4 ways commuting in the Washington region has (or hasn’t) changed over the last 3 years


Earlier this year, the TPB’s Commuter Connections program carried out its latest State of the Commute survey, a triennial look at how Washington area commuters get to and from work each day and what they think of their commutes.

The early survey results show that commutes are, on average, getting a bit longer but that commuters are driving alone less and teleworking and taking transit more. People who bicycle or walk to work are among the most satisfied with their commutes, while satisfaction among transit riders, drivers, and commuter rail passengers has dropped.

Average commutes are longer in 2016 than in 2013

Commuters are, on average, traveling somewhat longer distances and spending more time doing it than they were three years ago, according to the latest survey. The average one-way commute distance ticked up compared to three years ago, to 17.3 miles. Meanwhile, the average one-way commute time nudged up to 39 minutes, a number that has been growing slowly but steadily since the first State of the Commute survey in 2001.


Not everyone’s commute is getting longer, though. While more people are commuting 30 miles or more one-way to work each day, the share of people commuting less than 5 miles has also been growing. That means that while some peoples’ commutes are getting longer, others’ are getting shorter.

And time spent commuting differed considerably by travel mode. Drive-alone commuters tended to have the shortest one-way commute times of any motorized mode—about 35 minutes. Transit riders were more in the neighborhood of 47-48 minutes, while commuter rail riders had an average one-way commute time of 72 minutes.


Commuters are driving alone less in 2016

Driving alone continues to be the main way that most commuters get to and from work each day. Regionally, about 61% of commuters report driving alone to work at least three days a week. But that’s a number that has fallen quite a bit since the first survey in 2001, when 7 in 10 commuters reported doing so. Rates of drive-alone commuting are lowest for people who live or work in the regional core, with about 4 in 10 doing so. For those who live or work in the outer suburbs, about 8 in 10 drive alone to work most days.


As drive-alone commuting has declined, transit and teleworking have seen the biggest gains. About 20% of commuters reported taking a train or bus to get to work most days of the week, up from about 17% three years ago. People regularly teleworking and working compressed work schedules grew to more than 10%. Bicycling and walking saw modest gains in mode share, while carpooling and vanpooling held relatively steady.

The rise of telework continues

More and more workers in the region are teleworking. In the latest survey, 32% of commuters reported working remotely or from home “at least occasionally.” That’s up from 27% in 2013. In all, that amounts to a gain of about 200,000 teleworkers. Another 500,000 or so say they could or would if given the opportunity, which would bring the regional share of people who telework regularly to 50%.


Gains in teleworking have spanned all sectors. The federal government, non-profits, and private firms have all seen big gains since the 2013 survey. The federal government continues to see the highest rates, though, with 45% of employees doing it at least occasionally.

One other thing the recent survey asked about was commuters’ likelihood of “episodic teleworking”—teleworking on days with major events that might disrupt traffic or transit services, like severe weather, large public gatherings, or transit system shutdowns. The survey found that 80% of people who had worked at home at least one day in the past year but who don’t normally telework said they would probably work at home again on a day with a disruptive event. This tells Commuter Connections’ analysts that the region has a significant and growing ability to adapt to major events by encouraging workers to telework instead of crowding roads and trains.

Commute satisfaction is lowest among Metrorail riders

The State of the Commute survey asks respondents several questions about what they think of their commute. In the most recent survey, Metrorail riders had the lowest satisfaction of any travel mode, with 48% reporting that they were satisfied or very satisfied. That’s down from 67% three years ago, and reflects attitudes before the single-tracking and line-segment shutdowns of Metro’s SafeTrack maintenance program began causing major disruptions for riders.


Drivers were also less satisfied with their commutes compared to 2013. Only a little more than half in 2016 reported being satisfied, down about 8 percentage points from three years earlier. Satisfaction among commuter rail riders also dropped, while bus riders and carpool and vanpool users were about the same. People who walk or bike were the most satisfied with their commutes, with rates, already at 93% in 2013, nudging up to 97% in 2016.

MORE: Summary presentation of 2016 State of the Commute survey findings

MORE: Technical report of 2016 State of the Commute survey findings

The “State of the Commute” survey is conducted by Commuter Connections, a TPB program promoting commute modes other than driving alone. The survey asks approximately 6,000 area commuters about a broad range of topics, from commute patterns and commute satisfaction to awareness of Commuter Connections outreach and access to different transportation modes and alternative commute mode services. The survey has taken place every three years since 2001.

Learn more about State of the Commute and see past survey reports

Learn more about the TPB’s Commuter Connections program

Cover Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr

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