rate is higher than the national average of 9.4%. Still, public transit users face much longer commutes here.
Like New York City, Boston is a densely populated city hampered by expensive housing and over-stressed road networks. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority operates an extensive public transit system that includes multiple subway, light rail, and commuter rail lines, but commuters who live in suburban communities have few good options. For instance, the trip from Lowell (a northern suburb) to Boston’s North Station takes 45 minutes by commuter rail, and even longer than that in typical rush hour highway traffic.
Just west of Jersey City, Newark has robust transit assets, including direct connections to Manhattan via the PATH network and the NJ Transit commuter rail system. Barring delays, rail commuters can get from central Newark to New York City’s Penn Station in less than 30 minutes. (Getting out of crowded, labyrinthine Penn Station is another story.)
However, like the rest of northern New Jersey, Newark suffers from crippling highway and road traffic. Locals who drive to work farther west – to suburban business centers such as Morristown (home to Bayer, a major pharmaceutical company) and Parsippany (home to Allergan, another big pharma firm) – often face commutes much longer than the regional average.
Known as the Inland Empire, the sprawling San Bernardino-Riverside region extends for miles east of central Los Angeles. Housing here is cheaper than elsewhere in Southern California, though that’s partly due to the carnage wreaked by the late 2000s housing crisis. Many locals commute west to Los Angeles, Anaheim, Orange, and other major employment centers by car, wasting hours of their lives each year on the handful of freeways connecting the region with the coast.
Both Riverside and San Bernardino are connected to downtown L.A. and Orange County cities such as Anaheim by Metrolink rail, but travel times are excessive – approximately 90 minutes from Riverside to L.A.’s Union Station, and nearly two hours from San Bernardino to Union Station, for instance. Accordingly, the disparity between car and public transit commute times is high here.
San Francisco packs a lot of sights, sounds, and smells into its compact 49 square miles. It’s a wonderland for tourists, who don’t have to put up with its nightmarish rush hours. But for local workers, especially those who commute to and from the suburbs every day, there’s nothing magical about it. Drivers and transit riders coming from far-flung areas, such as San Jose and the East Bay suburbs, can easily spend an hour or more traveling to and from work each way.
More so than in many other cities, commuting is a political issue in San Francisco. For years, highly paid tech workers have snapped up prime properties in the city’s most convenient, charming districts, pricing out much of its middle class. Many of these workers commute on comfy, amenity-rich coach buses to jobs in the string of suburban communities between San Francisco and San Jose. Though they sit in traffic just like other drivers, cushioned seats and high-speed WiFi have a way of making the journey more bearable.
Across the bay from San Francisco, Oakland suffers from the same transportation problems as its larger neighbor. Though downtown Oakland is an important business district in its own right, plenty of Oakland residents drive the congested Bay Bridge or ride the BART train into downtown San Francisco every day. Others travel north or south to East Bay communities such as Berkeley (home to the University of California, Berkeley) and Fremont (home to a major Tesla factory, among other high-tech employers). The hills to the east and bay to the west constrain and crowd development, funneling more cars and people onto the area’s aging freeways and rails.
Aside from Lake Michigan, the Chicago area has no natural barriers to growth – the surrounding countryside is flat, fertile farmland. Though the region’s forgiving geography relieves development pressure and keeps housing prices in check, it hasn’t done much to relieve its traffic woes and public transit problems.
Many of Chicago’s biggest employers reside in suburban office parks with limited transit access, forcing workers who don’t live nearby to drive the sterile superhighways every day. Others cluster in the central city’s Loop, the nation’s second-largest business district.
On paper, the Loop is extremely well connected to surrounding areas via Chicago Transit Authority‘s “L” rail network and Metra’s commuter rail system. But Chicago’s rail transit system, the first line of which was built in the 1890s, is showing its age. Track fires and other safety hazards cause slowdowns and stoppages with alarming frequency. Even in perfect conditions, trips on the creaky L drag on forever – from Linden station in suburban Wilmette to Adams/Wabash in the Loop, the Purple Line takes nearly 60 minutes.
Though still expensive by national standards, Philadelphia’s housing costs are lower than those of most other major East Coast cities. That’s partly because Philly isn’t located right on the coast, as New York and Boston are, and its suburbs are therefore able to spread in all four directions.
