Addressing Rising Commute Times

Commute times are one of the most reliable and important metrics included in the Midlands Regional Competitiveness Report’s Livability Index. As a highly tangible decision factor — with the exception of remote work, there’s no escaping a daily commute — it drives both individual and corporate-level location decisions. Individuals often seek shorter commutes in pursuit of work-life balance, and will even accept lower salaries in moving to metropolitan areas which offer less travel time between home, work and amenities. Likewise, companies often set up shop in areas with less congestion, easing the transportation of their products to ever-expanding markets.

Columbia’s commute time ranks towards the back of the pack relative to its Competitiveness Report peers, at 25.1 minutes on average this year. This is directly tied to its sprawling growth patterns, particularly over the past two decades. Areas such as Lexington, Blythewood, and Chapin have seen astronomical growth, while the City of Columbia’s population has remained slow (and actually saw a decrease in the most recent estimates, falling behind Charleston as the state’s largest city). 

A Google Maps satellite view shows increasing westward sprawl.

The increasing spatial separation of employees from their jobs and from necessities means that as more cars compete for space on the same roads, commute times see increases that are difficult to reverse. This also has implications for economic equity: Lower-income workers, who have seen little real wage growth in recent decades, are forced to spend an increasing chunk of their income on buying, maintaining and fueling vehicles just to get to jobs and earn a living.

There are two antidotes to rising commute times and their effects. First, regions can address the issue of sprawl through quality planning that encourages denser, less economically segregated development. Second, investments in transit infrastructure can reduce vehicular congestion while providing safe alternatives to driving.

One of Columbia’s challenges is that its greater downtown area offers numerous employment opportunities and amenities such as restaurants and recreation, but relatively few housing options. Of the existing options, many are geared towards the higher-end rental market due to South Carolina’s tax burden on multifamily residential properties. A thriving central business district is now seeing investment and growth in the residential market, adding over 1,200 new residents over the past decade. In addition, 317 new units and an additional 670 student housing beds are slated for completion in the next few years. This has been offset by disinvestment and job opportunity loss in lower-income neighborhoods within the city, though, creating more separation between jobs and homes. The City of Columbia and Richland County’s recent rezoning efforts will help to alleviate this effort by allowing more mixed-use development and investment in blighted commercial corridors. 

Commuters on I-126 near downtown Columbia. | Credit: Brett Flashnick

A second major opportunity lies in improving the region’s transit network. The COMET is actively reimagining the region’s transit system to improve service and increase options for travelers across Richland and Lexington Counties. A recent economic impact study found that The COMET’s system led to 7.9 million fewer vehicle miles travelled in FY19, enabling almost 1,200 additional jobs. Its planning process will enable the system to optimize its route, avoiding unnecessary congestion at central hubs and getting more people to their destinations faster. 

Says COMET director John Andoh, “An efficient transit network that’s adapted to the needs of the riding public has multiple benefits. For one, it’s less costly and has a positive financial impact to the consumer as well as the region. We’ve been fortunate to be able to engage our partners in the business community and help provide access to good paying jobs to more people.”

A recent partnership with Nephron Pharmaceuticals has enabled The COMET to increase service to major employers along Lexington County’s 12th Street corridor. Partnerships of this nature can be used as a model to serve key industrial centers throughout the region going forward. Ultimately, increased investments in transit figure to return an even greater investment in the region’s growth as a buffer against off-putting commute times and as a tool to enhance economic equity.