Proof: The Amer­i­can com­mute is worse to­day than ever be­fore.

Re­mote work gains mo­men­tum as com­mutes get ever longer

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY CHRISTOPHER IN­GRA­HAM christopher.in­gra­ham@ wash­post.com

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.

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