Metropolitan Chicago's workforce is one of the most important factors in a strong regional economy.  An integral element -- regional workforce mobility, measured in this Policy Update by commute time and distance -- affects worker retention and productivity.  Understanding commute characteristics is important in planning for transportation improvements, land use changes, and workforce training needs. 
Building on CMAP's research about the region's economic specializations in freight and manufacturing, this analysis considers commute time and distance for the region's freight and manufacturing workers between 2003-13. It finds that regional commute time trends are steady despite shifts in where manufacturing and freight workers live and work.  It also shows that, as freight and manufacturing employment locations have shifted outward from their traditional base within Cook County, the workforce has followed similar patterns.

Why commute times matter

As development in metropolitan Chicago has expanded outward from the urban core in recent decades, average commute times and distances for all workers have increased. Small annual increases in commute time and distance add up. Paired with the compounding effects of congestion, time spent in traffic has grown from 18 hours per year per commuter in 1981 to 71 hours per year in 2012. 
Research indicates that long commutes, especially long automotive commutes, have negative impacts on worker health and well-being. Moreover, when workers have longer commutes, employers may experience decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and turnover, and limited labor pool options. Workers may also face less access to job opportunities, decreased personal time, and economic stresses due to long commutes and increased transportation costs. 
For workers and employers, a reliable transportation system matters -- without such reliability, both workers and freight face unpredictable travel times and may be frequently delayed.  Long commute times or distances between jobs and housing can be a particular challenge for low-income workers, who are less likely to own cars and may have trouble affording housing close to their place of work or near sufficient public transit.  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.


Minimal change in regional commutes

Changing residential, commercial, and industrial development patterns may have contributed to small fluctuations in the distance and time the region's residents travel for work.  Over the past several decades, the region has cultivated new employment nodes as well as significant residential development, particularly in Will and Kane counties. 

U.S. Census Bureau Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics (LEHD) data estimate commute, wage, and industry trends based on employer reports of the location of workers homes and place of employment.  LEHD commute data used in this analysis is derived from morning peak period travel time (7:00 to 9:00 a.m.).  Unlike prior CMAP analysis, LEHD data applies broad North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) sectors of Transportation and Warehousing and Manufacturing to track freight and manufacturing workers.  


As the charts above indicate, commute times and distances changed minimally from 2003-13.  Overall, commute time and distance for freight and manufacturing workers are similar to regional averages, with a slightly shorter commute time and distance for the region's manufacturing workers.  As of 2013 more than three-fourths of the region's workers spend less than 60 minutes commuting one way.  In terms of distance, about 80 percent of the region's workers commute less than 30 miles one way with more than half commuting less than 15 miles. 
Commute time and distance has recalibrated to changing levels of regional freight and manufacturing employment.  According to LEHD data, manufacturing employment, currently at over 355,000 jobs, declined by 21 percent between 2003-13.  This aligns with prior CMAP analysis of the region's changing manufacturing cluster.  This reduction in the manufacturing workforce led to commensurate reductions in manufacturing commuters, although proportions in each time and distance category remained similar.  Regional freight employment has increased 11 percent from over 150,000 in 2003 to over 168,000 in 2013.  As the level of freight employment has increased, these workers are traveling slightly longer distances and times.

Shifts in the region's longest commutes

With a changing employment landscape, some of the region's commuters are traveling longer times and distances to get to work.  Nearly 40,000 freight and manufacturing workers and over 80,000 workers in the "all other jobs" category travel 90 or more minutes to work one way, spending at least 10 more hours commuting per week than the average commuter in the CMAP region.  These workers spend the equivalent of almost 21 entire days commuting over the course of one year. 

Between 2003-13, the percentage of manufacturing workers with long commutes, defined as driving over 90 minutes and commutes more than 60 miles, decreased, while the region's longest commutes increased for freight and all other workers.  These commute trends may be partially attributed to merging patterns in locations of residence and employment for manufacturing workers.  Conversely, freight commute patterns may indicate that an increasing share of freight workers are living farther away from their jobs and spending more of their time commuting compared to ten years prior. 

