Atlantic Cities
The Perfect Commute

A Very Brief History of Why Americans Hate Their Commutes

A Very Brief History of Why Americans Hate Their Commutes
Wikimedia Commons/Shutterstock

Americans stuck in traffic may take some solace in the fact that the nature of the daily commute has changed dramatically over just one or two generations. Travel between home and work little resembles commuting by our grandparents. The evolution of our commuting habits reflects broader social change affecting every dimension of urban life.

How getting from here to there is changing forever.
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Throughout history, most people have worked at home, and around the world, most still do. Eighteenth century industrialization led to increased separation between home and factories or workshops, but most work trips were short and were made on foot. Port workers lived near the waterfront and steel workers near the mills; garment workers walked to small-scale local shops and often brought their work home. Though the trip to work was short, it was not pleasant. People lived in dense city centers in wooden tenements located in the shadows of factories. The streets were filled with garbage and ubiquitous manure from animals that hauled wagons. The air was dense with smoke from coal and wood fires, which gave off sparks that led to frequent conflagrations.

Journeys to and from work began to lengthen when an entrepreneur introduced the "omnibus" to the streets of Paris in the 1820s. Horse-drawn carriages soon carried people along fixed routes for a few pennies in cities around the world. Only the rich could afford the fares, which exceeded daily wages for most. From city directories of the period we know that doctors, lawyers, and wealthy merchants were thus able to relocate their residences to the edges of crowded and filthy city centers in which their offices remained, seeking more space and clearer air for their families.

A series of technological innovations within a few decades — placing rails in the streets to reduce the number of horses needed to haul the vehicles, and later replacing the horses by steam, cable, and electric power — lowered the cost of travel and increased its availability to larger numbers. When passenger trains entered service after the Civil War, a few rich people could live in "suburbs" along the lines, boarding intercity trains at stops outside destination cities. The railways "commuted" their fares — enabling people to travel daily in both directions on a single monthly ticket, and giving us a new name for the work trip.

As mechanization of transit made it ever cheaper, safer, and cleaner, reformers and idealists seeking to overcome the "congestion evil" pushed for lower residential densities and deliberate suburbanization for more than a century. In 1909, at the First National Conference on City Planning and the Problems of Congestion, speaker after speaker advocated the introduction of zoning ordinances and the extension of transit routes to outlying areas, hoping to lower urban densities by enabling people to travel longer distances to work. Mary Kingsbury Simkhovich, the only woman to address the 1909 gathering, suggested that immigrants arriving in New York be taken immediately from the docks to the suburbs lest they be captured by the disease-ridden depravity of life in downtown Manhattan. She also urged a low flat fare on the subways to enable commuting to downtown employment on a workingman’s budget.

Bicycles soon made it possible to commute moderate distances, and the automobile brought to the masses the prospect of living even farther from work and away from transit routes. Each innovation in commuting was adopted first by the rich but extended the possibility of living at lower density gradually to a larger share of the population. As prices of vehicles dropped, real-estate developers — often the most vigorous promoters of new rail lines and roads — converted land at the edges of cities to create new residential communities. After World War I, Americans complained bitterly about crowded subways and railcars that were filthy, trains that were late, and monopolist transit operators who had little regard for their passengers. They welcomed increased freedom and flexibility in travel provided by automobiles as they increasingly came to be able to afford them.

As population movement accelerated toward the edges of our cities, and automobiles and ubiquitous streets and highways made it possible to travel in any direction, employers relocated factories closer to the suburban work force and shopping centers sprung up to serve outlying residents. Throughout the twentieth century, increased mechanization of transportation went hand in hand with urban decentralization and lower urban densities. Many critics blame "urban sprawl" on automobiles and the construction of the Interstate system after World War II, but it is more accurate to see in the parkways, freeways, and Levittowns of the mid-century the continuation of a long-term trend following the earlier decentralizing influences of streetcars and railways.

While similar patterns can be observed in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, they were more pronounced in the United States because of race and ethnicity. Whites of means pursued suburban living in the name of better schools and open space for their kids without necessarily stating that they also were escaping from increasingly black and ethnic inner cities. Suburbanization of tax revenues contributed to the accelerating decline of central cities. Well before the arrival of the new millennium, most Americans who commuted did so entirely within the suburbs. The majority of residences and workplaces in our nation are both now located in suburbs more than city centers, rural areas, and small towns combined.

But commuting is continuing to evolve. Today, households are smaller, and many are choosing downtown residences. The proportion of the population consisting of retired people is higher than ever, a growing segment of the country that does not commute to work. The processing of information is far more commonly the focus of our work than the manufacturing of products: workers need not be near customers and suppliers. As the influence of race on locational patterns gradually subsides, city centers appeal to the most creative Americans of all races and are again booming. High residential densities make downtowns exciting and are no longer associated with ill health and discomfort.

At the core of the evolving commute is the shifting nature of work. More people work part-time, at home, and at multiple locations than ever before. Americans look at congested streets and freeways and are quick to blame commuting. But, according to AASHTO's series of reports titled Commuting in America, 2013, in actuality travel to and from work constitutes an all-time low: approximately 16 percent of person-trips and 19 percent of person-miles. Even on mass transit, commuting only accounts for 39 percent of passenger miles. Recent growth in travel is far more attributable to increasing leisure travel, trips made in the course of work that are not made to and from fixed offices, trips to and from airports or rail stations for intercity travel, and increasing goods movement to support of our increasingly dense urban living patterns.

Conventional wisdom about commuting is changing rapidly. After favoring urban decentralization and increasing separation between residential and commercial activities through most of the 20th century, American policymakers are coming to favor "smart growth" policies instead. We are trying to alleviate congestion through denser urban living in mixed-use neighborhoods that allow us to meet more needs by walking, biking, and using transit, and lessening the need to travel far for work. At the same time, the world is becoming more connected by flows of information more than of people. We are traveling increasingly between and among cities for our jobs, rather than between a home and a fixed place of work. 

We blame pervasive urban traffic congestion on the necessity to commute. But cities were congested before we commuted, and likely will remain so in what is gradually becoming a post-commuting world of work.

Top image: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons (left); littleny/Shutterstock.com (right); inset, New York Times photo archive/Wikimedia Commons

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' an Atlantic Cities series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Martin Wachs, Ph.D. is professor emeritus of city and regional planning and civil and environmental engineering at the University of California and senior principal researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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