How many time zones does America need anyway?

Allison Schrager writes:

This year, Americans on Eastern Standard Time should set their clocks back one hour (like normal), Americans on Central and Rocky Mountain time do nothing, and Americans on Pacific time should set their clocks forward one hour. After that we won’t change our clocks again—no more daylight saving. This will result in just two time zones for the continental United States. The east and west coasts will only be one hour apart. Anyone who lives on one coast and does business with the other can imagine the uncountable benefits of living in a two-time-zone nation (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).

And why?:

It sounds radical, but it really isn’t. The purpose of uniform time measures is coordination. How we measure time has always evolved with the needs of commerce. According to Time and Date, a Norwegian Newsletter dedicated to time zone information, America started using four time zones in 1883. Before that, each city had its own time standard based on its calculation of apparent solar time (when the sun is directly over-head at noon) using sundials. That led to more than 300 different American time zones. This made operations very difficult for the telegraph and burgeoning railroad industry. Railroads operated with 100 different time zones before America moved to four, which was consistent with Britain’s push for a global time standard. The following year, at the International Meridian Conference, it was decided that the entire world could coordinate time keeping based on the British Prime Meridian (except for France, which claimed the Prime Median ran through Paris until 1911). There are now 24 (or 25, depending on your existential view of the international date line) time zones, each taking about 15 degrees of longitude.

Now the world has evolved further—we are even more integrated and mobile, suggesting we’d benefit from fewer, more stable time zones. Why stick with a system designed for commerce in 1883? In reality, America already functions on fewer than four time zones. I spent the last three years commuting between New York and Austin, living on both Eastern and Central time. I found that in Austin, everyone did things at the same times they do them in New York, despite the difference in time zone. People got to work at 8 am instead of 9 am, restaurants were packed at 6 pm instead of 7 pm, and even the TV schedule was an hour earlier.

There is more here.


This will change exactly when the US gets rid of the penny, gets rid of the electoral college for presidential elections and changes the drinking age back to 18.

Don't forget the metric system.

Can we throw in changing to a 24 hour clock?

No, no. Metric 10 hour clock, 100 minutes per hour, 100 seconds per minute.

Six-day week. Four 9-hour work days. Sixty weeks a year, with 5 or 6 holidays at year-end.

America needs more women providing advice and making decisions.

All for any reduction in time zones, but I don't quite understand, if collapsing to two time zones, why Schrager suggests they'd be one hour apart, rather than two or three. And if going through the trouble, why not collapse to a single time zone? It works for China!

Schrager also too casually assumes that matched wall-clock times would imply many more overlapping working-hours. Plenty of people (and industries) have their rise/work/play/sleep rhythm set by the sun; it's more likely office hour conventions would change in the west, than the whole country aim to start work at a new national (NY/DC) 9am.

Good point.

The folks I know in financial services in California get to work at 6am so they've had a cup of coffee before the market opens at 9:30 est / 6:30 pst.

The software developers I know show up at 10am local time regardless of timezone.

+1 for mention of China, which has but one time zone. Annoying a bit. Arizona, USA has no Daylight Savings Time I believe.

China can get away with one time zone because the population is overwhelmingly skewed towards its east coast. About a third of the country has almost the entire population.

If the U.S. wants to imitate China, it'd make more sense to go with the two time zone proposal.

But like Albert Magnus hinted, it'll never happen because America has become an extremely status quo biased, risk adverse country.

Indiana, until recently, also did not observe Daylight Savings Time, which effectively resulted in the state moving back and forth between Eastern and Central time.

I don't see the need. For services analogous to telegraph & railroads of the 1800's people can and already do use GMT / UTC and there's no confusion or coordination problems.

For the rest of us, how does a change matter anyways.

It "works" for China because 1) only one time zone for them matters, 2) the people don't really have a say in the People's Republic.

Also, Xinjiang runs de facto on local time (two hours behind Beijing).

It only "works" for China because 90%+ of the population lives on China's eastern coast (where the TZs are reckoned from). In China's West, which is still quite rural, the workday is translated because of the change in daylight hours, effectively introducing time zones.

Arguments for 12 time zones within the continental US are more convincing. Time shouldn't shift abruptly from one hour to the next. Moreover, time zones would make sense as autonomous political units if we went to the dodecasystem. Each zone can decide how it wants to treat Daylight Savings Time. Most postal workers and unions in the utility sector are already in favor of such a system. Good post. I have cheap jewelry.

Why vary time zones for some industry or another when you can just vary hours of operation?

When I lived in South Australia it kept its time half an hour behind Victoria's.

