Tommy Watson’s daily commute to work is, well, quick and easy.
The drive south on Ward Parkway takes him 20 to 25 minutes, getting him from his West Plaza home to his job at Freightquote in south Kansas City.
“It’s not bad — I’ve never had any major problems,” Watson said. “I don’t think there’s any other way it could be improved. Traffic moves pretty quickly.”
Watson is not alone. Kansas City continues to have some of the quickest commutes when compared to the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
At 22.9 minutes, Kansas City has the fifth shortest commute time. That’s just two minutes longer than the best — the Rochester, N.Y., metropolitan area, which has an average commute time of 20.8 minutes.
Kansas Citians can be thankful they don’t live in the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area. Workers there have the longest average commute time, 35.8 minutes.
Historically, the Kansas City area has been commuter friendly. To see just how friendly, The Star analyzed the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey data regarding people’s transportation habits to work.
Focusing on one-year estimates, The Star selected the 50 metropolitan areas with the largest number of workers and ranked them by various categories, including the average commute time not only by all workers but broken down by those who drove alone, carpooled or took public transportation.
The Star also looked at data specific to the Kansas City area — the length of commute by time of day, the time people leave for work, where people work and number of cars available.
Kansas City’s relatively easy commute convinced Angela Ferguson and her family they could live in northwestern Olathe when they moved to the area in 2008 even though she works in the Hospital Hill area.
“We are close to the highway, so it makes it really easy, even though we are pretty far out, to get any place in town,” she said. “We like the school system because we have a son and you could get more house for your money in Olathe.”
Ferguson, who lived in Atlanta for 5 1/2 years and St. Louis for seven years, knows just how bad commuting can get.
“When I lived in Atlanta, I didn’t have to take any highways to commute — I lived close enough to school I could just drive on city streets,” she said. “There was no way I would have lived any further away in Atlanta. There were traffic jams at 11 o’clock at night. It was just ridiculous.”
Ferguson’s commute into her job as a lab director at Children’s Mercy Hospital takes about 45 minutes from her doorstep to the parking garage.
Even the small number of Kansas City workers who rely on public transportation have some of the shortest commute times. Kansas City ranked fourth, with an average commute time of 39.3 minutes for those who use public transportation.
At 62 minutes, the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario area in California area had the worst commute time on public transportation.
One of Kansas City’s claims as a livable community is that it’s good to be a commuter here, said Ron Achelpohl, director of transportation and environment at the Mid-America Regional Council.
“Part of that is due to the highway system that we have, particularly the interstate highway system we have, the way it was planned for over the decades, the way we have developed and the way we have used it,” Achelpohl said.
Compared to other regions with the same population and land area, Kansas City has a large highway and freeway system relative to its population, he said.
“We tend to be trailing other areas our size in terms of congestion levels by about 20 years,” Achelpohl said. “We’re more congested now than we were in 2000 or in 1990. But even in 2000 or 1990, we were much less congested than other places our size around the country.”
In addition to the access to the highway system, gasoline prices certainly influence commuting habits.
“Right now, gasoline prices are at a historically low level,” Achelpohl said. “So we are seeing some increase in the number of people who are commuting alone to work as opposed to a few years ago.”
Kansas City ranks fourth highest when it comes to the percentage of commuters who drive alone — about 83 percent of Kansas City area workers drive alone to work, according to the data. Meanwhile, the area has one of the lowest percentages of workers who use public transportation.
Kansas City commuters are pretty mobile too, considering the state line factor. About 17.9 percent of the area’s workers commute to jobs outside the state where they live. That’s only behind the Washington D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria area, where 25 percent of workers commute to out-of-state jobs.
“We have relatively few barriers between the states,” said Achelpohl, who also noted that Kansas City’s population is distributed roughly 40 percent in Kansas and 60 percent in Missouri. “South of the (Missouri) river, the state line is a roadway and it’s pretty easy to cross back and forth.”
Jeff Armstrong, who lives in the Crossroads district, is one of those who drives out of state to work. His marketing job with Security Benefit in Topeka allows him to work from home two days a week.
On the other days, he makes a little more than an hour commute to the office — time he uses to reflect on the day ahead and to clear his head.
Unlike those who live in the suburbs and face bumper-to-bumper traffic to downtown Kansas City, the majority of Armstrong’s commute is on the Kansas Turnpike, which is not crowded. He sets his cruise control and goes.
“It’s a little different, but I’ve been doing it almost 5 1/2 years,” Armstrong said. “It’s been a pretty relaxing drive. It’s not so bad.”