John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Which U.S. counties have the fastest travel times to work, and where do the roads seem paved with molasses?
Where are America’s longest, most butt-numbing commutes? Where do people coast right into the office as if they’ve never even heard of traffic before?
Statistician Chase Sawyer has the answer with a wonderfully detailed visualization of typical commute times for every U.S. county. Based on 2011–2015 data from the U.S. Census, the interactive map reveals that people in Pike County, Pennsylvania, have the most grinding journeys at an average time of 44 minutes. The top 10 quickest commutes are found in Alaska, meanwhile, with the Aleutians East Borough snagging the country’s speediest mean transit time of 4.9 minutes. If you’re not familiar with that locale, it’s a sea lion-dotted island chain sticking deep into the sea; presumably commuters only need to travel a few blocks in these small towns to get where they’re going.
“Commuting time is a really interesting topic to me because almost everyone that works can relate to it and tries to compare their commute with the average,” says Sawyer, a 28-year-old government worker in Maryland who runs the visualization compendium Overflow Data.
How did a pleasant-sounding county in northeast Pennsylvania snag the dishonor of having the most soul-crushing slog? Sawyer surmises it’s because of people who work in New York; it wouldn’t take too many commuters making the roughly 2-hour drive to Manhattan to skew the numbers. New Yorkers themselves don’t fare well, scoring four of the nation’s top 10 longest commutes of roughly 40 minutes apiece, including Queens and the Bronx. For that we might blame traffic—and perhaps the current state of the city’s train system.
Other rough commutes exist in L.A., of course, and the Bay Area, though the mean time of about 30 minutes will seem laughably low for anyone who’s ever threaded their way through Silicon Valley-induced gridlock. There are also extra-lengthy commutes in a couple Colorado spots and in Southern states like Mississippi and Louisiana, which Sawyer found surprising. “I didn’t expect commutes to be so long in some areas I thought were more rural,” he says.
“The thing that is the most interesting to me was more sociological than the data itself,” Sawyer adds. “The data makes sense: The suburbs of densely populated and isolated areas had the longest commutes and other areas have shorter commutes.”
The bottom of the interactive visualization holds a whisker plot of county commute times allowing you to easily parse each state’s best and worst treks, including Sawyer’s Maryland haunt. “My commute is not great,” he says. “It takes me about an hour, which is well above average, but I got to hear a lot of stories from people on Reddit with two- or three-hour commutes, so that was humbling.”