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Getting to work takes longer

State transportation planners say the commute increase of 2 1/2 minutes reflects infrastructure problems.

[Times file photo: Mike Pease]
Afternoon traffic on Fletcher Avenue in Tampa approaches the junction with Interstate 275.

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 6, 2001


Odd things happen when you look closely at the time it takes people to get from home to work.

What would seem to be a relatively straightforward matter of calculating commuting time begins to get complicated.

Florida's estimated mean commute time has risen by a couple of minutes during the past decade, according to census survey numbers released today. Seemingly no big deal, right?

Actually, it's the kind of news that raises eyebrows -- and all kinds of theories -- among transportation planners.

The estimated mean commute time went from 21.8 minutes each way in 1990 to 24.3 in 2000.

"That's a pretty serious jump in a number that has historically been pretty stable," said Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research.

Explanations run the gamut: A stronger economy and a growing state mean more commuters on the road. People are moving to the suburbs for more affordable housing. Those theories are counterbalanced by forces that would shorten commute times: development of in-city housing and jobs moving to edge cities to follow cheaper suburban housing.

An uptick in the number, despite these forces that traditionally cancel out each other, is what has attracted the interest of transportation planners.

The numbers being released today were collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in a survey of 700,000 households, but statistically adjusted to represent the entire country. As such, they have a margin of error. For Florida, the mean commute time could be as low as 24 minutes or as high as 24.6 minutes. Although bureau officials hope to make the survey a regular part of their work, it is the first they've done.

The survey places Florida 13th in the nation on the estimated commute times list. Predictably, parts of the more urban North top the list: New York; Maryland; New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Illinois are the top five. The national average time of 24.3 minutes mirrors that of Florida.

Although these survey numbers are new, the concept of measuring commute times is not. Transportation planners have been studying them for decades. In doing that, they've noticed an interesting cycle: Commute times tend to jump up, then bump down.

It seems that people -- with some exceptions, of course -- are basically intolerant of spending more than about 20 minutes traveling each way to work. If a commute gets longer than that, then people change their situation. They'll move closer to work, or find a job closer to where they live.

Brian Smith, executive director of the Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Atlanta is an example of the commuting balance getting out of whack. People moved into a particular suburb assuming a certain commute time. But they did not foresee the explosion of housing developments, after which they saw their commute times double and triple.

That would explain why Georgia, which has a relatively low population density, is seventh on the list of commute times.

Perceptions of commute times also play into the equation, said Gary Brosch, director of USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research.

"It's always interesting to note that common perception would have it that commute to work has doubled in the last 10 years," Brosch said. "The facts just don't bear that out."

What has happened in the past decade, Brosch said, is that Florida has underinvested in its transportation infrastructure.

"We simply have not invested at the pace that we've grown," he said. "While no one wants to pave over paradise, it's a no-brainer, for example, that I-4 should not be going from four lanes to six lanes. It should be going to eight lanes. That's obvious."

That commuting times have not skyrocketed, he said, is because of local phenomena such as development in New Tampa and of Carillon in north St. Petersburg: jobs moving closer to where people live.

State Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, said some relief is in store locally with more than $1-billion of interstate road money designated for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties through the state's Mobility 2000 plan.

"We're putting some serious money into the pipeline, but it takes years for this to have an effect," said Sebesta, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Sebesta hopes the state's high-speed rail system might ease local congestion. If the system, mandated by Florida voters in November, were to have stops in Pinellas and Hillsborough, people in those counties could use the train instead of the bridges that span the bay, thereby reducing congestion, Sebesta said.

Polzin, of USF, contends that mass transit is not the answer to shortening commutes, though it has other benefits. Commute times typically are longer on public transportation because people end up having to wait around. And because such a relatively small percentage of commuters use public transportation, statistically it has a small effect on averages.

There are exceptions: Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and New York City have much-used mass transit systems that play into commute times, but for most of the country, when you talk about commute times, you're talking about time behind the wheel.

Florida's numbers, Polzin said, traditionally below the national average, have been sneaking up in recent decades, indicating that the delicate balance that keeps commute times stable is out of kilter.

"And you have to realize that Florida's urban areas are relatively modest in size," Polzin said. "We've seen some pretty serious increases in congestion. It's something to look at."

- Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg contributed to this report.

Commuting U.S.A.

The average U.S. commuter spends 24.3 minutes getting to work every day. Ranking of the states:

(State, mean travel time in minutes, population persquare mile)

New York, 31.2, 401.9

Maryland, 29.2, 541.9

New Jersey, 28.7, 1,134.5

D.C., 28.5, 9,378.0

Illinois, 27.0, 223.4

California, 26.7, 217.2

Massachussetts, 26.1, 809.8

West Virginia, 25.5, 75.1

Virginia, 25.4, 178.8

Washington, 24.9, 88.6

New Hampshire, 24.4, 137.8

Florida, 24.3, 296.4


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