It's slow go, and the census confirms it - Metropolitan Planning Council

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It's slow go, and the census confirms it

Chicago's carpooling rate is down and commute times are up, according to 2000 survey data collected by the U.S. Census data released this week.
Chicago-area residents weary of agonizing commutes may find little comfort in census data released Tuesday that show people here think getting to and from work is a longer grind than do people in Los Angeles, the nation's symbol of gridlock.

According to new survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, residents of Cook, Lake, McHenry, Will and DuPage Counties all estimated their average one-way commute times at about 30 minutes or more. In sprawling Los Angeles County, the comparable figure was 28 minutes--only 47th worst among the nation's counties.

Comparing city-to-city, the difference was even greater. Chicago placed second in the nation behind New York in slowest daily commuting time, with commuters pegging their trek to work at 33.1 minutes, the census survey shows. That's compared with New York's 39 minutes and Los Angeles' 28.1 minutes, in 10th place nationally among cities.

Nationwide, the average commute was 24.3 minutes.

While serving as a measure of commuter frustration, the numbers also highlight some trends troubling to urban planners, environmentalists and transit experts.

Despite a steady drumbeat of pleas for people to carpool or take public transit, the trend is headed the other way. Eight in 10 commuters in the collar counties said they drove to work alone, compared with fewer than 70 percent in the 1980 census.

For commuters who value time above all else, the survey underscores how counterproductive it might be to abandon their cars for mass transit.

Experts say one reason travel times were much higher in New York and Chicago is that a greater share of workers relies on public transportation. It may be cheaper, cleaner and less stressful, but it typically takes more time to get to work by bus or train than it does to drive, they explained.

In Los Angeles, for example, just 9 percent of the population take public transit. That's compared with 28 percent in Chicago.

"For average trips, you usually can't get anywhere faster than you can in a car, even in a car in L.A.," said Dean Englund, deputy of development for the Chicago Area Transportation Study, a non-profit group.

The Chicago region's poor ranking did not surprise area transportation experts or regional planning advocates, who have long complained that suburban sprawl is chipping away at the overall health of the region.

It also failed to startle road-weary commuters, who say their morning and evening trips feel longer than ever.

"Even after the I-55 construction was cleared up, the trip didn't seem to get any shorter," said Joe Larson, a certified public accountant who drives about an hour from Hinsdale to the Loop each morning.

"It's time wasted every day, no doubt," he said. "I usually just sit there and listen to the radio and curse at the person stopping in front of me for no apparent reason."

More solo drivers

Commuting times were up a couple of minutes from those reported in the 1990 census throughout the region and around the country. But the Census Bureau cautioned differences in methodology between this survey and the 1990 census rendered apples-to-apples comparisons statistically invalid.

The latest numbers are estimates from the bureau's new annual Supplementary Survey, not hard numbers from the far broader national head count taken every 10 years.

The Census Bureau surveyed 700,000 households around the country, asking questions similar to those on the census long form. The bureau released data Tuesday about cities and counties with populations greater than 250,000. In the six-county Chicago region, 15,527 households responded to the survey.

Census officials cautioned that data from the census long form to be released next year will give a more accurate portrait of these estimates.

Nevertheless, the survey showed that the lowest commuting times again were found in North Dakota, where the average commuter reaches work in about 15 minutes.

Among the 1.25 million Chicago residents who head to work daily, 63 percent drove and 51 percent drove alone, survey data show. About 14 percent spent more than an hour reaching work.

The figures for solo drivers were even higher in the collar counties, where public transportation is less viable than in Cook County.

Suburban sprawl

The increased suburban commute numbers are particularly bothersome to advocates of managed growth. They warn that traffic congestion is costing the region's residents valuable time with family, as well as inducing stress. For businesses, it increases employee tardiness and absenteeism and cuts into productivity, they argue.

Indeed, many of the worst traffic tie-ups occur on the collar county roads, not just on the expressway to the city.

"If you live in Bolingbrook and work in Naperville, there are few options for you other than to drive," observed MarySueBarrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a non-profit group. "The most common commuting pattern today is suburb to suburb, and our transportation system just doesn't serve that market well."

While public transit options may be sparse in many suburbs, Barrett said that is not the only reason many people drive to work alone.

"This is still a major part of our culture, and it has much to do with choice," Barrett said. "But in a fast-growing region, we need to make other choices more viable than driving alone, including improving our public transit systems."

One transportation expert said the census figures should not necessarily be viewed in negative terms.

Englund of the Chicago Area Transportation Study noted that Metra and Chicago Transit Authority ridership numbers were up in the late 1990s, although that could be a reflection of the city's growing population.

Englund said he expects commuting times to continue rising as the population increases. But don't hold him to that prediction.

"One of the many challenges about predicting the future is you are hardly ever right," Englund said.

Englund said that while it takes Chicagoans longer to reach work, it's partly because they have the option of taking public transit instead of driving.

More data

The Supplementary Survey also contains data on income, poverty, educational attainment and other demographic statistics.

Lake County was the region's wealthiest county--and the nation's 10th wealthiest--with a median income of $67,675. DuPage County was the nation's 11th wealthiest with a median income of $66,908.

DuPage County has the highest percentage of college graduates among its population and ranked 16th in the nation with 43 percent of its population attaining a bachelor's degree or more, the data showed. Lake County ranked second with 39 percent having obtained a college degree.

Chicago ranked 39th nationwide with 26 percent of the population attaining a degree. In the country, the top five cities with the highest percentage of bachelor's degrees were Seattle; San Francisco; Raleigh, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and Washington. The bottom five were Newark, N.J.; Santa Ana, Calif.; Detroit, Cleveland and Riverside, Calif.

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