The Not-So-Simple Commute

What Commute Times Tells Us about Inequality

by Anise Vance

“Commute.” Image courtesy of Andi Cambell-Jones and published under creative commons licensing:

Workers who pack themselves into aging subway cars or onto congested highways have long felt the frustrations associated with draining commutes to the office. A stream of recent research has given scholarly insight into the effects of travel on commuters’ happiness. In 2014, a study by the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that the length of a commute is highly correlated with overall life satisfaction, anxiousness, happiness, and feelings of worth. Similarly, a group of Canadian scholars linked long commutes with low life satisfaction and an increased sense of pressure. Dan Buettner, a researcher associated with National Geographic, put a dollar figure on the well-being costs of commuting:

“…if you can cut an hourlong commute each way out of your life, it’s the [happiness] equivalent of making up an extra $40,000 a year if you’re at the $50- to $60,000 level.”

While the consequences of long commutes are becomingly increasingly clear, the populations most affected by it are often left undiscussed. A recent study conducted by Valerie Preston and Sara McLafferty, scholars at York University and the University of Illinois, identifies a group that shoulders a disproportionate commuting burden: black and Hispanic women.

Preston and McLafferty focus their study on New York City, dividing it into three zones: the center, defined as Manhattan and adjacent areas of Brooklyn and Queens; the suburbs, defined as the suburban towns surrounding New York City; and the inner ring, defined as everything between the center and the suburbs. Broadly speaking, the center and the suburbs are areas of relatively high wealth and large white populations. The center is a particularly job-dense area and the location to which many living in the inner ring and suburbs commute. Pulling from the Public Use Microdata Sample of the American Community Survey, Preston and McLafferty examined the commuting patterns of 5% of residents of the New York Metropolitan Area from 2008 to 2012.

Unsurprisingly, Preston and McLafferty found that, “in three racial groups — white, Hispanic, and Asian — men commute longer times on average than women; however, the gender differential varies from 5.8 minutes for whites to 0.9 minutes for Hispanics.” Women, the study notes, often adjust their travel, or their selection of employment, to accomodate greater demands at home. In and of itself, this is a sanction on many working women who carry more responsibilities than their working male counterparts. The gendered difference in travel time does not, however, extend to black populations:

“Blacks of both sexes commute approximately the same time, with black men reporting average travel times that are 0.7 minutes less than those reported by black women. The small gender differences for minority men and women suggest that minority women are unable to adjust their work trips to accommodate household responsibilities and this is particularly the case for black women.”

Hispanics, too, experience a very small difference in commute times between genders (0.9 minutes longer for men, as noted above). It is, then, apparent that both Hispanic and black women are subject to an undue travel burden. While white women travel 29.1 minutes to work, Hispanic women travel 33.1 minutes and black women travel 39.5 minutes. Asian women travel 37.5 minutes, a large figure, but still about 2 minutes less than Asian men.

Critically, the frustrations of long commutes experienced by Hispanic and black women are compounded by the little pay they receive for their work. In each zone (center, inner ring, and suburbs), black and Hispanic women received, on average, the lowest wages of the studied demographics.

Figure 2. “Revisiting Gender, Race, and Commuting in New York.” Preston V. and McLafferty, S. Annals of the Assocation of American Geographers, Special Issue on Mobility. January 29 2016.

That women consistently receive less pay than men across racial, ethnic, and zonal groupings must not go unstated. That black and Hispanic women are consistently the lowest paid groups also must be emphasized, particularly in the context of commute times. No group has a more strenuous combination of pay, commute time, and household responsibility than black and Hispanic women. While Preston and McLafferty’s study revolves around New York City, it offers insight into urban spaces across the United States where cities often feature similarly populated and zoned centers, inner rings, and suburbs.

The research disscussed here points to an obvious, if under-appreciated, reality: research on commute times is about more than individual happiness. It reflects deep geographic, economic, and social inequalities. Importantly, it reveals the degree to which decades of segregation, economic marginalization, and gendered social constructs influence the daily lives of black and Hispanic women. How we get to work is not as simple as it may seem.

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