On December 3, 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau released its 2010-2014 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates. The ACS collects information such as ancestry, educational attainment, income, employment, and housing characteristics and makes this data available at multiple geographic levels, including municipality and township.  This release of the ACS marks the first time that users and analysts are able to compare two non-overlapping 5-year ACS datasets (2005-2009 and 2010-2014), and the first time that many of the region's smaller communities will be able to see this change for their jurisdictions. This Policy Update is part of a series that uses the most recent ACS data to examine broad trends in the CMAP region.

The amount of time workers spend commuting plays a major role in shaping residential and commercial land use patterns. Many people base their decisions of where to live and where to work based on the convenience and duration of their commute. Long commutes, especially long automotive commutes, have been found to have negative impacts on health and well-being. As employees' commutes increase, employers experience decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and turnover, and fewer labor pool options. Employees may also face limited job opportunities, less personal time, and economic stresses due to increased transportation costs.

The ACS gathers data related to daily travel patterns focused solely on commuting and does not include leisure travel or other non-work trips. ACS asks respondents about their means of transportation, what time they leave home for work, and total commute time in minutes, among other questions. This Policy Update analyzes travel time patterns in the region, paying particular attention to commuters with longer than average commutes. While average commute time in the region has remained relatively stable over the past decade, commutes in the region vary significantly depending on where people live and how they choose to get to work.

The geography of commute times

According to ACS 2010-14 data, the average commuter in the Chicago metropolitan region has a one-way commute of 30 minutes. This figure is slightly above the national average of 26 minutes, but on par with many other large U.S. regions. Average commute time has remained fairly constant since 2005.

Though average commute times across the region have remained relatively stable over time, there is some geographic variation at the township level. Only two townships have average commute times that are more than five minutes below average, while 22 have commutes that are more than five minutes above average. These longer commute times are concentrated toward the edge of the region in McHenry, Will, Kendall, and western Lake Counties. Northwestern Cook, DuPage, and eastern Lake Counties have the lowest average commute times in the region.

These differences in commute time add up. The average commuter in the township with the longest commute times, Custer Township in Will County, travels 47 minutes one way and spends an extra 3 hours per week commuting compared to the average worker in the region. Over a year, those extra hours add up to nearly 6 full days.

The role of mode choice in determining commute time

Mode of transportation has an impact on commute time. The chart below indicates the average commute time by mode. Because nearly three quarters of commuters drive alone to work, the regional average commute time is very close to the average single occupancy vehicle (SOV) commute time. Public transportation trips tend to be longer than automotive trips, while walking trips are significantly shorter. Commuter rail trips are the longest, with the average commuter rail trip taking more than twice as long as the average SOV trip. 

The interaction of commute time and mode share creates distinct patterns in the region. Shields Township in Lake County has the shortest average commute time in the region at 17 minutes and a disproportionately large share of commuters walking to work. Variation in commute time by mode may partly explain why the City of Chicago, with its higher public transportation mode share, has commute times that are higher than the regional average, and why the region as a whole may have longer commute times than other U.S. metropolitan areas with smaller public transportation mode share. For more information on mode share trends in the region, see our recent Policy Update "Transportation mode share in the CMAP region."

Transit riders are not the only people in the region with long commutes. Most of the townships with the longest average commute times also have higher than average rates of SOV commuting. Among the approximately 500,000 workers in the region who are commuting more than an hour to work, nearly twice as many are driving (63 percent) as are taking transit (35 percent). The average automotive commute in the region is longer than the national average and varies by county. DuPage County drivers have the shortest commutes, while McHenry residents have the longest. (Note: There is no American Community Survey 2010-2014 estimate of commute time by mode for Kendall County.)

Extreme commuters in metro Chicago

Those who travel more than 90 minutes or more to work one way are called extreme commuters. These workers are spending at least 10 more hours commuting every week than the average commuter, the equivalent of almost 21 days over the course of a year. As shown below, Chicago has rates of extreme commuting that are moderate as compared to peer metropolitan areas. Unlike its peer metros, the rates of extreme commuting among the Chicago region's residents did not increase over the last decade.


U.S. Census Bureau analysis of 2006-2010 ACS data reveals that a subset of extreme commuters travel more than 90 minutes and more than 50 miles one-way to reach their jobs, meaning that their commute time was most influenced by long travel distances. In the Chicago region, 0.81 percent of workers fell into this category, less than all of its peer regions. While this means that fewer of the Chicago region's extreme commuters traveled long distances to work, it also means that more of them traveled at slow speeds.

Over 100,000 people who worked in the Chicago region spent 90 or more minutes traveling less than 50 miles, the equivalent of an average commute speed of 33 miles per hour or less. While information on the mode choices of these slow-speed commuters is not available, they may face heavy traffic congestion or multi-transfer public transit routes.

There are many potential reasons for a long commute. This commute behavior may be the result of changing business and housing location choice patterns, with increased development in outer areas of the region potentially fueling longer commutes. Extreme commuting may also be a conscious choice for those who value the amenities of living in a particular place or the benefits of a particular job more than they value the additional hours they spend traveling. Commuters may also value the time they spend commuting differently depending on what mode of transportation they use; an hour spent reading on commuter rail may be less stressful and more productive than an hour spent driving in heavy traffic.

Extreme commuting may be attributed to higher cost of living in desirable or employment-rich areas, as housing prices typically decrease further from the urban core. Many of these areas may not be affordable to the typical resident. This trend can prove especially problematic for low-income people, who are less likely to own cars and may have trouble affording housing close to their work or to reliable public transit. Long commutes may also reduce affordability for residents. GO TO 2040 recognizes this link and emphasizes the importance of accounting for the combined cost of housing and the transportation in assessing overall affordability.

Looking ahead

Commute times in the region are influenced by a number of factors, including means of transportation, levels of congestion, cost of living, and shifting employment and housing patterns. It is an encouraging sign that average commute times in the region do not appear to be increasing. Looking ahead it will be important to continue to monitor this important indicator and implement policies that reduce the commuting time for the region's workforce as well as the combined cost of housing and transportation.

Strategic investments in the region's transportation system can help reduce travel time and cost. CMAP uses performance metrics like projected reductions in travel time and congestion to evaluate potential transportation projects and idenfity those that offer the greatest positive regional outcomes. Policies like congestion pricing can help manage traffic and give drivers better choices for getting around. Investments in maintaining and modernizing the public transportation system, a major emphasis of GO TO 2040, would provide more efficient service to its current users and make transit more accessible to a broader population.

Land use planning should go hand in hand with transportation investment. It is particularly important to think strategically about areas near public transit stations and plan for increased concentrations of commercial and residential development. Communities with limited transit-oriented development potential also have opportunities for strategic land use planning. CMAP's Local Technical Assistance (LTA) program works with communities throughout the region on projects that advance the principles of GO TO 2040, including those that support a balanced mix of residential and commercial development. Focused LTA resources such as Homes for a Changing Region serve as a workforce housing planning toolkit that can help towns meet the housing needs of current and future residents.