Getting There is Half the Work
A perspective on commuting in the New Orleans area
Love them or hate them, our commutes hold sway over a large part of our daily routines. Many of us know, down to the minute, how long it takes us to get to work, or what time we have to leave home to avoid a traffic snarl. And we know the sinking feeling that comes when all that stands between us and home is a slow-moving and seemingly endless sea of tail lights.
As commutes in the United States go, though, ours in the New Orleans area area are pretty ordinary. The average journey to work in the metro area is just over 25 minutes, quite comparable to the nationwide average of 26 minutes. We don’t breeze to work like they do in Oklahoma City — which, at 21 minutes, has the shortest average commute in the nation — but neither do we travel the average 40 minutes each way that New Yorkers do.
Like most Americans, 79 percent of workers in the New Orleans area commute alone in their own vehicles, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey. Another 10 percent utilize carpools or vanpools, and about 3 percent utilize public transportation. (The remainder either work from home, walk, or bike—or, I suppose, trek in a way too obscure to register with the census.) And while those who commute alone or carpool get to work in about 25 minutes, it takes the average straphanger about 41 minutes.
What’s interesting is that even though these average commutes haven’t changed much in the last 10 years — the average journey to work in the metro area was 25 minutes in 2005 as well — the locations of our jobs have, at least by one measure, become more geographically diffuse. In 2004, 53 percent of workers lived in the same parish in which they worked; by 2014 this number had declined to 46 percent.
In 2013 — the most recent data available — 45 percent of jobs within Orleans Parish were performed by parish residents, compared to 54 percent in 2004. In 2004, 46 percent of people working in Downtown New Orleans came from outside Orleans Parish; by 2013, this proportion had risen to 56 percent. Although our population and employment levels are still lower than they were before Katrina, a greater share of our regional workers are zigzagging the region to get to work and then home again.
Many of these workers, of course, experience obdurate traffic congestion along major gateways. According to the Federal Highway Administration, an average of over 97,600 vehicles travel through Jefferson Parish on Interstate 10 every day, and about 159,000 cross the Crescent City Connection. Approximately 40,000 vehicles cross the Causeway daily, and nearly 94,000 cross the high rise on Interstate 10 in eastern New Orleans. By comparison, about 160,000 vehicles ride on Interstate 40 between Durham and Raleigh, North Carolina, and 122,700 travel Interstate 64 near downtown Richmond, Virginia — two major arteries in metro areas roughly the size of ours.
It could, of course, be much worse. As many as 379,000 vehicles traverse Interstate 85 near downtown Atlanta every day, and 324,000 on Interstate 10 near downtown Los Angeles. Roughly a quarter million vehicles each day cross the Potomac River into and from Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, however, statistics don’t provide much comfort when you’re wringing your hands during a standstill on the spillway.
Commutes can be frustrating, but they are also reflective of the relative economic vitality which forms the basis for every major metropolitan area, particularly in the United States. They are an inevitable side effect of living in a place where many people want to be. As the economist Anthony Downs wrote, the morning and afternoon traffic you endure “is the balancing mechanism that makes it possible for Americans to pursue goals they value, such as working while others do…and having many choices of places to live and work.”
Robert Edgecombe is an urban planner and consultant at GCR Inc. He advises a wide range of clients on market conditions, recovery strategies, and demographic and economic trends.