Why even the hyperloop wouldn’t change commute times

The half-hour trip is something of a mystical notion in transportation. It is, in fact, roughly how long many of us spend getting to work.

The hyperloop, Elon Musk has boasted, could whisk you from New York to Washington in 29 minutes. Other maglev boosters sell similar dreams: San Francisco to Los Angeles in under 30. Dallas to Houston; Portland, Oregon to Seattle; Orlando, Florida to Miami in the same.

The half-hour trip is something of a mystical notion in transportation. These visions of the future sound seductive, in part, because half an hour is, in fact, roughly how long many of us spend getting to work. The typical American commutes 26.4 minutes, one way, according to the American Community Survey. In metro New York, with nearly the longest commutes in the country, that average is 36 minutes.

Of course plenty of workers trek less or much more, but average U.S. commute times have budged only modestly over the last 35 years, since the census began asking about them. International studies have shown similar half-hour patterns. History even hints that the Romans traveled about the same, when most people went everywhere on foot.

The curious stability of the half-hour average commute means that when bullet trains — or autonomous vehicles, or whatever innovation comes next — link two places by that much time, they won’t just open up plausible new weekend getaways and airline alternatives. They will also potentially restructure daily life: where people live, what jobs they hold, how cities expand over time.

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“What Musk correctly realizes is that there will be a huge market with maglev or hyperloop technology for the places it connects in 30 minutes,” said Jesse Ausubel, an environmental scientist at the Rockefeller University. “Any pairing that you can fit into that more or less one-hour round trip, the traffic will multiply immensely,” he said, referring to the volume of travelers.

People priced out of Brooklyn could move to Baltimore. Congressional aides would commute to Philadelphia. Whole cities — and labor and housing markets — would fuse together.

The hyperloop is a wild hypothetical. But Ausubel’s point stands on two related patterns from history. When you give people greater speed, they don’t use it to save time; they use it to consume more space. As a result, cities have spread outward as transportation technology has evolved….

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