Newfoundland is half an hour ahead of Atlantic Time.

And Adelaide being half an hour behind Victoria works out to being extremly close to solar time here. And since Adelaide is the state's only population center, and since in Australian terms it is close to the Victorian border, being half an hour behind makes sense for most South Australians, even though one would expect the place to be an hour behind going by where the center of the state is. Before I read Dearieme's comment being only half an hour behind never struck me as being unusual.

-- That led to more than 300 different American time zones --

It's only a slight exaggeration to note that the state of Indiana itself had nearly that many time zones until just a few years ago.

I spent some time in Columbus about ten years ago and the shifting time zones within the state were a very interesting feature.

The problem in Indiana wasn't that we had a lot of time zones (we had two, and still have). It was that some of the counties on Eastern time didn't observe DST, so for part of the year they used the same time as neighboring counties (and states) and for the other part they didn't. It was a mess, and just about everybody was an hour early or late for something some of the time. DST may be silly, but once most places have it it becomes even sillier for some not to have it.

For a short time I lived outside South Bend IN, which is very west in the eastern time zone and a short distance from the central time zone. I wanted to go to the hardware store in the small town of Walkerton IN - less than five miles from the time zone border.

Me: What time do you close?
Young clerk: 7pm
Me: What time zone are you in?
YC: What's a time zone?


My proposal.

End Daylight savings time.

Put everyone on GMT.

Add a location aware solar time (so you can go for a run at sunrise, or meet for dinner an hour after sunset, etc), for events that you want driven by the sun, and they will automatically shift with the seasons. After all, our devices are or soon will be location aware.


I generally detest anecdotes, but as someone who travels a fair amount on my personal time and works day-to-day with colleagues overseas, varying timezones adds a material amount of unnecessary equivocality.

The motion has been seconded. We may now vote.

Ever serve in the military? All operations are set to Zulu or GMT. It was the responsibility of the command structure to convert Z to local time.

Do you live in the southern US?

Where I live, sunrise was at 7:14 and sunset is at 5:06 today. Compare that to May 1, sunrise was at 6:11 and sunset was at 8:38. At summer solstice, sunrise is at 5:30 and sunset is around 9:30 while the winter solstice sunrise is around 8:10 and sunset is around 4:40.

That's a pretty massive swing if you're basing your "local time" on those events. Going out for supper "an hour after sunset" would vary between right about the time I normally get home from work to right about the time I should be going to bed if I want a full night's sleep. That's too variable to base your life around.

"I spent the last three years commuting between New York and Austin"

La di da.

And she can't add/subtract 1 depending on her location.

Sounds like a math word problem.

That the French used a prime meridian passing through Paris is the key to Tintin's adventure "Red Rackham's Treasure" :

Bad idea. Too much variation in how much sunlight different regions get between 6 and 9pm, especially in Spring and Summer. Those on the eastern edges of these new timezones would be much disadvantaged. Class distinctions in youth sports would be exacerbated between local communities wealthy enough to have lights and those that don't. Areas on the western edges would have sunlight until 10:30-11pm: a boon to beer league softball and co-ed kickball I suppose.

Or you could just vary hours of operation, rather than assuming that school simply *must* start at 8AM and end at 3PM, or whatever.

But then why abolish the time zones? that people don't have to add/subtract hours in order to figure out what time it is in another place.

They just have to add/subtract hours in order to figure out what time to do things at home? Yeah, sounds much less complicated.

Date and time are something no one ever says "just let the free market handle it".

It is always everyone trying to justify big government dictates on how date and time should be, and demands that government solve every problem that depends in them.

Which is just about everything from how old am I to where am I.

For over 25 years I was one of many people trying to teach people about dates and time so my employers products would work correctly, but that involved educating customers on the dictates from big government and how big government dictated yet another software patch. And then in 1990, people suddenly realized we would still be using computers one instant after midnight dec 31, 1999.

And do you know about leap seconds that mess up time keeping for scientists just to not piss off people who want some daylight in the evening instead of the sun setting a 4pm.

What seems simple and logical isn't. Nature refuses to bend to those who think the world should be simple. After all, the earth refuses to rotate at the same rate every day so high noon is not 24 hours after the previous high noon, nor the same elapsed time to the next high noon.

We computer guys would be happy to dictate to everyone else what the date and time is because we can always make things better. 12 months 30 days long each exactly 24 hours long would be wonderful. And as we work all the time day and night, we don't care where the sun is at any given hour of the day.

This was my position on the matter in 1980, 1990, 2000, and today.

We should all just keep time by the number of milliseconds since the beginning of 1970.

