Out of Control Policy Blog

Urban Sprawl Does not Lengthen Commute Times

Urban planners, environmentalists and assorted commentators have long decried “sprawl” as a primary threat to effective surface transportation policy. The charge is simple: the continual annexation of the countryside by commuter residential neighborhoods has lead to an inefficient use of land, lengthened the distances between home and work and rendered people overly reliant on cars. This, critics assert, leads to more pollution, congestion and time spent on roads. 

Regarding this last claim, however, ongoing research by professors Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson suggests otherwise. For the past thirty years, the two have demonstrated that actual commute time is not strongly correlated with sprawl.

In 1990, for instance, the average one-way commute was 22.4 minutes across all transportation modes; only 12.5% of commutes were over 45 minutes and only 6% were over an hour in length. In 1995, commutes fell to an average of 20.7 minutes. Statistics from 1969 were remarkably comparable at 22.0 minutes despite a rate of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) growth in the intervening years that heavily outpaced the addition of new road capacity.

While U.S. Census Bureau data shows that average travel time increased 3 minutes and 6 seconds from 1990 to 2000, a change in methodology accounted for a minute of this increase. Questionnaires for the earlier survey limited respondents to two digits (i.e. a maximum of 99 minutes) whereas the more recent one accounted for commutes longer than an hour and a half. Given that the greatest increase throughout the decade was in the “90 minutes or more category,” it is likely that 1990 data underestimated average commute times.   

Indeed, the most recent data is particularly damning for the purveyors of sprawl hysteria. As of 2011, average one-way commutes are identical to the 2000 statistic of 25.5 minutes. While the 2008 housing crisis and the related foreclosures certainly decreased commute times, the fact that changes in work-related travel have remained within a couple minutes since 1969 suggests a more permanent trend. 

This trend of increasing VMT and stable commute times, referred to by some as the “Commuting Paradox,” has a number of potential explanations. One is that the classical model of a central business district has lost its relevance to the modern economy. The geographic diffusion of residential communities has invited a corresponding diffusion of job centers. Rural and semi-rural localities encourage commercial development by offering lower taxes and friendlier regulatory environments to businesses. By this logic, commute times remain steady as shorter polycentric commutes offset traditional “rat races” from suburb to city. 

The rapid commercial development of the Tysons Corner area in Northern Virginia represents a particularly striking example in support of this theory. Boasting only a general store and cow pastures in the late 1950’s, the area began attracting businesses in the 1960’s following the opening of the Tysons Corner Center mall. After several Fortune 500 companies including Freddie Mac, Capital One and Booz Allen headquartered in the area, Tysons grew to become the 12th largest business district in the country with more commercial space than downtown Miami or San Diego. If not for these developments, denizens of the region’s peripheral communities would almost certainly funnel into D.C. 

If current demographic patterns are any indication, urban sprawl may actually help maintain steady commute times. As residential communities continue to expand outward, developers will take advantage of low land values, property taxes and minimal bureaucratic presence to create new commercial centers. Rather than denouncing the lifestyle and transportation choices of an increasingly large group of Americans, sprawl critics should propose constructive ways to reduce the cost of living and quality of life in urban areas.


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