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Many commutes were halted in March 2020, as many states implemented stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – and the effects are clear. Without cars on the road, several major cities noticed a positive change in the air quality within their communities, offering food for thought on ways to improve the environment beyond the pandemic.
We took an in-depth look at commuting habits around the United States. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2018 American Community Survey, as well as data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we were able to examine how different forms of commuting impact the environment, specifically air quality. Continue reading to see what we found.
Getting to Work
First, our study looked at the modes of transportation that the U.S. Census Bureau reported people used to get to work.
By far, most people embodied the classic image of the commute, driving themselves to the work in their own car, van, or truck. Overall, roughly 85% of people commuted this way. The next most common "commute" was done by just 5.3% of survey participants, and it involved no commute at all: This much smaller group worked from home. Public transportation was third, with 4.9% of people using it to get to work. The two most truly eco-conscious commuting methods, walking and biking, were done by 2.6% and 0.5% of people, respectively.
Beyond being a better choice for the environment, walking and biking to work have health benefits also, such as helping to meet daily exercise recommendations and reducing the risk of heart disease. Unpaid family workers were the most likely to report walking to work (4.7%), while government employees were the most likely to biking to work (0.6%).
Top States for Greener Commuting
A state-by-state breakdown was able to show us which parts of the U.S. had the highest percentages of "greener" commuters. The states in darker shades of blue indicate a higher propensity to utilize eco-conscious modes of travel, like carpooling, public transportation, cycling, and walking. Orange states represent areas where these modes of travel are less common.
Metropolitan areas heavily impacted a person's likelihood of commuting via public transportation. The top cities for this commuting method were New York City, Jersey City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, all of which offer extensive public transportation systems. While public transportation is a great option for going green, the U.S. hasn't been effective at creating good public transit systems across the country.
Washington, D.C., actually popped up in the top spots for several greener modes of transportation: In addition to having a high percentage of people using public transit, the city also had a high proportion of its residents commuting by foot or bike. The city even offers an overlap between biking and public transportation in the form of its Capital Bikeshare program.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, was another standout: This city, home to Harvard and MIT, had the highest percentage of both walking and cycling commuters. Cambridge became the first city in the U.S. to introduce mandatory biking lanes.
Allentown, Pennsylvania, had the highest percentage of carpoolers, followed by San Francisco. The Bay Area, perhaps due to its Silicon Valley connections, offers its residents multiple ways to connect with carpooling opportunities.
Time for Work
We wanted to learn more about commute times across the country, whether by car, foot, bike, or another mode of transportation. When looking at statewide averages, the shortest average commutes clocked in at around 17 minutes, and the longest was 33.5 minutes. The lists below offer glimpses into the commute times of specific cities, where much more variation in commute times was found.
Both of the country's two longest commutes were in California. Commuting in Antioch (just outside of San Francisco) and Palmdale (close to Los Angeles) took an average of 46.6 minutes and 43.2 minutes, respectively. Los Angeles didn't make the list, but this city also typically makes headlines for its traffic problems.
New York City's average commute was also relatively long (43 minutes), but another city in the same state, Syracuse, had the second shortest commute in the country at just 16.3 minutes, on average. The only city with a shorter average commute than Syracuse was Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Greener Commuters by Industry and Occupation
This next portion of the study sought to show which jobs and industries are the most and least likely to utilize greener commuting methods: public transportation, carpooling, walking, and biking.
The U.S. armed forces – including the Marines, the Navy, the Army, and military-enlisted tactical ops –were among the top greener commuters. Perhaps many of these commutes consist of traveling from a military base, which is likely to be close to work.
Educational fields and occupations also frequently popped up for the top greener commuters. College and university employees, as well as tutors, might be living on or near campuses or were offered a school-funded form of public transportation, such as a school bus.
The internet publishing and broadcasting industry was the most likely to have commuters walking, biking, carpooling, or taking public transportation. Because most major news publications are based in metropolitan areas, options for public transportation are likely more plentiful than for other occupations.
Our study ended with perhaps the most pertinent question of all: Does average commute time impact average air quality? Using air quality index (AQI) data from the EPA, as well as commuter data from the U.S. Census Bureau, we examined how commuting and air quality could potentially impact each other. Please bear in mind that air quality varies significantly across states, so only city-based data was available.
While all of the cities on this chart had enough "good" air quality days each year to be considered acceptable, we found that commute times did correlate with the number of good air quality days within a city. A "good" air quality day is defined as having an AQI of zero to 50, where air pollution poses little or no risk. For example, Syracuse, New York, had 254 good air quality days in 2018, and the average commute was just 16.3 minutes. This city's two largest employers happen to be two universities, and our data previously showed that educational fields typically correspond with greener commutes.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota, also had a short average commute (15.8 minutes) and a high number of air quality days classified as "good" (149 days). Green Bay, Wisconsin, had a slightly longer average commute at 17.4 minutes, but with 210 good air quality days.
The Future of Commuting
At this point, it's difficult to know when or how commuting will return. This study, as well as recent events, has shown the potential impact changing commuting behaviors when possible can have on the environment.
For all those eco-conscious individuals working from home, Office Depot can offer a wide selection of greener office products. From mailing and shipping to writing and lighting, everything an office needs to function properly can be done in a greener way. Visit Office Depot today for our GreenerOffice™ selection. The Corporate Sustainability Report contains more information on Office Depot's efforts to reduce our environmental impact.
Using data from the 2018 American Community Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency's 2018 Air Quality Statistics by City report, we examined Americans' commuting habits and their relation to air quality across the U.S.
For clarity, we combined some of the data on modes of transportation to work. The commuters reporting using a ferryboat, railroad, streetcar or trolley car, bus or trolley bus, or subway were grouped as public transportation.
In working with the ACS data, we used the person-level weighted sample. More information can be found here.
For our purposes, we chose to define "greener commuters" as people using public transportation, carpooling, biking, or walking to get to work. People who reported working from home were not considered greener commuters. When looking at the top states and cities for different types of "greener" commuting, Washington, D.C., was excluded from the state analysis given that it was included in the city analysis.
When comparing the city data between the ACS and EPA AQI data, not all cities were present in both datasets. We compared data for the cities that appeared in both datasets. Therefore, notable cities and metropolitan areas may be absent from our analysis.
Fair Use Statement
Commuting is a necessity for many, but its impacts on the environment shouldn't be ignored. If someone you know would benefit from reviewing this project, you're free to share for any noncommercial reuse. Be sure to link back here so that they can read the entire project and methodology. This also gives credit to our contributors for their efforts.