Commuting Patterns in Multi-Centered Urban Settings: The Case of Southern California

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American suburbs are gradually leaving behind their Ozzie and Harriet days and evolving in ways that might surprise even their critics. Today’s suburbs are more diverse, are populated with double income families and offer more job opportunities than were the old “bedroom” communities of the past. Many suburbs, particularly newer ones, are designed to be ‘greener’ and more sustainable, combining planned medium densities with functioning pedestrian-friendly town centers and other urban amenities. The average commute time for some suburbs is also shorter than previously believed -- in some places no worse and sometimes better than those experienced by inner city residents.

The 2005 American Community Survey (ACS) of the Census Bureau suggests that, nationally, the worst average travel time to work was experienced by residents of Washington, D.C., New York, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Georgia. California was ranked after these states as the seventh worst for work commutes. As state averages, these figures do not speak to local experiences. However, they do suggest that not all Californians are stuck in traffic jams.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon worth exploring. It is possible that people are finally moving closer to where they are employed or, alternatively, looking for jobs closer to home. It is also possible that diffused employment centers (creating what is known as polycentric or multi-nodal cities) have gradually lent themselves to incremental improvements of the job-housing balance in certain areas. Southern California, the poster-child for low-density urban patterns, may offer encouraging proof in that direction.

According to the 2005 ACS data, residents in selected places in Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties experienced some of the lowest regional average commute times (see Map 1). These areas included cities such as Thousand Oaks, Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, Torrance, and Irvine.

Of course, some individuals in these locations may still experience long commutes -- as occurs in every location -- and traffic can be heavy. But by simply averaging out the commute times, people residing in particular suburban areas with significant concentrations of employment do tend to experience somewhat shorter commutes.

As Map (2) indicates, according to the 2005 County Business Patterns (another dataset from the Census Bureau), a number of ZIP Codes with the highest regional concentrations of employment fall in Irvine, Burbank, and Eastern Ventura County. Taking the two maps together suggests that the old paradigm of job-housing balance can still put us on the right path toward the reduction of average commute time.

These results have policy implications. One might be to build housing near areas where jobs are abundant and develop a more rigorous economic development agenda for places where housing abounds. Too many cities focus either on residential development or on expanding their employment opportunities; in reality, we should look for greater synergy between the two.

As the data from Southern California suggests, many major employment centers have achieved or are close to achieving this goal. We need to acknowledge and build on their success, wherever they are found – in downtowns, suburbs, or exurbs. But the job does not end there. In our planning, we need to be equitable, environmentally concerned, and focused on socio-demographic patterns in our urban settings. Here are a few issues for our collective consideration:

  1. As the price of oil inches up toward 5 dollars or more per gallon, the idea of shortened commutes goes beyond an environmental appeal and begins to speak directly to our national, regional, and individual economic conditions. However, the issue of the environment looms large and may provide the impetus to achieve energy savings that would be unlikely to occur at $2 a gallon gas.
  2. Given that major American cities have witnessed the growth of a polycentric urban form (i.e., the emergence of multiple major employment centers throughout the metropolitan area) since World War II, it’s high time we accept and capitalize upon, as opposed to resist, this trend. An enhanced job-housing balance, with these multiple centers in mind, would reduce the number of miles traveled to work, especially through lateral and reverse commuting. A reasonable increase in the density of these places and improvements in their quality of life, by expanding existing entertainment and retail opportunities, would enhance the local economy and reduce the volume of work and non-work related trips.

    In the case of the five county Southern California region, if the average commute time for its nearly 7.3 million commuters were to be reduced by a modest level of 2 minutes, the end result would be a significant improvement in the health and welfare of all residents. Assuming an average speed of 30 miles per hour for all commuters (and for all transportation modes), a reduction of 7.3 million miles can be expected. This does not include the travel miles reduction that could be achieved through localizing shopping and other daily activities. Planning for a multi-centered urban region could result in stronger local economies, lower levels of traffic, reduced travel time to work and other daily activities – improving the level of air pollution and environmental degradation, while enhancing our collective urban experience.

  3. In Southern California, the major distinguishing demographic factors between people with short commutes to work and others are age and family type. For example, people without children have a significantly lower average commute time, especially if they have never been married. As people get married and as their socioeconomic status improves, they seem to choose residential locations for reasons other than distance to work. The slightly longer average commute times for divorced and separated individuals suggests these patterns persist even after a family breaks up. Apparently people balance the importance of travel time to work with better schools for their children, bigger houses for their family, and improved access to urban amenities that define one’s overall quality of life.

