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Introducing the Future of Commuting: a new series

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The average American spends 51 minutes traveling to and from work, each and every day.

Most of us think of our commute as something we just need to get through as quickly as possible and banish from our minds once it's over. That's fair enough. After all, commuting sucks. Excessively long commutes have been linked to problems such as obesity, neck and back problems, and sleep troubles.

But precisely because it plays such a huge part in our lives, commuting can provide a revealing glimpse at the world around us. And a closer look at how commuting is changing can tell us a lot about how the world is changing.

Our commutes, after all, aren't purely accidental: they reflect policy decisions and national economic trends. In the United States, 40 percent or more of the surface area of many cities is taken up by roads and highways that were funded publicly and built decades ago. So it's not a surprise that commuting is dominated by cars.

These commuting patterns are likely to persist for a long time to come. Even if self-driving cars do catch on, they won't change things as radically as some people would have you believe. Those cars will still be traveling along many of the same highways and infrastructure that were built decades ago.

But commuting has been changing in lots of subtler ways. We're carpooling less, and working part-time and from home a whole lot more. Young people are driving fewer miles, though that might be just because they have less money to spend on it. Lots of cities have installed bike-share programs and bike lanes — but so far, they're mostly used by wealthy white riders.

This new series will look at the surprising history that explains why our commutes look the way they do. It'll examine the hidden trends that are slowly changing commuting, and the people and projects trying to redesign it for the better.

Here's the first post: The utter dominance of the car in American commuting.