Commuting and Voting

The report Commuting in America III, which is perhaps the most important report about the daily travels of Americans, was released today. The report is published by the Transportation Research Board and I would suggest it is a must read for all people interested in election administration.

The report details everything you need to know about how Americans travel around their communities. These travel patterns are very important for election officials because different communities have different needs for election services based on the travel patterns of citizens–the voter “customers.” Everything from the location of precincts and early voting locations to the absentee voting needs of the voters can be affected by commuting. The report also sheds light on several other debates that exist in elections today, such as over photo identification.

First, the report notes that there are differences in identification availability in different communities and different social groups. The report notes that,

Holding of a driver’’s license has become close to pervasive in adult America today; but women still lag in licensing; – about 89% of men and 84% of women have a driver’s license, for an overall average of 86%. On an age basis, 80% of those early in the licensing years (16-24) or late (65+) have licenses, with the averages well over 90% for the age groups in between. The baby-boomers in the 35-54 age group represent the peak of ownership of a license at about 95%.

There are similar results when we consider people in the population with cars. One thing to keep in mind is that New York City and the Northeast cities account for a very large percentage of the zero-car households.

One-vehicle households and zero-vehicle households had remained roughly constant for 30 years. The group of households without vehicles has continued to remain roughly constant at between 10 million and 11 million households for the entire 40 year period of the baby boom, of course dropping sharply as a percentage of all households.

The report then considers commuting patterns and times. Commuting is very important for election officials to consider because commuting patterns and times may affect the need on the part of voters for either longer poll hours, more alternative voting methods (like no-excuse absentee voting), and consideration of the location of voting centers along critical travel paths.

The report has the following findings about commuting patterns.

  • Commuting from central city to suburb, so-called ““reverse commuting” accommodated a 20% share of growth in commuting.

  • More than 94 million commuters, 73% of all commuters, work within their county of residence, but that leaves more than 34 million who are exported each day from their home county to work, compared to an estimated 20 million in 1980, an 85% increase in that period, and more than 3 and a half times the number in 1960.

  • Since 1980 the dominant pattern of inter-metropolitan commuting has been “a“cross suburb commuting,” that is commuting from one suburb to a suburb of a different metropolitan area. It amounted to about 31 percent of all intermetropolitan commuting in 1980 rising to almost 39 percent in 1990 and falling slightly to 38% in 2000.

The report notes that commuting patterns vary by city size.

  • Contrary to what some might expect, it is the smaller metropolitan areas that show strong center city dominance. In areas below 100,000 population, The internal center city flows alone are about half of all flows, but drop to below 24% at the highest metro size levels.
  • Small-town America has the greatest tendency to work and reside in the same county; at 80% compared to the below 67% in rural areas in general.

Overall commute times are getting longer as well.

  • Average national travel times grew about 40 seconds from 21.7 minutes in 1980 to 22.4 minutes in 1990, with more than 22 million single occupant vehicle (SOV) drivers added. This was followed by a gain of a nominal three minutes to 25.5 minutes from 1990 to 2000, despite an increase of on the order of only 13 million new SOV users.

  • All Census Regions were below 25 minutes in travel time except for the Northeast at over 27 minutes. The entire nation’s average is affected by New York.

  • After hovering around 50% for many decades the percentage of workers reaching work in under 20 minutes was at 47% in 2000. Non-metropolitan workers average 58%; contrasted to between 42% and 49% in metropolitan areas.

  • Forty of the states increased between 2 and 4 minutes in travel time with Kansas the only state that increased less than two minutes. No state lost travel time. Those gaining more than 4 minutes were all in the East. Georgia and West Virginia led all states with gains greater than five minutes.

  • Only New York State had more than 10% of workers traveling over 60 minutes in 1990, but New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois joined the group in 2000 and California came close. Extreme commutes (those more than 90 minutes) were typical in the same set of States.

The data on commuting clearly show that it is taking people longer to get to and from work. These trip times do not include the events that occur going to and from work–such as dropping off and picking up children from school or day care. In addition, as we have all experienced, trip times can vary based on weather, events, and intangibles.

For election officials, increased trip times are likely to mean even more pronounced peaks in voting demand early and late in the voting process, as well as demands for early voting, expanded absentee voting, and vote centers.

If traffic continues growing at this rate and work and home become even more separated, there may also be more demand for cross-jurisdictional voting in the future. Commuters from Orange County will want to vote in Los Angeles County, near their offices, and voters from Maryland and Virginia will want to be able to vote in Washington, DC. As technologies improve, such voting may be possible, but it will require harmonizing voting rules across counties and possibly across states as well.