Massachusetts workers spending more time commuting – rate of increase outpaces national average

BOSTON — October 18, 2004 — Bay State workers are spending more time on the road, with Massachusetts ranking ninth in the nation in terms of average commuting time. On an annual basis, this costs the average commuter the equivalent of 25 work days lost in transit rather than other pursuits, according to a new study released today. The report, entitled Mass.Commuting, is a joint project of MassINC and the UMass Donahue Institute and was underwritten by MassHousing.

Almost one in five Massachusetts commuters – 551,000 people – spends at least an hour and a half (45 minutes each way) traveling to and from work every day. The situation worsened between 1980 and 2000, when the share of long commutes rose from 11 percent to 18 percent. The study also provides a comprehensive demographic profile of these long commuters and finds that they are typically higher income households, with higher levels of education, and more likely to own a home. This suggests that many Massachusetts workers are choosing to forego a shorter commute in order to afford homes in communities that they find desirable.

“For average families, commuting is a critical quality of life issue. More than half a million people – roughly the population of the City of Boston – spend at least an hour and a half commuting every day,” said Ian Bowles, president & CEO of MassINC. “As a community, we need to turn our attention to the complex causes of long commutes. If we don’t, quality of life in Massachusetts appears likely to erode further – and this in turn hurts our competitiveness and ability to attract and retain the nation’s most skilled workforce.”

Drawing on an analysis of Census data from 1980, 1990 and 2000, Mass.Commuting compares Massachusetts to all other states. It reveals that – of the 10 states with the longest commute times in 2000 – the situation in Massachusetts got worse faster than all but one state, Georgia. When compared to all 50 states, Massachusetts’ commute time got worse at the sixth fastest rate in the 20 years leading up to 2000.

In identifying five “commuting hot spots,” the study also challenges conventional wisdom that long commutes are largely a Boston-area phenomenon. The five hot spots are collections of adjacent communities with high average commute times. The percent of residents in the hot spots with long commutes (at least 45 minutes each way) is much larger than the state average of 18.4 percent. The hot spots and share of long commuters are: Western Mass. Hill Towns (32.7 percent), the Quabbin Region (29.8 percent), the Nashoba Valley (27.2 percent), Metrowest-495 South (29.9 percent) and the Coastal South Shore (34.7 percent).

Southeastern Massachusetts commuters were most likely to face a long commute, with 22 percent spending an average of at least 45 minutes traveling each way. Meanwhile, the Berkshires and the Cape and the Islands have the largest share of commuters with a commute time of less than 15 minutes.

“The varied reasons for these particularly long commutes underscore the need for regional solutions,” said Michael Goodman, Director of Economic and Public Policy Research for the UMass Donahue Institute and co-author of the report. “Regionally imbalanced economic development patterns have left Massachusetts workers with a difficult set of choices. For many, choosing to live in a relatively lower cost area of the state requires them to tolerate an increasingly long commute time.

“And many of those choosing to live closer to employment opportunities in Greater Boston are required to spend growing portions of their incomes to keep up economically with the region’s high cost of living, particularly for housing. Extending economic opportunities to other regions of the state would provide these workers with more choices of where to live and work and make it more likely that they will stay in Massachusetts,” Goodman added.

The study also reports good news. In 2000, the Bay State had the fourth highest level of use of public transportation in the nation, bucking a national trend of turning away from public transit. The study also finds that commuting is an important source of labor for the Commonwealth. In 2000, Massachusetts received more than 75,000 more commuters from other states than it sent to them. (176,741 in-bound commuters versus 101,081 out-bound commuters.)

“We know from our recent quality of life poll that the ‘roads and traffic situation’ ranks second behind only cost of housing as top of mind concerns for Bay State residents,” said Bowles. “Current patterns of growth and development should give us pause. Families want quality housing, jobs and education – how to get them without further exacerbating the commuting situation is a key challenge for our state.”

Mass.Commuting finds that more cars and greater distances traveled partly account for the lengthening commutes. The number of car registrations in Massachusetts skyrocketed by 48 percent between 1992 and 2002. The average distance traveled by commuters increased by about 10 percent between 1990 and 2000.

“MassHousing is proud to work with MassINC and the University of Massachusetts as the sponsor of Mass.Commuting,” said Thomas R. Gleason, executive director of MassHousing. “This report confirms that people are enduring long commutes in the pursuit of the American Dream. We see more affordable housing, closer to places of work, as a critical solution.”

Other key findings from Mass.Commuting include:

  • Time spent commuting increased by 19 percent between 1990 and 2000. The average Massachusetts commuter lost the equivalent of 25 (8-hour) workdays commuting to and from work in 2000.
  • Massachusetts commuters who travel by public transportation consistently have the highest commute times, a relationship that is consistent with other states that have high use of public transportation.
  • Nearly half of all out-of-state commuters came from New Hampshire, while nearly one in three originated in Rhode Island.
  • The Cape and Islands and the Pioneer Valley regions are the only two regions of the state that suffer a net loss of workers to other states. In the Pioneer Valley, 2.5 times as many workers leave the state for work compared to the number of workers who enter the region for work (24,843 vs. 9,078 workers).
  • The Massachusetts community with the longest average commute is the rural town of Middlefield (pop. 542), where residents spend an average of 41.6 minutes on their way to and from work each day.

The full report – including new data for every city and town in Massachusetts – is available online at

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About MassINC: MassINC is a nonpartisan, evidence-based organization. Our mission is to develop a public agenda for Massachusetts that promotes the growth and vitality of the middle class. Our governing philosophy is rooted in the ideals embodied in the American Dream: equality of opportunity, personal responsibility and a strong commonwealth.

About the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute: The University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute is the public service, outreach and economic development unit of the University of Massachusetts President’s Office. Established in 1971, the Institute strives to connect the Commonwealth with the resources of the University, bridging theory and innovation with real world public and private sector applications.

About MassHousing: The Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, now doing business as MassHousing, is the leading provider of affordable housing in Massachusetts. Since 1970, MassHousing has provided more than $8.5 billion in financing for more than 80,000 units of mixed-income rental housing and over 43,000 mortgage loans for first-time home buyers. For more information, visit the MassHousing website at

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