American Time Use Survey: Engineering a Better Commute

Many media outlets have been reporting on the Bureau of Labor Statistics release of results from the “American Time Use Survey” There is a great deal of interesting data collected, piecing together “typical” days for Americans, segmented by various demographics, including gender, age, employment, and household occupants.

Being an engineer and an educator, I was particularly interested in two pieces of data from the survey: (1) commuting times to and from work; and (2) the amount of time spent on educational activities. The interest in the second set of data should be clear, as I work in the field of education. I am intrigued by the first set of data because, in theory, technology should help reduce this, frankly, wasted time.

Let’s first look at the commute times for the working population. According to the data, the number of hours for those employed full-time spent commuting to and from work was 0.78 for the days in which they worked. (Having lived in or near Chicago, Atlanta, Tampa, and now Boston, I find this strikingly low!) The average in 2006 was exactly the same, with the range being 0.73 to 0.81 over the decade. The use of technology was supposed to help drive this down – information technology solutions that would allow people to work from home, regardless of whether they had to attend meetings. So while the survey reported that 22% of those employed did some work-related tasks at home (up from 19% in the first year of the survey, 2003), this slight change over time has not led to a decrease in commute time. Obviously, there are many more factors contributing to average commute time beyond those that work at home, but I was a little disappointed to see that this number has not really moved in a decade.

Given the data (and being an engineer), an interesting question for the next decade with respect to commuting is: What will be the impact of autonomous vehicles and shared rides? Earlier this month, Chester Dawson of the The Wall Street Journal wrote (“Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels,” June 19, 2017) about the number of companies vying to redesign car interiors under the assumption that in the future, you will not be the driver – the vehicle will be autonomous or you will be sharing a ride (i.e., Uber, Lyft, or some other service). Proposed changes include a large screen for watching movies, movable seats to allow passengers to interact more easily, cameras to view the rolling landscape, and the mini-fridge. Of course, others will choose to use the time for work, turning the car into another home office. Benny Evangelista of the San Francisco Chronicle (What Will the Driverless Car’s Interior Look Like?, May 2, 2016) discussed a glovebox with a tray that could hold a laptop and a center console that converts to a small desk. Screens and technology will allow for remote meetings while in transit. So, will survey data in the future still consider this a commute? Or will it be considered leisure or work time (depending on your chosen interior)? Regardless, it is nice to know that engineering is helping change this wasted time – often full of frustration – into a much more productive, if not enjoyable, time.

We’ll take a look at my second data set of interest, educational activities, in my next blog.