It might be tough to believe for motorists who face daily rush-hour gridlock, but a new report from the U.S. Census shows that — relatively speaking — Los Angeles commutes aren't so bad.
It took commuters in the L.A.-Long Beach-Santa Ana area an average of 28.1 minutes to get to work in 2010, ranking 17th nationally, according to data released Thursday from the American Community Survey's latest one-year estimate.
Surprisingly, topping the list were areas with robust rail networks and transit systems such as New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, which ranked first and takes drivers an average of 34.6 minutes, and Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, which clocked in at 30.7 minutes and ranked fourth. The national average was 25.3.
"We have a lot of congestion in L.A. … but it doesn't mean that the average person is spending hours and hours in congestion," said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA.
Another report released by IBM researchers this month also challenged the Southern California stereotype when it ranked Los Angeles only 12th among 20 of the largest cities around the globe in a commuter pain index made up of factors like commuting time and the notion that "driving causes anger." Mexico City ranked first.
Taylor said it generally takes approximately twice as long for commuters to get to work using public transit as it does driving alone, which helps explain L.A.'s ranking. Waiting and transfer times combined with lower average speeds because of frequent stops are among the reasons.
But Denny Zane, of the transit advocacy group Move LA, said that doesn't mean the region has been wrong to aggressively build new rail systems in hopes of convincing motorists to leave their cars at home. He said new rail lines and improved public transportation will help address the region's congestion problems but cannot single-handedly solve them. He said land-use policies that promote development around transit and cash incentives to get drivers out of their cars are also necessary.
"You must also have other strategies in place," Zane said, adding that the benefits of public transportation cannot be measured only by commute times. He said transit pays dividends in other areas: Commutes are "more affordable … there's less air pollution, compact development is a more efficient use of land and therefore makes housing more affordable."
The mean commute time in the L.A.-Long Beach-Santa Ana area has stayed relatively flat since 2006, peaking at 28.6 minutes in 2007, according to the American Community Survey.
Commute times in nearby Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario declined slightly every year since 2007, but the data show that residents still face longer commutes than in L.A., with a 2010 average of 30.6 minutes.
The data released Thursday included dozens of other housing, economic and transportation measurements. For example, Americans commuting by themselves in cars, trucks or vans rose slightly from 76.1% in 2009 to 76.6% in 2010, and the number of carpoolers fell from 10% to 9.7%.
One sobering measure was that 17.5% of L.A. County residents were living in poverty last year, marking the third straight annual increase from just under 15% in 2007. Over the same period, inflation-adjusted median household income dropped $3,658 to $52,684.
"We hoped that we would bounce out of the recession," said USC demographer Dowell Myers. Instead, he said, the data show that "impacts of the recession are accumulating and escalating."
More people are losing jobs, and families are exhausting their welfare benefits without finding enough work to get back on their feet. The one bright spot, Myers said, is that the poverty rate remains well below the figures recorded during the early 1990s, when more than 20% of county residents slipped below the poverty line.
Times staff writer Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.