Datablog: What it Takes to Get There

Click to enlarge Commute times to zip code 94105 (SOMA) in San Francisco

To the dismay of many a futurist envisioning the world in 2010, the vast majority of people commute significant distances to their jobs. Although the recent recession has led to reduced vehicle miles traveled, the average American still commutes 46 minutes a day. And while we don't always have a choice about where we work and live, commuting reflects both the successes and limitations of our transportation network and our housing supply. This interactive map, created by Harry Kao, uses the familiar google maps layout to shed light on commuting times across the nation.

How to use it: This commuting map is simple. Before starting you are prompted to enter the zip code of where you commute. With that basic information, a screen displays multiple red dots, each dot represents another zip code, with the size of dot corresponding to the percentage of commuters. If you click on the dot you are informed as to the average commute time from that destination and, how long it takes for people to commute to that destination.

The data: This project used data that was gathered from the 2000 Census. While the American Community Survey data is more recent, Kao needed more detailed figures to produce this map. Routes and transit times are taken directly from the google maps API.

What it is: At its core, this map reflects the theoretical distance/time that it takes to travel to work by car. It is however, unable to capture a key component of real commute time, traffic. According to Kao, "the census dataset has detailed stats on when people leave and when they arrive but there's not quite enough information to link the times with the endpoints." By assuming travel during non-peak hours, Kao concedes that most commute times are underestimates. This fact cant be ignored because driving, the mode of travel selected in this interactive map, feels the marginal impact of traffic more than the other modes of transportation.

Sample zip codes:
Chicago: 60601 (City Hall)
New York: 10005 (Wall Street)
San Francisco: 94105 (SOMA)
Houston: 77019 (Downtown)


  • Chicago and San Francisco have a relatively similar commuting time pattern, with a few zip codes that register miniscule times and a significant disparity in time for the outlying neighborhoods.
  • Commuting times stay considerably more consistent in New York
  • It takes 70% of commuters to the 94105 zip code (SOMA) less than the average commute time.
  • 57.5% of people travel less than the average commute to Houston's downtown