New York traffic
Timothy A. Clary  /  AFP - Getty Images
Nowhere is the problem of driving to work more severe than in New York.
updated 10/10/2007 11:29:44 AM ET 2007-10-10T15:29:44

Americans love their cars, which is fortunate indeed.

U.S. workers spend plenty of time behind the wheel — driving an average of 25.07 minutes to their jobs, then reversing the route at day's end. That equals 209 hours of commuting over the course of a year.

Many of those hours are far from relaxing. Traffic jams are becoming increasingly common on America's expressways — as are boredom, frustration and road rage.

"Highway growth in the last 20 years has been less than 5 percent. It certainly hasn't kept up with population growth and urban sprawl," says Joe Reed, vice president of products and operations at Navteq Corp., which monitors traffic conditions in 108 markets.

"The result," he says, "has been much more volatility on the road. It adds up to a perfect storm in traffic."

Nowhere is this problem more severe than New York City, which ranks as America's worst market for commuters, according to a new Bizjournals study.

Nearly 6 million workers leave their homes in Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island, the Hudson Valley and the city itself each weekday morning, clogging New York's intricate web of expressways, bridges and tunnels.

The typical morning commute in the New York City area takes almost 36 minutes, longer than anywhere else in America. Nearly 460,000 New York road warriors spend at least 90 minutes battling their way to work.

"New York can be a real challenge," says Reed. "An overturned truck can be catastrophic for commuters there. It can mean hours of delays. But most of the big markets have similar problems. They all have the same hub-and-spoke arrangement of highways. They all have congestion and volatility."

Bizjournals created a nine-part formula to rate traffic conditions in the nation's 65 largest metropolitan areas, searching for the places that offer the roughest and easiest commutes. The formula used 2005 data complied by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

The 65 markets, taken as a group, are home to 76 million commuters, including 55.5 million who make the trek during morning rush, defined as the four-hour period from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Behind New York City on the list of commuter headaches is another large Eastern metro, Washington, D.C. Just 44.9 percent of Washington's workers get to their jobs in less than 30 minutes. Every other market does better in that category, even New York City at 46.2 percent.

The rapidly growing Atlanta area is third-worst in Bizjournals' standings. Its average morning commute of 32.54 minutes is longer than all but New York City's 35.81 minutes and Washington's 34.87 minutes.

Rounding out America's 10 worst markets are Chicago; Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.; Baltimore; Bridgeport-Stamford, Conn.; Miami-Fort Lauderdale; Boston and San Francisco-Oakland.

But not every community is a traffic nightmare. Omaha could more accurately be considered a haven, named by Bizjournals as the nation's best metropolitan area for commuters.

There's a substantial corporate presence in Omaha, which often foreshadows traffic congestion. Five Fortune 500 companies are headquartered there, including well-known firms such as Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Union Pacific Corp. and ConAgra Foods Inc.

Yet Omaha's average morning commute is just 20.21 minutes, the fastest in the study group. Almost four-fifths of the area's workers reach their jobs in less than 30 minutes, another nation-leading figure.

"It's a huge selling point," says Mike Bruening, economic development manager for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. "When you can move people around quickly, it's a tremendous advantage for a business. You can get to the airport more easily. You can attract workers from a larger area."

Size is an obvious reason for the smooth traffic flow in Omaha, where 294,000 workers hit the road during morning rush. That's one commuter for every 20 in New York City, or one for every 6.5 in Washington.

But Bruening also credits an ambitious construction program that recently widened the expressways leading out of downtown Omaha and looping around the city.

"We showed some foresight there," he says. "We built for the future."

Buffalo, which advertises itself as the "20-minute city," comes close to the mark with its average morning commute of 20.95 minutes. That's good enough for second place on the list of best markets.

The rest of the top 10 are Tulsa; Rochester, N.Y.; Dayton; Fresno; Oklahoma City; Milwaukee; Grand Rapids and Salt Lake City.

Bizjournals' rankings reveal a substantial gap between the nation's two extremes. Morning commutes in the 10 best markets carry an average length of 21.44 minutes. That's 35 percent quicker than the average for the 10 worst areas, 32.91 minutes.

This disparity, in Bruening's opinion, can translate into greater productivity in those markets where traffic is lightest.

"Workers here can stick around the office until 5:30 or 6, knowing they can get home in 20 or 30 minutes," he says. "In a city where the traffic is tougher, maybe they can't stay past 5 o'clock if they want to get home before 7."


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