Public Transportation and Fast Commutes: Harder to Find Than You Might Think

Most cities with heavy public transportation use have slow commutes. These are the exceptions.

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My story on cities with short commuting times and low auto dependence touched on an interesting debate. As clogged as our highways are, driving is generally a much faster method of commuting than public transportation. Nationwide, the average time for driving alone to work is 24 minutes, while for public transportation, it is 48.3 minutes. Now, this is a bit of an unfair comparison because "public transportation" includes commuter rail, and people riding the train to work often travel over much greater distances than people driving to work. But even if we limit ourselves to just subways and streetcars (which cover much shorter distances than commuter rail), the difference is still stark: 47 minutes is the average commuting time for those systems.

Population alone doesn't explain the difference, either—in Houston, the vast majority of commuters drive. The Washington, D.C. metro area is of comparable size to Houston in terms of population, but has a much greater use of public transportation. But D.C. has a longer average commuting time than Houston.

The political debate enters in because advocates of smart growth, urban living, and mass transit would probably argue that this difference stems from the relative lack of investment in public transportation compared to road and highway infrastructure.

That's not a bad argument, but as this debate continues, Americans still need to figure out where and how to live. If you want to have a short commute and live in a place where a relatively large number of people get by without a car, college towns are the way to go, as my list attests. There's a good reason for this: Walking is the fastest form of commuting (11.3 minutes average) and liberal college towns like Chapel Hill and Ann Arbor tend to be walkable communities.

But if you can live close enough to work to walk there, you're in the distinct minority. It's just not feasible for most people to happen to find a home so close to their jobs. What if you want to live in a big city, not a college town? If you don't have a car, you'll probably be using public transportation, not walking or biking.

So I thought I'd switch up my methods and do an altered version of the list that focuses on cities with a high percentage of public transportation commuters (as opposed to non-car commuters, which combines public transportation with walking and biking). So these cities are the true exceptions to the rule—(relatively) heavy usage of a slow form of commuting, but with shorter-than-average commutes.

Cambridge - 29.5 percent of commuters using public transportation (excluding taxis)

Pittsburgh - 20.1 percent

Minneapolis - 27.6 percent

Portland - 12.2 percent

Cincinnati - 11.3 percent

Honolulu - 11 percent

St. Louis - 10.7 percent

Boulder - 10.3 percent

New Haven - 10.4 percent

St. Paul - 9.3 percent

Milwaukee - 8.9 percent

As you can see, once you get out of the top three, these cities are still major driving cities. So it's pretty hard to find a city with heavy use of public transportation and fast commutes.