This sprawling development pattern, coupled with above-average transit usage, pushes Philly’s average commute times well above the national average. Plus, transit coverage is uneven here – millions of people in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania suburbs live within walking, biking, or short driving distance of a SEPTA rapid transit or commuter rail line, but the city’s New Jersey side is comparatively under-served.
Barely 40 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., Baltimore is sometimes overshadowed by its more prosperous and powerful neighbor. But it does very nearly measure up to D.C. on the stressful, time-consuming commute front.
Built around a twisting tidal river, Baltimore has two underwater tunnels (Fort McHenry and Harbor) and one over-water bridge (Francis Scott Key), all of which are reliably gridlocked in rush hour. The i-695 beltway, once intended as a speedy bypass around the crowded core, now serves busy suburban office parks that flood it with tens of thousands of cars during the afternoon rush. And the uneven local economy has many Baltimoreans commuting an hour or longer to the D.C. area for more reliable, better-paying work.
For car-free Marylanders, the picture is mixed. The Maryland Transit Administration provides above-average bus and rail connections within the city and surrounding suburbs, but political gridlock has hampered efforts to expand service further. City authorities finally approved a small-scale bikeshare program in 2016, per The Baltimore Sun – several years after regional neighbors such as New York and Boston.
Everything is bigger in Texas, including the traffic jams. Sprawling Houston’s elegant, comprehensive highway network and growing inner-city rail and bus system (Metro) can’t keep up with locals’ mobility needs. Though Houston’s average commute times are kept low by the high proportion of car commuters, workers who commute downtown from distant suburbs, such as Rosenberg and The Woodlands, can easily spend an hour or more in their cars each way.
To complicate matters further, many of Houston’s biggest employers occupy remote office parks miles from the city center. For example, energy conglomerate ConocoPhillips is based in an imposing complex off Interstate 10, about 10 miles west of downtown Houston.
Like Houston, Atlanta is a sprawling southern city with a high percentage of car commuters. Though its traffic jams aren’t quite as epic, the region’s spread-out geography results in higher average commute times.
Though the MARTA system provides good coverage in Atlanta proper, public transit service is lacking in outlying areas. Since many of Atlanta’s biggest employment clusters are located in its northern suburbs, spotty transit coverage can be a major problem for people who don’t want to drive to work every day. In recent years, suburban development has crept northeastward toward desirable areas around Lake Lanier and the Appalachian foothills, further distorting the region’s shape and exacerbating its commuting woes.
With a population of approximately 340,000 in the city proper, and just under 1 million in the surrounding urban area, Honolulu is a manageable size. Most outsiders know it as a beautiful seaside vacation town, a popular honeymoon destination, and the principal gateway to the rest of the Hawaiian islands.
But Honolulu’s unusual geography and concentrated city center mean daily headaches for commuters from its outlying neighborhoods and the towns beyond. Most major employers and institutions, such as Hawaii Pacific University, make their homes downtown. Thanks to encroaching mountains, the urban area spreads in a ribbon along the seashore, especially west of the city center. According to a Washington Times feature, many commuters from Honolulu’s western fringes – where commute times are much higher than the regional average – beat traffic by leaving home in the wee hours and catching an extra hour or two of sleep in their car once they arrive at work.
There’s another side to every story. While getting to and from work isn’t exactly a joyous experience anywhere, some U.S. cities are known for quick, low-stress commutes. These places tend to be smaller and less congested than cities known for nightmare commutes. Many are located inland, where there’s plenty of available land for roads and housing, or are struggling with long-term economic problems. It’s not shocking that downtrodden Buffalo, which has lost half its population since the mid-20th century, has the shortest commute times of any major city, according to Trulia.
Nevertheless, there are some commuter-friendly surprises. Trulia calculates that San Diego enjoys the ninth-shortest average commute of any major U.S. city, despite its prime coastal location, growing population, and geographical constraints on development. (However, the parts of San Diego with quick, easy commutes tend to be more expensive.) Virginia Beach and West Palm Beach, which have similar issues, are even higher on the list.
In other words, if you can’t take your commute anymore, saving your sanity doesn’t mean moving to the boonies or finding a job that lets you work from home. You just have to be more intentional about where you put down roots.
What is your morning commute like?
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.
15 U.S. Cities With the Worst Traffic & Longest Commute Times
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