Another look at commuting times and how we get to work in Los Angeles County

Click above to see larger image. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

The Texas Transportation Institute is scheduled to release its annual congestion survey tomorrow. If history holds true, the Los Angeles area will likely rank as of the most congested traffic areas in the United States, as measured by the TTI.

As regular readers know, there are all sorts of ways of ranking traffic congestion and commuting these days. And it seems like a new ranking comes out every week. I’m not sure most of them tell us anything that isn’t glaringly obvious to anyone who is alive: 1) we live in a giant, six-county (I include San Diego County) metro area with about 20 million people, many of whom have cars, and; 2) Southern California, generally speaking, didn’t start building a modern transit system until the late 20th century, meaning we’re in catch-up mode and a lot of people drive.

As it happens, the U.S. Census Bureau last week burped out some commuting data that tells a somewhat different story. Most of the media (rightly, me thinks) focused on the time it takes commuters to get to work. In the L.A. metro area as measured by the Census Bureau, we came in 17th place with an average of 28.1 minutes — a lot less than some metro areas with robust transit systems. If looking at sprawling L.A. County alone, we’re at 29 minutes, a slight reduction from the 29.4 minutes measured in the 2000 Census. The difference probably is explained in part by the current recession and high unemployment numbers.

I think that the most interesting numbers explain how L.A. County residents are getting to work. Here’s the breakdown between 2000 and the 2005-2009 numbers the Census Bureau released last week:

The results are interesting: A decrease in carpooling looks to have resulted in more people driving alone — perhaps one explanation is that’s a result of increasing congestion in carpool lanes, leading fewer people to take them.

There’s also a slight uptick in people taking transit, cycling and working at home — perhaps due to more and better internet tools and company flexibility. As for the transit side of things, in 2000 there was still no subway service to the San Fernando Valley, no Gold Line and no Orange Line.

More Census Bureau charts are after the jump.

Click above to see larger image. Source: Census Bureau.

No surprise here — the Eastern Seaboard cities with old transit systems and Chicago and San Francisco had the most workers riding transit. But L.A. is certainly ahead most of the rest of the country.

Click above to see larger image. Source: Census Bureau.


Pretty good results for Los Angeles County here, with room for improvement for sure. I think it will be interesting to see these numbers after the Westside Subway Extension, Regional Connector, Gold Line Foothill Extension, Expo Line and Crenshaw/LAX Line open.

Click above to see larger image. Source: Census Bureau.

I think this shows where the nation has been investing its transportation dollars: the highways. Plus cars and gas remain very affordable and desirable to the masses.

Click above to see larger image. Source: Census Bureau.

Not a happy chart for those in the transit industry! Time-wise, transit is taking longer as a whole than other ways to get to work. I think this speaks to the above point: as a nation we’re not investing enough in new, modern and fast transit systems.

Your thoughts?



7 replies

  1. @betterfuture: Especially when driving cars is subsidized to the amount it is the the USA! (But don’t let the death toll from the war in Iraq bug you now).

    @Steve Hymon: Can we get a breakdown of how LA Metro employees are getting to work in 2000 versus 2005-2009?

  2. Well rememeber, this is a capitalist country and freedom, and in america, most people prefer to drive cars and nothing will change that.

    Besides, you can’t exept to force people to take mass transit.

  3. @Rita

    Which is precisely the reason we need more rail/fixed guideway transit that does not share the right of way with cars in the first place. But the buses still need headways that match the connecting rail transit lines or busways, otherwise people will not even bother using street buses as a mode of transit unless they really have to because they have to wait so long and/or use a timetable for scheduling when they go somewhere. Our metrorail system runs at headways of about every 15 minutes but most of the connecting buses run at half hour to hourly headways therefore making that first or last leg of the trip not feasible as the wait time for the bus adds a considerable amount of time to your overall trip.

  4. Connor is right, the light rail lines and bus rapid transit should always have signal premption over other vehicles and not only lesser signal priority. After investing the money to build the infrastructure, these lines need to be operated with the highest priority on the streets. To do otherwise, is just to incentivize more solo driving.

    I think it’s interesting how in 1960 about 16% of workers nationwide used public transit. I definitely think LA can get there again, which would put it in the neighborhood of DC and SF. It all comes down to how those transportation funds are allocated.

  5. It is inevitable for transit that shares streets or freeways with cars to be slower than the cars. Somewhere in the trip, the bus (or streetcar) has to stop a few places to pick up more passengers and stop a few places to let off more passengers. The car doesn’t have to spend time doing that.

    Also, the walk from home to where the car is parked is usually shorter than the walk from home to the bus stop.

    If you’re ten seconds late getting to your car, that adds ten seconds to your commute. If you’re ten seconds late getting to your bus stop, that adds from five minutes to an hour to your commute. Most routes would have a lot of empty buses if they had five minutes headways all day and night.

  6. Quote: “Time-wise, transit is taking longer as a whole than other ways to get to work. I think this speaks to the above point: as a nation we’re not investing enough in new, modern and fast transit systems.”

    I completely agree. Speed and frequency are the most important factors (low frequency can also add to total travel time). That’s really the only way that public transit can compete with the private car in this country. This is why its so important to design these systems with speed being a high priority (ie. signal preemption if street running, level boarding, higher speed limits for fixed guide way lines, grade separation in dense areas, brief station dwell times, tilting for higher speed on curves etc.) This can all be done while still connecting well to destination points and connecting suburban areas to those points at the same time. Its partly about funding but its even more about priorities. More highways or more transit. To me its simple. One mode has an overwhelmingly dominant presence already that is ingrained into the very transport fabric of every city in America at the expense of all other modes which have mostly been afterthoughts. That needs to change.