Do longer commute times lead to community decline?

Ask an Economist

I believe that people should work where they live and vice versa. To what extent has longer commute times (private and public transportation) contributed to US community decline? Civic engagement, church attendance, school performance, divorce rate and any other factor that people point to as society going to hell-in-a-hand basket. I have seen some headlines about how some commute can be a good buffer between work-life and home-life; TLDR.


The question you asked is complicated, but I think it boils down to: “do longer commute times lead to community decline?”. First, I am not sure if communities are in decline generally, but you cite some examples of community decline, such as civic engagement, church attendance, school performance, and divorce rates. First, I would like to lump the first three examples and push divorce rates aside. Divorce is important if we have community decline in mind, but divorce has more to do with no-fault divorce laws and broader social change.

Interestingly, commute times have risen in the United States by about 2.6 minutes for a one-way trip from 2006 to 2019: However, longer commute times may be caused by this non-exhaustive list of factors, including where people choose to live and work, people’s income, a municipalities’ urban planning, and infrastructure investments. These listed factors that lengthen commute times may also affect civic engagement, church attendance, and school performance.

Fortunately, we can stick with a thought experiment. If suddenly and unexpectedly commute times rose tomorrow, would we observe accompanying community decline? I suspect we might see some decline outside of work activities because people are losing more time commuting, but I doubt we would see a broad impact on each example of community decline you mentioned.

Of course, this is an empirical question, but I suspect it is the things that cause longer commute times that may be causing community decline. And perhaps there is a positive feedback loop creating a web of reverse causality and colliding variables that makes disentangling the question you asked difficult but interesting.

Answered by:
Levi Soborowicz
Ph.D. Student
Last updated on October 3, 2022