    How does this translate to urban planning and policy? If the goal is to keep families living close to workplaces, it will take more than condos and “hip” cafes. We need livable places with educational and entertainment amenities that cater to the entire family. Places like Irvine and Thousand Oaks have focused on providing a wide array of urban services – jobs for mom and dad, schools for the children, and a range of restaurants and entertainment venues that match the demography of their region.

  4. One troubling aspect about recent data is the continued disparity in commute time for various modes of transportation. In Southern California, people who drive to work have an average commute time of 28 minutes, while bus riders experience commute averages of about 46 minutes (see Maps 3 and 4 for spatial variation, noting the length of time it takes for most residents of Southern California to travel to work). Given that the auto-dependent population reported personal incomes three times those of bus riders, the underlying socioeconomic factors make the differences in commuting even worse. The worst commute times appear in low-income inner city neighborhoods and job-poor suburbs. For example, in Los Angeles County, the worst average commute times were experienced by people living in Palmdale and Lancaster and areas west of downtown LA.

    This suggests that attention to the needs of reverse commuters is as important as focusing on issues associated with those who go in or through the urban center. We need to find ways, for example, to ease the commutes not just to downtown Los Angeles, for example, but for workers headed from blue-collar districts in the urban core to their places of employment further out in the periphery.


  5. Finally, with the added incentive of increasing fuel prices and the availability of modern communication technologies, the number of those working at home will need to increase over time. The 2006 data from the American Community Survey suggests that particular sections of Southern California have already witnessed the growth of this employed population (see Map 5). Clearly, suburban locations with higher socioeconomic status currently house the greatest concentrations of such a population. Santa Monica and communities located in the Santa Monica Mountains, Beverly Hills, and the areas extending from Irvine to the south house a large number of employees benefitting from the opportunity to work from home.

    Re-imagining and planning for a networked multi-centered city with access to modern technologies will allow us to further expand the opportunity to work, while we improve the quality of life and productivity of employees.

Concluding Notes

We can draw several critical lessons from these statistics. First, the suburbs are not uniquely burdened by long commute patterns. Second, high density areas are not necessarily conducive to shorter commutes. Third, reverse commuting and transit dependency are important factors to consider in our future planning agendas. Fourth, we need to look at the transportation problem as a class issue. People without automobiles have to sit for long periods in buses to reach low paying jobs that are located many miles away from their homes. If the goal of public policy is to increase access to common goods and expand options for all our citizens, then transportation planning that focuses only on getting middle class commuters to their jobs is surely inadequate. We need to think through various modes of transportation, as well as the option of working at home, in order to develop a more equitable response to the commuting challenge that faces us and our economy.

This essay is a call for planners and public policymakers to move beyond notions applicable only in the few American regions ---notably New York and Washington, DC --- whose economies remain centered on a single urban core. Instead planners in Los Angeles and other polycentric cities (the vast majority of American urban areas) need to focus more on existing realities instead of obsessing about bringing people to places where they don’t want or cannot afford to live.

Finally, we need to apply diverse solutions for diverse urban conditions. Density is only one component of this solution. For our inner city neighborhoods, higher mobility and better transit services are crucial. A significant number of bus riders simply cannot afford other modes of transportation: we need to accommodate their needs at the same time that we devise a way for suburbanites to get to work – through localizing and shortening their travel patterns. For our suburbanites, we need to focus on more jobs closer to home and increased opportunities for full and part time telecommuting. A modest 5% increase in the population of those who register zero miles to work, by simply moving from their living room to their home offices, would yield significant results at regional and sub-regional levels.

The population of the U.S. is expected to reach 420 million by 2050, a growth of 138 million over 50 years. This growth clearly cannot occur in our downtown areas alone, nor is it likely that some neighborhoods, particularly those that are more affluent, will accept much more densification. As a result it’s far more probable that our urban regions will become more pronouncedly multi-centered. This will demand a shift away from the industrial mono-centric to multi-centered planning strategies that attempt to create a better job-housing balance and access to alternative transportation modes. Having reasonable densities, better quality of life, and less stress associated with traveling to work will, in turn, improve prospects for creating a better sense of ‘community’ – an ideal that has eluded us since the emergence of the industrial city in the last century.