On the Surprising Efficiency of Big City Commutes

Logically we might assume that as cities grow larger, commutes get harder. It can certainly feel that way. But research points to structural factors that actually make commuting in big cities more efficient.
January 21, 2016, 2pm PST | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Jimmy Baikovicius

Traffic can be annoying, but it also suggests that a city is thriving. Eric Jaffe writes, "What is a little surprising is that even as cities get larger, life in them doesn't necessarily grind to a halt. Sure, it can sometimes feel like that's the case when you're stuck in rush-hour gridlock. But while traffic congestion may be a personal annoyance, it's also a broad indication of a healthy economy."

Despite their high populations, commuting in big cities is more efficient than one might think. "The reason bigger workforces don't translate into total stagnation is that metros have 'nimble and self-adjusting commuting patterns' that preserve their economic advantage, report [Shlomo Angel and Alejandro Blei] in a paper in the journal Cities. Those patterns have three key components: density, job and home relocation, and overall mobility."

Jaffe goes on to discuss each of these factors in detail. The implications for planning are mixed: "On one hand, the benefits of density and mobility suggest a need for compact development near transit lines; on the other hand, the benefits of freeway speed would seem to endorse a transportation status quo that centers on car travel."

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Published on Monday, January 4, 2016 in CityLab
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