Not long ago, the Census Bureau released some new analyses of commuting, focused especially on "mega-commuting" – that is, commuters who drive more than 50 miles and 90 minutes one way. The numbers are predictably frightening – these folks travel extremely long distances, using up a lot of time, gas, and road capacity on the process.

But mega-commuters only make up about 2% of all commuters. The bigger message from the Census data is a much more prosaic – and discouraging – message about ordinary, day-to-day commuting.

Planners in California and elsewhere often believe that by changing land use patterns, we can change commuting patterns. But commuting patterns are stubbornly persistent. Once they are established, they never change. They're basically fixed. It's so common that most of the time we don't even notice.

In Southern California, for example, we talk constantly about the problem of commuters from Riverside County to Orange and San Diego counties. And these numbers are indeed big – 67,000 to Orange and 36,000 to San Diego. But they are dwarfed by some of the more mature county-to-county commuting relationships.

The strongest commuting relationship in the state is between Los Angeles and Orange County, and the cross-commute is almost exactly even – with 181,000 commuters traveling from L.A. to Orange and 178,000 the other way. As Figure 1 show, the commuting relationships between Santa Clara County and Alameda and San Mateo counties—though much smaller and tilted somewhat toward Santa Clara – are similar. 

Indeed, even the cross-commutes between San Bernardino and Riverside counties – two counties generally considered bedroom suburbs – dwarf Riverside's connection to Orange and San Diego. Almost 90,000 people commute each day from Riverside to San Bernardino, while 65,000 people go on the other direction. And who would believe that there are just as many Ventura-LA commuters as there are Riverside-Orange commuters? (As more jobs have been created in Ventura County, the Ventura-LA number hasn't declined; instead, the LA-Ventura number has gone up.)

So, the moral of the story isn't that better land use and transportation planning will change hardened commuting patterns. Those will probably stay. All California planners can hope for is to create new patterns that new commuters will follow. 


Chart headline: Strongest Cross-County Commuting Relationships

Source: U.S. Census