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Commuting troubles get worse in Mass

Massachusetts workers are spending more time getting to and from their jobs, and commutes are getting worse in the Bay State at a faster rate than in all but five other states, according to a report released today by a Boston-based think tank.

Drawing on US census data, MassINC found that the number of Massachusetts workers who spend at least 90 minutes commuting each day increased from 11 percent to 18 percent between 1980 and 2000. Nearly 552,000 workers fall into that unenviable category. In some South Shore towns, such as Duxbury, nearly 40 percent face such long commutes.

The average commute in Massachusetts in 2000 was 27 minutes each way, the ninth longest of any state. That’s up from 21.4 minutes in 1980, when Massachusetts ranked 14th. Nationally, the typical commute lengthened from 21.7 minutes to 25.5 minutes during the same period.

The average Massachusetts commute translates into 25 work days lost in transit each year.

The troubling trend is largely the result of two factors: people moving farther away from Boston in search of affordable homes and a big jump in the number of cars on the road.

But the development does more than fray nerves: The more time people spend in cars, buses and trains, the less time they have for their families and friends, for volunteering, for attending community events. Longer commutes also add to air pollution.

Ultimately, the trend may hurt the state’s economic competitiveness, as increasing numbers of residents and prospective residents decide that their quality of life would be better elsewhere.

For a ranking of Massachusetts cities and towns according to commuting patterns, as well as a message board for your commuting tales, visit

“The strain of increasing commute times and our residents’ high level of concern about the roads and traffic situation should give the Commonwealth’s public policymakers and business leaders pause,” the report says. “By making it more difficult for highly educated and skilled workers to live in Massachusetts, the Bay State runs the risk of eroding its primary competitive advantage, its world-class workforce.”

The study offers a few potential solutions: building more roads, enhancing public transit, putting housing near transportation centers, increasing incentives for carpooling, developing more flexible work schedules, and adding opportunities to work at home.

Kelly Schoonover, who lives in Fall River, is reluctant to leave her family in Massachusetts, but she is one worker whose commute makes her consider moving somewhere else. Fall River is only about 50 miles south of Boston, where Schoonover works at a downtown financial firm, but she has to hop into her Volvo by around 7a.m., because traffic on Route 24 turns the trip into a two-hour odyssey. She gets home so late at night, the 31-year-old analyst said, that getting to the gym is a “pipe dream,” eating healthy is “a joke,” and weeknight dates are out of the question.

“It’s impossible to have a life,” Schoonover said.

There is a commuter rail stop in Bridgewater, but she’s reluctant to spend $200 a month on a pass when she’d have to fight traffic to get there, too.

Schoonover used to rent an apartment in Boston, but when she decided to buy a condominium she discovered that she couldn’t afford one close to the city. In Fall River, her $90,000 bought her a three-floor townhouse.

The authors of the MassINC report say that the Bay State’s inflated real estate market is a key factor in the lengthening commutes. As house prices in Greater Boston have exploded, workers have moved farther and farther away from the city in search of housing they can afford.

But the workers with the longest commutes aren’t necessarily those with the least money or the most limited job opportunities according to the report. The median income in households with a commuter who spends at least 90 minutes getting to and from work is $71,910, compared to an average of $61,000 for other commuters. Long commuters also are more likely to have college degrees, and 48.5 percent of them are professionals or managers, compared with 38 percent of other commuters.

“Obviously every household is making its own decisions about how to balance living near where one works and living in a community with amenities that one finds desirable,” said Michael Goodman of the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts, the lead author of the report.

Until a year ago, Melissa Holt, 33, and her husband, Robert, lived in Braintree. With a combined income of 90,000, the Holts probably could have afforded a house closer to their jobs in Needham, but with their first child due in February, they moved to Dunstable in search of a more rural lifestyle and “great schools and great neighborhoods.” Unlike in Braintree, they could afford to build their own house in Dunstable. But the move came with a big downside: a nearly two-hour commute.

“You get home at 7 p.m., and you’re in bed by 8 p.m.” Holt said. “You have an hour to yourself, an hour with your kids. What kind of life is that? The drive just sucks the life out of you, literally sucks the life out of you.” Holt, Schoonover, and countless other commuters complain that the roads always seem clogged, with no apparent connection to construction or road improvements. Statistics support that assertion: Between 1992 and 2002, the number of cars registered in Massachusetts increased by 48 percent. At the same time, carpooling has fallen out of favor. In 2000, nearly three out of four Bay State workers drove to work alone, an increase of 21 percent since 1980.

Both of those trends may be related to changes in the workforce, Goodman said. An increase in the number of two-worker households has increased the need for multiple cars. Meanwhile, carpooling has become more difficult, as smaller firms and irregular hours have replaced many large, 9-to-5 employers.

In 1980, traffic congestion was mostly confined to the Southeast Expressway and Route 128. Today it has extended to the northern and southern portions of Interstate 93, the northern portion of Interstate 495, and other adjoining roads. Population growth in Plymouth County and Boston’s southern suburbs has contributed to the problem. So has the fact that most of the state’s job growth has been in Greater Boston and Northeastern Massachusetts.

Traffic congestion has increased even as workers’ use of public transportation has remained steady at about 9 percent, bucking a decline nationwide. In 2000, Massachusetts ranked fourth in the use of public transit, trailing only Washington, D.C.; New York; and New Jersey.

Workers who take public transportation have the longest commutes. The average for subway and bus commuters is 40 minutes each way, and the average for those who take commuter rail or a ferry is an hour, compared to 26 minutes for those who drive alone. Of course, there are many people who will tolerate an hour relaxation on the train, but who wouldn’t dream of spending the same amount of time driving alone in a car.

Goodman said that more workers could be induced to take public transportation, thereby relieving congestion on the roads, if lines ran between outlying communities, not just to Boston. The Greenbush line to the South Shore, currently under construction, might persuade many workers from those communities to forsake their cars for the train.

Douglas I. Foy, Governor Mitt Romney’s top transportation and development adviser, said that sprawling residential and commercial development is largely to blame for the lengthening commute times. By changing zoning rules and declining to extend infrastructure into underdeveloped areas, Foy said, the state is trying to encourage development of more multifamily housing and housing in city centers and near transit stops.

The state is finding allies among the state’s business leaders, who are concerned that high housing prices and long commutes will make it more difficult for them to attract and retain skilled workers, Foy said. That fuels his optimism that the next 20 years will reverse the trend of the past 20.

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