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Is There an Exit Ramp from the Rush-Hour Nightmare?

The pandemic has given frustrated solo commuters some relief, but history suggests that its effects may not last. Maybe Ebenezer Scrooge actually knew something.

Car traffic against the sunset.
(Artens/Shutterstock)
Of all the frustrations and indignities that modern American transportation has inflicted upon us, rush hour is the worst. We cram tens of millions of office and service workers into small central-city enclaves, then move them back and forth alone to outlying neighborhoods over highways so badly overcrowded that a drive of just a few miles can take an hour and a half, punctuated by the maddening on-and-off brake lights of the car ahead.

It is possible to find rush-hour drivers who actually enjoy their solitary commutes. They listen to audio books, tune in to music and relish their brief escape from hectic home life. But they are a distinct minority. Every recent survey reports that the rush-hour commute is, to most of the drivers who endure it, the most difficult and unpleasant part of their day.

It is also the most alienating. As the social scientist Robert Putnam put it more than a decade ago, “every ten minutes of commuting results in ten percent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.” Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, may have been overstating his case a bit, but the fundamental argument is valid. No urban planner or public official in their right mind, asked to design a system of getting people back and forth to work, would ever have designed something like this.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the solo commute is a creation of the 20th century. In Victorian times, work and home life were concentrated in the same places. Ebenezer Scrooge lived just a few doors away from his London counting house. He was a miserable man, but commuting had nothing to do with that. Nor was it a problem for the many thousands of clerks and managers who traveled to the center of London by public transportation at the end of the 19th century. They crowded into trains and omnibuses, but they didn’t drive on traffic-choked freeways. That was true in America as well. The nightmares of rush hour were and are creatures of the automobile, the modern suburb and the zoning ordinances that have rigidly separated commercial and industrial enclaves from the residential districts of metro areas.

Is the nightmare of rush hour inevitable? One might easily think so. In recent decades, there have been several periods of reduced congestion, usually after one urban disaster or another — an earthquake, a bridge collapse, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But crowded and delayed conditions return after a couple of years, at the most.

In 1994, the Italian engineer Cesare Marchetti posited that one-hour round-trip commutes were a fact not only of modern urban life, regardless of travel mode, but of working life in earlier times as well. This has come to be known as Marchetti’s Constant. For the record, the average round-trip commute in the United States in 2017, according to a Census Bureau study, was 54 minutes, an increase of 10 percent over 10 years. The worst numbers, not surprisingly, came from the New York City region, which averaged 78 minutes. A study around the same time by New York and Cornell universities found that automobile commuters experienced far more stress than public transit users, even if their overall commuting time was shorter.

JUST NOW, WE ARE IN ANOTHER ONE of those intervals of reduced congestion, brought about by COVID-19. The numbers are indisputable: In 2019, congestion added 37 minutes to what would otherwise have been a 30-minute trip in a typical American city. In 2020, it added just eight minutes. In all, the Census Bureau estimated, congestion in urban areas declined between 60 and 75 percent in a single virus-burdened year. Cars that had been averaging 45 miles per hour on freeway commutes were able to zip along at 60 mph on those same roads. On an ordinary weekday morning this summer, traffic counts were at 80 percent of the pre-COVID volume in Washington, D.C., 67 percent in New York City and 71 percent in San Francisco. Studies have shown that a highway operating at 80 percent capacity is able to move traffic smoothly most of the time.

But what’s even more interesting than the raw numbers is the changing traffic patterns that have prevailed over the course of an average day. The rush-hour peaks have flattened. Seven a.m. and 5 p.m. haven’t been creating choke points the way they previously had. Drivers, especially those working at home, have been spacing out their travel much more evenly over the course of the day. In many suburbs, it’s been late-afternoon shopping and other errand-running that has generated the highest volumes of traffic.

All in all, this has been a good thing, at least for the commuters who used to find themselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic twice a day. Is there a way we can buck the historical trend of eventual return to congestion and keep something like the current arrangement going?

One might speculate that we could achieve this with a significantly greater investment in public transportation. I’m a true believer in public transit, but there isn’t much evidence that expanding it would do a whole lot to reduce commuting times. The same study that measured average one-way commuting time at 27 minutes counted the average bus commute at 46 minutes in each direction. Better and more frequent transit would help with several difficult societal problems, notably air pollution, frequent accidents and the inequities between more affluent and less affluent workers. More rail capacity and bus rapid transit on dedicated lanes would make the transit trip less of a burden. But it wouldn’t be any sort of panacea for those plagued by long and tedious commutes.

Still, appreciation of the simpler, less stressful car commutes that the virus has brought us is not going to go away. In one study by the University of California, Davis, the average commuting time desired by respondents was 16 minutes. (I wondered why it wasn’t zero, but let’s pass on that.) We are a long way from achieving 16 minutes. Still, I think it’s pretty clear that the wish for it is not going to disappear once the pandemic subsides. So what can we do to help it along?

PERHAPS THE WORK-AT-HOME PHENOMENON of the past year and a half will continue indefinitely. Prior to the spring of 2020, the share of Americans doing their jobs at home on a given day was well under 10 percent and probably closer to 5 percent. Now it has been reported to approach 50 percent in some places. But that won’t last. What percentage of remote workers would it take to make a serious dent in rush-hour commuting congestion? Twenty percent would probably do it. Thirty percent would certainly do it. Neither of those scenarios seems all that unlikely.

But a permanent increase in working from home carries its own complications. With more people staying home, rush-hour volume might well become tolerable, at least initially. But if it does, more commuters will be tempted by lighter traffic and easier parking to drive to work alone, causing congestion to gradually rise again and exacerbating pollution problems. That’s not something we want.

Then there is the question of what will happen to downtown life and retail commerce if workers are coming to occupy their offices only once or twice a week, or in some cases not at all. The current vacancy rate for downtown office space is around 20 percent in many cities, far more than the normal amount. If the vacancy rate remains that high, and especially if it increases, the result could be a general downtown recession and a long-term employment crisis for the retail and service workers — especially restaurant workers — who have depended on serving a healthy central-city office population. Most of these businesses and workers have been hanging on; if the office vacancy rate spikes much higher, they could be permanently out of luck.

A simpler fix — maybe it’s too simple — would be to bring most remote workers back to the center city but to stagger their hours, as has been happening to a limited extent already. Rush hour isn’t a force of nature; we could do a lot to relieve it by scheduling starting times at 10 a.m., noon, 2 a.m., and all through the day. We created nightmare rush hours with inefficient management practices — we could wake up from the nightmare with a commitment to sensible scheduling. Would employers and workers go for this? Would some form of congestion pricing encourage them to accept the idea? We won’t know until we try it on a more systematic basis than we have done so far.

But the most appealing long-term answer is for more of us to live near the places where we work. As we all know, the number of urbanites living in or close to downtown grew substantially in the first two decades of this century. Lower Manhattan is Exhibit A. Roughly 20,000 people lived around Wall Street and its environs in 2000; by 2019 it was more like 60,000. But there has been no increase in downtown living in most cities since the virus struck, and, more worrisome for the long run, developers are not adding many new central-city places to live. We need those downtown residential units if we are to do something permanent to deal with the commuting problem.

Ebenezer Scrooge was an unhappy man, but he had a great commute. That’s one aspect of his life that it wouldn’t hurt to imitate.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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