New government data shows that at least some of that carried over as vaccines were introduced and life began to return to downtowns around the country, with a measurable decline in average commute times persisting into 2021, including in some of the cities where workers have historically spent the most time in transit.
In cities across the country, average commute times dropped anywhere from 5% to nearly 20% between 2019 and 2021, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Commutes are likely to have crept up since, as data from Kastle Systems shows office use is higher now than at the same time a year ago.
Before the pandemic, more than half of all working Americans traveled more than half an hour to work, according to the data. By the end of 2021, that percentage had slipped to about 43%.
The cities with the steepest declines in commute times were San Francisco, a hub for tech companies that were among the earliest and most persistent adopters of remote work, and Washington, where the federal government also mandated strict work-from-home guidelines in the earliest days of the pandemic.
San Francisco saw a decline in commute time of 6.4 minutes, equivalent to an 18% decline; Washington trimmed 4.6 minutes from average travel times, or 13%; Boston saw trips drop by 4.2 minutes, or 13%; Baltimore saw a drop of 4 minutes, or 12.6%; and Chicago saw a decline of 3.4 minutes, or 10%.
The changes may affect more than just how many times the average commuter can hit the snooze button. A 2021 report from Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute found that pre-pandemic traffic delays cost the nation’s economy $190 billion in 2019, and they cost the average commuter $1,170 per year, or about 36 cents per minute.
The same Texas report found that by the second half of 2021, traffic conditions across the country had begun heading back toward pre-pandemic norms.