Changing location of workplaces and residences



While freight employment occurs throughout the region, freight jobs are becoming increasingly concentrated along major transportation corridors in the City of Chicago, and the counties of Cook, DuPage, and Will -- areas with high access to highways, airports, and rail.  Areas of the region with longstanding freight employment concentrations, including communities adjacent to O'Hare Airport and Chicago's Loop, have also experienced growth in freight jobs from 2003-13. 
As mapped below, patterns of freight employment may be explained by the growth in large logistics and distribution hubs, which allow for modern methods of inventory management and distribution.  These findings align with prior CMAP analysis regarding the most concentrated location of the region's freight and manufacturing workers.
The number of freight workers by place of residence has increased substantially throughout the region.  Will County in particular has seen growth in residents employed in the freight industry, paralleling the increase in freight employment in this area. Community areas on Chicago's southwest side and municipalities in southwest suburban Cook County adjacent to Midway Airport have experienced a decrease in residents employed in the freight industry.
Commute time and distance for freight workers have increased slightly from 2003-13, mirroring commute patterns for all other jobs in the region.  Over the same period, the freight industry employment grew 11 percent. 


The maps below illustrate that manufacturing employment, while declining overall, has grown outside the region's urban core.  Areas of the region with historically strong manufacturing employment, such as north suburban Cook County and northeastern DuPage County proximate to O'Hare Airport, have seen manufacturing employment loss since 2003.  Generally, manufacturing employment loss in this area is in line with greater regional trends of manufacturing job loss. 

South suburban Cook County has experienced some of the most significant loss in manufacturing workers. Several factors could contribute to this trend, including loss of manufacturing jobs in the region overall, pressure to transition to higher-value development types, or increased congestion in the region's core.
Some townships in Will and Lake have seen modest increases in manufacturing employment.  In Lake County, some areas along Interstate 94 have seen an increase in manufacturing workers.  Between 2003-13, Will County also experienced growth in manufacturing employment, particularly near highways and intermodal facilities.  Not all growth in manufacturing employment has occurred in suburban areas of the region;  the City of Chicago has seen growth in manufacturing employment in some areas of the southwest and south sides of the city. 
Economic and land use trends also shape the location of the region's freight and manufacturing facilities.  Modern warehouses, distribution centers, and manufacturing facilities may require larger buildings.  Lower margins may necessitate development on less expensive parcels farther from the region's urban core.  Locating these facilities in densely developed areas is more challenging due to the need to assemble small parcels of land with a multitude of owners, brownfield remediation, and regulatory restrictions.
While some of the region's freight and manufacturing hubs remain healthy or have been converted to other uses, others struggle to attract reinvestment, leading to an increase in underutilized industrial land in the region's urban core. 
Following broader regional suburban expansion, the number of residents employed in manufacturing has increased at the edge of the region, as indicated on the map above.  In sync with greater regional population growth, Kane, Kendall, and Will counties have experienced an increase in the number of manufacturing workers living in these counties. 
Some areas of Cook County, including in the City of Chicago have had growth in residents employed in manufacturing. Some north suburbs have also seen growth in residents employed in manufacturing, even in areas with relatively flat population growth.  These increases are paired with growth in manufacturing jobs in these areas.
At the same time, the City of Chicago and Cook County have seen some of the most substantial losses in the number of residents employed in manufacturing from 2003-13. In particular, community areas on the city's west side have experienced some of the most significant loss of residents employed in manufacturing.  This decrease may be attributed to population loss, or the changing demographic compositions of these areas.
One potential explanation for manufacturing workers' relatively constant commute time and distance may be that the region's manufacturing labor supply may be moving as the location of employers shifts.

Looking ahead

As GO TO 2040 indicates, during the last several decades, metropolitan Chicago's population has shifted outward from the region's core.  Despite this movement, commute time and distance for the region's freight and manufacturing workers changed minimally between 2003-13.  Targeting future freight and manufacturing development toward already-developed areas can leverage existing transportation and infrastructure assets and also better connect jobs to where workers reside.
However, larger issues that affect commuting, such as land use, transportation, and congestion, may hinder regional economic growth due to decreased mobility over time.  Congestion not only directly affects the freight and manufacturing clusters by increasing costs for firms and reducing reliability for shipments, it also hampers the access and productivity of its workforce. GO TO 2040 recommends strategies to address the mismatch of jobs to housing, such as reinvesting in existing areas, moderately increasing density near transit, investing in transit facilities, and promoting a well-balanced housing supply.  These efforts help improve our economy and quality of life by giving people more choices for getting around, working, and living.