Distilling Commuter Data: Drilling Down on the Daily Grind

Big data is shedding new light on the time commuters spend going to and from work. The implications of these insights could be far-reaching – from city planning to worker happiness.

Far-flung rural workers tend to have longer commutes than those living in university communities. Which may not surprise anyone. However, lower socio-economic groups tend to deal with longer commutes than workers higher up the income and education ladder.
“Accessibility is a measure of potential,” said Laura Schewel, CEO of StreetLight Data, a company that measures and analyzes real-time transportation data. “So for people in this neighborhood right now, how many jobs could they get to?”
StreetLight Data recently released its Commutes Across America report, which drills into commute data for every ZIP code in the country, to determine which locations have the shortest and farthest commutes. The study also looked at demographic data to get an understanding of trends which show cities gentrifying and becoming more expensive, pushing lower-income residents out to the suburbs.
"If you live in an Atlanta ZIP code where many residents do not have a college degree, you're much more likely to have a longer commute than other Atlanta residents,” reads the study, which found this disparity to be more pronounced in smaller and mid-size cities. “The same pattern holds true in Seattle, but the likelihood is a little less.” 
For the purposes of the report, commutes were measured in miles, rather than the time spent in a car, train or bus. The report relied on location data collected from mobile devices in September 2017. 

“Miles is what is directly correlated with your gasoline costs, if you’re driving,” said Schewel.
“And it’s what’s directly correlated with your greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s related to what options you have,” she added. “So if you have a two-mile commute in a car — that’s really getting really congested — you have an option to walk or take the bike.”

City Commutes by the Numbers

Cities with the Longest Median One-Way Commute
1. Bishop, Calif. — 70.2 miles
2. Ocean Pines, Md. — 29.2 miles
3. Ocean City, N.J. — 26.6 miles
4. Berlin, N.H. — 19.8 miles 
5. Show Low, Ariz. — 18.2 miles

Cities with the Shortest Median One-Way Commute
1. Carson City, Nev. — 3.7 miles
2. Casper, Wyo. — 3.6 miles
3. Bookings, S.D. — 3.6 miles
4. Laredo, Texas — 3.6 miles
5. Ithaca, N.Y. — 3.5 miles

The hope is that those who make transportation policy or land-use policy might take the findings from the report and come away with not just an understanding of how far workers are driving to get to work in say, Bishop, Calif. — which at 70.2 miles, stands as the city in the U.S. with the longest median commute — but an appreciation that this data can be measured and analyzed.
“It is possible to measure these questions. It is possible to understand the commute variation across your community, and then to correlate it with whatever you want to correlate it with, and see how it changes from neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Schewel.
“In the old world of data, the more you measured, the more it cost, and it would be silly to think about measuring every ZIP code in your city for a question. Now, it is possible,” she added, a nod to StreetLight’s foray into “big data” and putting that data to use as more “smart cities” become increasingly dependent on data to make decisions.

State Commutes by the Numbers

States with the Longest Median One-Way Commute
1. Maine — 9.8 miles
2. New Hampshire — 9.6 miles 
3. Vermont — 9.5 miles 
4. Minnesota — 8.7 miles
5. Mississippi — 8.5 miles 

States with the Shortest Median One-Way Commute
1. Wyoming — 5.7 miles
2. Rhode Island — 5.9 miles 
3. Nevada — 5.9 miles
4. New York — 6 miles
5. Florida — 6 miles
Another take-away from the report’s findings showed “there’s no one-size-fits-all,” said Schewel. “We didn’t see trends that were consistent in every city. Not even close.
“You really have to be granular and look at your conditions, and not just say, ‘I hear that works in Buffalo, so it should work here,’” she added.
And shortening your commute can make you happier. The study cited a report by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow who spent five years studying the happiest places on the planet and concluded that cutting an hour-long commute, each way, from your life translates to making an extra $40,000 a year, for someone in the $50,000- to $60,000-a-year annual income bracket.
“And that’s a repeated finding,” said Schewel.
“It’s not just that being in a car commuting is unpleasant — or frankly in an overcrowded subway. … It’s that it seems it’s such a waste of time,” she added. 
“Which raises questions around, if I were on a nice, Wi-Fi connected bus, does this change the commute happiness factor?” Schewel wondered. “So I think long-term, when we think about reducing the overcrowded, and especially the single-occupied car-based commute is, yes it will be great for the environment; but it also could have great psychological benefits.” 
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.