Are Long Commutes “Forcing” Women Out of the Workforce?

Image via Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Image via Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

When making a broad generalization, it’s always best to have the facts on your side. Human activity is causing global warming. The death penalty is an ineffective deterrent. Always plant your peas on President’s Day.

Which is why this Citylab story, festooned with the clickbait headline, “NYC’s Long Commutes May Be Forcing Mothers Out of the Workforce,” raised my truthiness antennae. (The original headline, since changed, was even more eyebrow-raising; “How NYC’s Long Commutes Force Mothers Out of the Workforce.) New York City, with the most comprehensive subway system in the nation? What kind of “long” commutes are they talking about? Is the real problem that driving long distances is too time-consuming for everyone, not just moms? And on what data are they basing this extremely sweeping factual claim?

For those answers, we have to turn to the report on which Citylab’s conclusion was based, from the New York City comptroller’s office. That report looked at workforce participation among women with children under 16 between in NYC and 29 other metro areas, and found only very small differences between the cities. In New York, 70 percent of mothers are in the workforce—about 3 percentage points lower than the average of the 30 cities included in the report. (Women in general have a workforce participation rate about 2 percentage points lower in New York than in other cities—again, hardly sufficient evidence for such an overwrought, explosive claim.)

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Nowhere, moreover, does the report suggest that women are being “forced” or even voluntarily abandoning the workforce. Nor does it support CityLab’s claim that it’s New York’s transit system, in particular, that is responsible for all these working moms being “forced” to stay at home. (“The city’s transit system is not known for its parent-friendly features, as any mom (or dad) who has lugged their child into the city’s depths can tell you. But it gets worse…”) 

Yes, New Yorkers have a total “work week” that’s two and a half longer than the average of all large cities in the U.S. because New Yorkers have a longer average commute. But that average commute time includes not just buses and subways but cars, taxis, ferries, and more, making Citylab’s attempt to blame long commutes on inadequate transit seem disingenuous.

And the two-and-a-half-hour stat must be considered in the context of many short-commute cities on the list, like Phoenix, El Paso, and Las Vegas, where sprawl is virtually unfettered (and with it ever-expanding highways to accommodate that sprawl) and the single-occupancy car is by far the dominant mode of transportation.

It’s absolutely true, as Citylab asserts, that “mothers of young children are particularly sensitive to long trips to and from work,” because they are chiefly responsible for child care, errands, and home responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, and other family duties that are still primarily the province of women.)

But I’m not sure Citylab’s math adds up. Citing a 2013 study concluding that every one-minute increase in commute time decreases the labor participation of high-school-educated white women with children under five (a much different group than all women in New York with kids under 16, by the way), Citylab calculates that a half-hour increase in the average commute will reduce the number of working moms by 15 percent. Which means that if the trend of ever-longer commute times continues, by the time the average commute is a half-hour longer, fewer than 60 percent of New York City women will be working. That defies the long-term trend of increasing labor-force participation by moms in cities, and would be dramatically lower than the average percentage of mothers with kids under 17 in the workforce nationwide, which, according to the Census Bureau, is 74.7 percent.

The lesson here? Don’t take splashy headlines at face value; take the time to read the studies such headlines are based on, if possible; and question sweeping claims that generalize about an entire population based on selective cherrypicking of data.

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Citylab has explored the supposed exodus of women from the workplace due to long commutes. Back in 2013, when that white-women-with-kids-under-5 study was published, writer Eric Jaffe wrote a piece for Citylab titled “Do Long Commutes Discourage Married Women from Working?,” which was based on a single study that included only white women with at least a high-school. And even that study concluded that there was no clear explanation of why long commutes correlated with slightly fewer women in the workforce.