Mass. commuters spend more time in cars than most in U.S.

By David Riley
Wicked Local | The Patriot Ledger
BOSTON — For most Massachusetts workers, commuting is a slow, solitary task.

Even in towns and cities best served by trains and buses, more people get to work by car or truck than by public transportation, and most drive alone. It takes them longer to arrive at their destination, an average of 27.3 minutes, than workers in 46 other states.

Typical commutes varies greatly, from a brisk 10 minutes for those living on Nantucket to a drawn-out 37 minutes in South Shore towns such as Cohasset, Scituate and Norwell.

New Census figures detail these and other aspects of the lengths to which we go to get to work. The longest trips are not always where they might seem most likely, partly a result of commuting patterns that have shifted along with the growth of jobs along Route 128 and I-495, transportation analysts said.

“Now we’re seeing a lot of journeys that are not the traditional journey from a suburb into Boston,” said Joseph Sussman, a professor and interim director of the Engineering Systems Division at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Local commute estimates come from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which delves into greater detail than the decennial Census. The Census Bureau recently released compiled survey results from 2006-10.

The new information on commutes will play a role in planning transportation projects and development in the region, said Eric Bourassa, transportation manager at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

“Will our roadway network be able to handle future capacity if we’re going to be building something?” said Bourassa, describing how his organization will use the data. “What are we doing in terms of shifting people from cars to (public) transit? Are these investments actually doing that?”

The availability of local jobs is a factor in commute times, said Stephanie Pollack, associate research director for the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. Towns and cities with longer commute times may lack a mix of housing and work opportunities, she said.

The distance people are willing to travel for work is usually a tradeoff between home prices and transportation costs, Sussman said.

People may choose to live farther from a job if it means being able to afford a home, he said. Generally, housing is more affordable the greater the distance from Boston and inner suburbs where many jobs are concentrated.

“What drives this is the fact that the American dream is your own house and your own acreage,” Sussman said. “For people to get that, they often have to live quite a distance from where they work, and they’re willing to pay the additional transport costs in order to get housing and often things like schools that they value.”

The economic downturn may be forcing people to stretch that balancing act. Pollack, whose center has studied commuting patterns, said other Census data suggests Americans have been less able to afford picking up and moving for new jobs in recent years.

“If people are sort of not moving their homes, but changing jobs, they could end up with longer commutes,” she said.

Yet jobs have been on the move over the past couple of decades. Commuting remains heavy along I-93, the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 1, but suburb-to-suburb commuting has risen as jobs spread farther beyond Boston, said Bourassa.

Pollack called the phenomenon “job sprawl.”

“The good news is that’s economic development,” Bourassa said. “The bad news is you really can’t serve those circumvential corridors that well with (public) transit.”

Statewide, 72.5 percent of commuters drive to work alone, while 9.3 percent took public transit and 8.3 percent carpooled. Roughly 10 percent walk, work from home or get to their jobs by other means.

Use of public transportation ranges from as high as 33 percent of Boston workers to less than 1 percent in towns such as Clinton, Hudson and Raynham.

The number of people who walk to work is as high as 22.7 percent in Cambridge and Provincetown, but zero in Sherborn and Stow.

Some communities with higher public transit rates also have high commute times, as even short-distance bus and train trips can take time, Pollack said.

Addressing a long lack of maintenance in state public transit could offer commuters more options, resolve more breakdowns and delays, and help assure people of the system’s reliability, said John Walkey, field organizer for Transportation for Massachusetts, which advocates for more investment in the state’s transportation systems. While the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has made recent strides, “there’s a huge amount of room for improvement,” he said.

Traffic congestion is also a major factor in commute lengths, analysts said. Some research shows people are taking more trips during the day, contributing to backups outside of usual commuting hours as they rush kids to school or day care, stop at the supermarket and find other reasons to spend more time on the road.

“Most people don’t just go to work and come back,” Bourassa said. “You go to work, but on your way to work, you run a bunch of errands.”

David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.

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