Baltimore commutes again among nation's longest, Census data show

Here’s a spot on a top 10 list that Baltimore could do without — longest commutes in the nation.

Newly-released Census data from the 2017 American Community Survey puts Baltimore in seventh place among major U.S. metropolitan areas with the longest average travel times to work.


Last year, the average commute for a Baltimore area resident was 31.5 minutes, almost five minutes more than the national average. That comes out to roughly 11 days traveling to and from work over the course of the year, assuming a two-way commute for 50 five-day workweeks in a year.

Baltimoreans have long endured lengthy commutes. Looking at one-year estimates from American Community Surveys since 2007, The Baltimore Sun found that Baltimore’s commuting times have consistently ranked among the nation’s highest.


Like residents in almost every other metropolitan area in the country, Baltimoreans’ commuting times have gotten worse over the past decade. In 2007, area residents got to work two and half minutes faster than they do today. After accounting for margins of error, out of more than 300 metro areas, only nine have seen commutes speed up, often alongside declines in their worker populations.

The increase in the average American commute is influenced by myriad factors.

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Among them is growth in suburban areas, as jobs and people shifted outward from urban cores in the 2000s, according to a Brookings Institution report from 2015 that analyzed residents’ proximity to jobs in large metro areas. Poor and minority residents experienced particularly pronounced declines in job proximity, the report found.

“We are seeing more and more commuters coming from surrounding counties in the suburbs or rural areas to work,” said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, an auto club that represents more than 975,000 members in Maryland.

In Baltimore, these shifts are reflected in some of the revisions to the way the Census Bureau has characterized different metro areas over the years. “Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD,” the census-designated metropolitan area commonly referred to as the “Baltimore metro region,” was known as “Baltimore-Columbia, MD” until 2013. The addition of Towson as a principal city inside the metro area is a testament to the substantial growth there.

Infrastructure is another factor. Ironically, roads and bridge projects that are designed to reduce congestion may temporarily increase it while they are under construction, said Averella.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and co-author of the organization’s 2018 State of the Region Report, says such improvements must include mass transit. “I don’t think we’ll see significant changes in the [commute time] trend,” he said, without more investment in mass transit options in the suburbs, in order to “connect people with jobs.”

Despite their statistical salience, commuting times are just one metric for understanding the full spectrum of accessibility needs within metro areas, said Joseph Kane, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.


“Commutes are still just a small share — about 15 to 20 percent — of all the trips we take,” Kane said. The question is whether we have metrics, beyond the ACS, to learn about the other 80 or so percent of our trips, he said.