Catherine Rampell of The New York Times describes a new Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report concluding that Americans have among the shortest work trip travel times in the developed world (Link to chart in The New York Times).
Out of 23 OECD nations, only three have shorter one way work trip travel times than in the United States. These are Sweden, Denmark and Ireland. These are nations without the larger metropolitan regions that characterize the United States and some other nations. For example, the largest metropolitan area in these three nations, Stockholm, with barely rate among the top 30 in the United States.
The OECD report confirms similar earlier data, such as from Eurostat on the relative ease of commuting in the United States.
The US average of 28 minutes to and from work was 10 minutes less than the OECD average and 9 minutes less than Canada. South Korea, with the highest urban densities in the high income world, had an average one-way commute time approximately double that of the United States.
Among the nations in the survey, the United States has the lowest urban population densities. This reality is at odds with the contentions of some analysts who have associated longer travel times and greater traffic congestion with lower urban population densities.
But shorter commute times are about more than density. This is illustrated by comparing the Los Angeles and Toronto urban areas. The two urban areas have almost identical population densities, at 7068 and 7040 persons per square mile respectively (2,729 and 2,718 per square kilometer). The density of the core areas is similar with proportions of land areas at above 10,000 persons per square mile (4,000 per square kilometer). The most important differences are that in Los Angeles, the transit commuting share is one third that of Toronto, and automobile commuting is more prevalent. Employment in Los Angeles is much more dispersed, with less than 5% of jobs being in the downtown area (central business district), compared to approximately 15% in Toronto.
Each of these factors might be thought to contribute to longer commuter times for those in Los Angeles. However, one way commute times in Los Angeles are nearly one-third less than in Toronto. The latest data indicates that the work trip averages 28 minutes in Los Angeles and 40 minutes in Toronto.
This illustrates important dynamics of commuting and mobility. The keys to shorter commutes in the US are adequate roads, personal mobility (the US has the highest share of travel by automobile) and decentralization (lower density) of both jobs and housing.
Commenting on the same report, the Washington Post's Brad Plumer stumbled into fantasyland:
The Department of Transportation found that, in 2009, commutes by private car took, on average, 23 minutes. Public transportation, by contrast, took an average of 53 minutes. You could read that as an argument that more people should drive so that their commutes are shorter or as an argument that we need to bolster public transportation.
The idea of bolstering transit to equal car travel times is empty romanticism. Today, only 7 percent of metropolitan area workers can reach their jobs in 45 minutes by transit, according to the Brookings Institution (see Transit: The 4 Percent Solution). To cut transit travel times in half, and making it available to all of the metropolitan area is unrealistic.