The United States is the 4th-largest country in the world, covering 3.5 million square miles.
However, over 80% of the population lives in metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) that account for only 26% of the country’s land; and as more people move to MSAs, cities become more dense and expand outwards to account for growth. As a result, getting to and from work can be a nightmare and the costs of commuting rise.
This raises an interesting question: Which cities are the best (and worst) for commuters in terms of the overall opportunity costs?
We set out to answer this question by examining commuting trends and costs across the 50 most-populated metros, cites most likely to experience more traffic and longer commutes. We used data from the Census' American Community Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation, County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, and Gas Buddy to explore regional and metro-level trends.
We were particularly interested in the personal costs related to the time and distance people commute, so we focused on the 80% of people who drive alone to work to best estimate the cost of commuting. We calculated the cost of commuting as the sum of the costs associated with fuel, vehicle maintenance, and time (i.e. opportunity cost).
Here’s how we defined each metric:
Fuel: We estimated the cost of fuel by calculating the amount of gas used to commute to work (in gallons) by dividing the average distance to work by the average miles per gallon across vehicles (21.1333 MPG), then multiplied that by the average gas price per gallon.
Maintenance: The cost of maintenance was calculated as the average cost of maintenance per mile (8.94 cents) multiplied by the average number of miles to work.
Time: We estimated the opportunity cost of a person’s time as the amount of money they could have earned had they been working instead of commuting by multiplying the average hourly wages by the number of hours spent commuting to work.
By adding these metrics together, we were able to rank the best and worst cities for commuters based on the average opportunity costs. Our full methodology and the formulas used can be found at the end of this study.
This analysis also uncovered regional trends, such as where commuters pay the most for gas, as well as where commuters spend the largest portion of their income on commuting.
The five best metros for commuting include New Orleans, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, and Miami.
The five worst metros for commuting were Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, and San Jose, CA.
The average commute costs nearly $6,500 annually, but location makes a difference: Some states' commuters spend less than $3,000 on average and others more than $9,000 on their commutes.
West Coast commuters spend more on fuel, but they also earn more than the other regions of the U.S.
Southern commuters spend the largest proportion of their income on fuel and maintenance.
Studies show longer commutes are linked to more sick days, stress, and less productivity. Our study found regional trends, with southern states feeling unhealthy more often and enduring longer commutes.
The Best and Worst Cities for Commuters by the Numbers
We ranked the 50 most-populous MSAs by the cost of commuting. The best cities were those with the lowest costs: Buffalo and Milwaukee residents were able to travel to work for less than $10 on average; while those in Seattle and Washington, D.C. spent nearly $25.
For each metro, we included fuel, maintenance, and time to calculate our opportunity cost of commuting.
The annual individual cost of commuting varies depending on where you live: Costs ranged from $6,427 in the South to $6,815 in the Northeast. But that’s not the whole story. When we break down the total cost, we find that those in the South actually spend more out of pocket for fuel and maintenance (as opposed to lost opportunity costs) than other regions.
Southern States Spend More of Their Income Commuting
Commuters in the South also earn less than other regions, making maintenance and fuel costs account for a larger proportion of their income. Southerners spent an average of 2.3% of their income on commuting while those in the Northeast only spent 1.8% of their income on commuting costs. That 0.5% difference may not seem like much, but the average southerner who earns $69,972 annually would save $3,448 each year if they only spent 1.8% of their income on fuel and maintenance.
Gas Prices Rise the Further West You Go
The trend that southern states spend more on fuel and maintenance costs is largely driven by their longer drives to and from work; they don’t actually spend the most on gas per gallon, the western states do. Commuters in the West spend an average of $2.99 per gallon, but prices are over $4.00 per gallon in much of California (compared to $2.36 in the south). So even though western commuters don’t travel as far (5,405 miles) as those in the south (6,548 miles) each year, they still spend the most on fuel — both per gallon and over the course of a year.
Southern States are the Unhealthiest
Research suggests that people who have long commutes are typically less healthy. That is, people who commute longer than an hour report being more depressed, more stressed, and experience a lower quality of life than those who commute less than 30 minutes. Our analyses showed that those trends may be regional. More specifically, we used analysis of variance to assess statistical differences in the proportion of the population considered to be in poor or fair health across regions.
A significantly larger proportion of the southern population (19%) was in poor or fair health than the midwestern (15%), northeastern (15%), or western (16%) populations. The South also had a larger proportion of commuters who spent over 60 minutes traveling to work (8%) than the Midwest (6%) and West (6%). The Northeast had a similar proportion of long commutes (8%) as the South, and those states had the second-highest proportion of unhealthy people.
Note: This doesn't show that southern commuters are necessarily less healthy because their commutes are longer, but it does indicate longer commutes are a contributing factor.
Location undoubtedly impacts workers' commutes, but unexpectedly the commutes are much costlier in certain metros and in the South. Those costs might not be considered when accepting a new job or choosing where to live in a city; but thinking twice about traveling long distances to work could ease stress on your checkbook and your health.
Data were pulled from the 2017 3-year estimates of the Census American Community Survey (time spent commuting, number of commuters, modes of transportation, and mean incomes), the Bureau of Labor Statistics Wage Data (hourly wages), 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (distances traveled to work), the County Health Rankings and Roadmap (percentage of population in each state considered unhealthy), and Gas Buddy Price Map for gas prices.
Differences in health across regions were analyzed using one-way analysis of variance (ANOVAs) in Python’s scipy using data from the CHR&R (unhealthy percentage of the population). All relationships were considered significant at the p < .05 level.
Fuel = (distance / 21.133) * gas per gallon
Maintenance = 0.0894 * distance
Time = hourly wage *commute in minutes / 60 minutes
Cost = fuel + maintenance + time
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