Proof: The American commute is worse today than ever before.
Remote work gains momentum as commutes get ever longer
New numbers from Gallup show that remote work is becoming more common. American workers today are more likely to spend at least part of their time on the job apart from their colleagues.
This trend has been visible in government data for a number of years. About 4.6 percent of employed people in the country, or 6.8 million of them, were found to be working at home in 2015, the latest year for which the Census Bureau has data. That was a nearly 5 percent increase from 2014.
Remote work is a bright spot in a generally gloomy landscape for commuters. According to the Census Bureau, the typical American commute has gotten longer each year since 2010.
The Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, released last fall, found that the average American one-way commute crept up to 26.4 minutes in 2015, or about 24 seconds longer than the previous year. Do the math — 24 seconds per commute, twice a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year — and in 2015, a typical American could expect to spend about 3 hours 20 minutes more getting to and from work than in 2014.
The Census Bureau also found that the longest commutes were the fastest-growing. The total 16-and-over workforce grew by about 1.7 percent, to 148.3 million, from 2014 to 2015. But the number of workers with commutes of 45 minutes or more, one way, grew faster (3.5 percent). The number with commutes of an hour or more grew even faster than that (5.1 percent). And the number of workers with extreme commutes — 90 minutes or more — grew at the fastest (8 percent).
At the other end of the spectrum, the number of workers with commutes of less than 10 minutes actually shrank.
A number of factors are driving this trend — Americans’ decades-long movement into the suburbs, among them. A Brookings Institution report found that, even as jobs followed this exodus toward the edges of metropolitan areas, suburban and exurban sprawl led to longer commutes.
That trend has continued in the years since, said Adie Tomer, an infrastructure researcher at the Brookings Institution.
“We continue to see specific metro areas either grow outward, or just outright add population,” Tomer said. Much of the housing being built to accommodate the new residents is of the suburban, low-density variety. “What that’s doing is pulling housing and jobs further apart,” Tomer said.
Another factor, Tomer said, is an increase in solo commuting by automobile and a decrease in carpooling, particularly since the 1980s. “We really shifted to this ‘I’m gonna travel alone’ ” mode of thinking about commuting, he said.
It’s hard to overstate the negative personal and societal consequences of lengthening commutes, which have been linked to increased rates of obesity, unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, back and neck pain, divorce, depression and death.
At the societal level, people who spend more time commuting are less likely to vote. They’re more likely to be absent from work. They’re more likely trapped in poverty. Their children are more likely to have emotional problems.
The increase in commuting times “is one of the most powerful indictments of our daily American experience,” Tomer said. People don’t want to live farther away from work, but they also don’t want to give up the detached single-family home with the big yard.
“People don’t want a longer commute, but faced with a choice people will choose that lawn,” Tomer said.
Which brings us to that bright spot: the increasing number of workers who appear to be breaking out of this commuting rut by making use of remote-work possibilities. And Gallup data indicates that employees who spend three or four days working from home are those most engaged with their jobs, which suggests that it’s good for employers, too.