Phoenix commute times: best metro in nation – believe it or not

First of two parts. Today, Phoenix’s short commute times mean more hiring prospects and broader housing opportunities

Sitting in the eastbound Interstate 10 “parking lot” at 7:40 a.m. may make it difficult to accept that metro Phoenix has the best commute times among the top 25 metro areas.

It’s what data from the U.S. Census Bureau and private transportation data analyst Inrix are showing: Phoenix metro has the shortest commute times and the least time spent in congestion among the top metro areas.

This means Valley drivers get to work or home faster than other top 25 metro areas, and for employers, it means there is a more accessible workforce than other metros. It’s an average, so the data include the thousands who walk to work in downtown Phoenix as well as drivers from the West Valley heading to the East Valley.

“The average person will tolerate a 40-minute commute,” said Glen Weisbrod, president of Economic Development Research Group, one of the researchers on the Inrix study released in February 2018. “If a commuter spends a lot of time in congestion, it reduces the distance people want to live from where they work.”

Valley residents have an average 26-minute daily commute, according to 2017 U.S. Census data. Inrix analysis says they spend 34 hours a year in congestion, or about 7 minutes a day, roughly 25 percent of the time spent commuting. In Los Angeles, the average commute is 29 minutes per day, but the time spent in congestion averages 29 minutes a day, essentially, every minute of the daily commute.

“If there is reduced time spent in congestion, it widens the labor market for an employer,” said Weisbrod. “If the commute time is 40 to 50 minutes of hesitation, it significantly reduces the distance from work someone can live to maintain a ‘reasonable’ commute time.”

Congestion, according to Ram Pendyala, professor of transportation engineering, and director of university transportation at Arizona State University, is any time a commuter is traveling less than 65 percent of the posted speed limit. Congestion occurs at 42 mph on a 65 mph freeway segment, or 29 mph on a 45 mph speed limit posted on a Valley arterial.

“It’s a quality of life issue,” said Pendyala. “When congestion times are low, people have a wider range of choosing where to live. When congestion time is almost the same as commute times, people have to live closer to work to have the same commute time.”

In Phoenix, the transportation network offers many alternatives in driving routes and public transportation. The flexibility means more people live and work within that “tolerable” commute time of 40 minutes.

“People do not want long commutes,” said Weisbrod. “Heavy traffic cuts the labor market for employers.”

Effectively, in the Valley, nearly 90 percent of the workforce lives within 40 minutes of the Valley’s employment centers. In Los Angeles metro, the number is under 15 percent. In San Francisco metro, fewer than 10 percent live within 40 minutes of workplaces.

“We have a diversity of employment centers,” said Eric Anderson, executive director, Maricopa Association of Governments. “And we have a lot of different ways to get to destinations.”

Anderson points out that while the freeway system, first envisioned in 1958, moves large numbers of vehicles, it is the Valley’s agricultural heritage to thank for the alternatives.

“Many of the Valley farms were 640 acres (one square mile), and the road system was in place to bring produce and cattle to market,” said Anderson. “That gave us our mile- and half-mile grid system. The grid system means a driver can find another way to get to a destination if the freeway is clogged or one road is slow.”

The MAG executive director also cites the fact that workplaces tend to cluster in the Valley.

“In older markets, the transportation system was designed to move people to and from downtown,” he said. “In Phoenix we have dispersed employment centers all over the Valley, which help distribute the traffic,”

There are disparities, such as the acknowledgment that nearly two of three West Valley residents commute east every day. However, that congestion potential is changing with new employment clusters developing in Goodyear, Glendale and Surprise, according to Sintra Hoffman, president and CEO of Westmarc.

“What our workforce strategy shows is that (the West Valley has) a strong workforce in health care, advanced manufacturing and financial services,” said Hoffman. “Clearly health care, manufacturing, data centers and innovation centers are finding they can locate in the West Valley and find the workforce ready to hire closer to homes.”

Pendyala said the alternatives for Valley commuters make a big difference compared to markets like Los Angeles or Atlanta, Georgia. The latter metro has among the worst congestion times in the nation and one of the longest commutes for a top 25 metro.

“Phoenix route options for drivers reduce freeway dependence,” he said. “It’s not like some cities where commuters are all forced on to one or two routes with no options. If something blocks traffic, large portions of the metro grinds to a halt.”

Another factor, according to both Anderson and Pendyala, is Phoenix has a diverse travel demographic. It’s not all concentrated into conventional rush hour.

“We see more people traveling on the shoulders of peak traffic hours,” said Pendyala. “There is a non-traditional work market here, and that bodes well for commute times.”

Anderson said that Phoenix’s youth as a city also contributes to its better commute times.

“We have a fairly new freeway system in the Valley,” he said. “Combine the freeways and the arterial grid, there are a lot of options and alternatives no matter where one is traveling.

More options are on the way, as the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, the only new freeway being built in the U.S., will create a new link to avoid downtown traffic on I-10.

“It will help provide relief for downtown traffic on I-10,” said Anderson. “So will the future S.R. 30 freeway.”

The latter is in planning stages and, when built, will take traffic off I-10 west of Buckeye and direct it through the logistics centers and onto South Mountain Freeway.

In part 2, ADOT, MAG, county, cities prepare for the next generation of traffic management.

Eric Jay Toll

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