D.C.’s Low-Wage Workers Have the Longest Commutes

In general, the closer you get to D.C.’s downtown, the higher the rents and housing prices. And not surprisingly, people living downtown have higher incomes and are better educated than those living only a few miles away from the city’s center. Given the high number of jobs concentrated downtown, does this mean that low-income workers living in D.C. have longer commutes? We turned to data from the American Community Survey to find out.


The data show that in 2013, D.C. residents in low-wage jobs did indeed have the longest commutes. Out of the thirty-one most common jobs held by D.C. residents, the nine with the longest commutes were low-wage. People in high-wage jobs had some of the shortest commutes. The one-way commute times ranged from an average of 37 minutes for maids to 24 minutes for chief executives and legislators. That means the weekly commute of the average maid living in D.C. is more than two hours longer than that of the average chief executive or legislator, assuming a five-day work week.

We defined a job as low-wage if its median wage was in the bottom 25 percent of wages across all jobs in D.C. High-wage jobs have median wages in the top 25 percent and middle-wage jobs are in between.

We also looked at how people in different occupations get to work. In most occupations, people are most likely to commute by car, but there are some exceptions. The bus was the most common way to commute for four low-wage occupations: maids, janitors, cashiers, and cooks. The subway was the most common way to commute for mostly middle-wage jobs, perhaps because low-income workers are less likely to be able to afford to live near Metrorail stations. Walking was the most common way to commute for only one occupation: economists.

What exactly is this data? The commute data is from the 2013 American Community Survey 5-year PUMS data (2009-2013). We looked at data for D.C. residents only, regardless of where they worked. The wage data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Employment Statistics for 2013. H/T to New York City’s Comptroller’s Office, which did a similar study of New York residents.

Steven Giachetti contributed to this post.


6 thoughts on “D.C.’s Low-Wage Workers Have the Longest Commutes

  1. A couple questions–what are the actual numbers of employees in each of these occupations (N=?)?
    Are these workers only DC residents and employed in DC–or are you including DC residents who commute _out_ of DC and DC-employed who commute _in_? Addressing both of these would make the posting more useful and informative.


    1. @dchistorystuff: The numbers are for D.C. residents only, regardless of where they work (though as you can see in the chart most work in D.C.). The number of residents in each occupation ranges from 3,400 physicians and surgeons to 19,400 lawyers and judges.


  2. It’s interesting that there are no IT or engineering jobs on this list, probably because most of those employees live in the suburbs, closer to work. I’ll bet those of us who do live in DC have longer-than-average commutes because the jobs are so far out.


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