Comedy gold, as usual


The first adaptation of a standard time in the world was established on December 1, 1847, in Great Britain by railway companies using GMT kept by portable chronometers. The first of these companies to adopt standard time was the Great Western Railway (GWR) in November 1840. This quickly became known as Railway Time. About August 23, 1852, time signals were first transmitted by telegraph from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Even though 98% of Great Britain's public clocks were using GMT by 1855, it was not made Britain's legal time until August 2, 1880.

Time zones were a free market solution that was adopted and used for over 30 years before the government made it official. American time zones were similarly first created by railroad companies and only officially sanctioned by the government many years later.

People and machines in involved in coordinating can use Greenwich mean time. Typical meatbags can use whatever local time suits them best. As electronic assistance becomes smarter and cheaper the costs of dealing with different times zones will probably decrease. People who do a lot of time zone hopping might simply stick to their own personal time and rely on electronic assistance to match things up and make sure they get to their appointments at the correct time.

Most modern databases store time internally as UTC (similar to GMT) and localize. If all your times are off by six hours, suspect that.

I had an interesting debug situation once where a server was off by an hour. First I try setting it manually but the problem recurred because the server was designed to look up a NIST NTP server for time every so often.

Eventually I figured that NIST gave it the right UTC and the Operating System used its locale setting to add an offset. Apparently there was a bug about what date to kick in daylight saving so for a month or so every year we had to live with bad time stamps.

Probably not a bug, just the computer was not aware of the recent change to the start and end dates of daylight savings time.

This was circa 2006 though. Was there a change then? Pretty sure was Red Hat.

It changed for 2007.

What would be the implications of this for interstate trade? For U.S.- global trade? I thought that one advantage of different time zones is that companies can stagger day shifts to answer calls from the entire U.S. population during times when customers are likely to call.

Now they just make people in Bangalore stay up all night. That reason isn't as relevant any more.

Like China, India has one time zone. It should have at least two, but they compromised on the time in the middle (which is why they are 30 minutes off). The "2 time zone, no DST" proposal makes great sense to me.

While we're at it, can we please do something about QWERTY as well?

We're gradually getting there. It's called voice recognition. It's not perfect at the moment because to fully understand a human you have to be about as smart as a human in order to get context. But if I pull a prediction from my donkey of prognostication it tells me that in three years people will regularly be using improved versions of things like Siri to give machines commands in conversational language which will be understood as well or better than if they were talking to a human. (Which is admittedly a pretty low bar to reach.)

Christ, if Daylight Savings Time disappeared, I would be a happy camper. The rest could indeed be handled by the market.

Used to live in northern Germany: If you weren't asleep before the birds started tweeting, you weren't going to go to sleep. Not so bad here, but DLST is still a pain in the ass. Economically, an hour is taken away, but when you get it back, there is no interest payment! :-)

What, none of you people can handle math? Or geography? Time zones are about the only way we keep most of the populace doing basic math and geography, and you want to get rid of that?

DSM, I understand. Time zones? They server a purpose. When you say its 7 PM somewhere, everyone has an idea that its "dusk" depending on the time of year, because they know its dusk for them. It puts us all in a position to relate to one another. And frankly, it keeps New Yorkers from calling their buddies in California because, hey, its 6 AM in New York, so the 6 AM in California must mean they are up.

For me, it gives a good impression on the time of the work day, and I deal with both Europeans and with Australians. Its a marker, one that gives me a good impression of when their work day has ended, and avoids confusion.

You people who think this is a good idea need a remedial course in basic logic.

"Californians who work on Eastern time require services that can accommodate their schedule and see less of their families on Pacific time."

As someone that lived in California and worked on Eastern time, this comment struck me as 100% false. Everyone with families loved it because their work day would end and they would see their kids shortly after they got home from school. And going to a service provider that is open M-F 9-5 is much easier when your day ends earlier. The people that hated it were people like me, young, single people whose friends were on regular schedules, so going out at 11 PM on a Thursday sucked. You'd think someone making this argument would actually think through the actual implications instead of making stuff up.

Daylight Savings Time is my favorite example that arbitrary governmental requirements matter. After all, businesses could just contract around it costlessly. For instance, by being open 9 am to 5 pm in the winter and 10 am to 6 pm in the summer. Since markets are efficient, businesses should operate this way and ignore the governmental time change. That they don't says something (although I'm not sure what) about many other government requirements and regulations that ought to be easy to contract around.

It's not that big a deal to work out national time zone differences. PIck a time that makes day and night more or less day and night. Daylight savings, on the other hand, makes no sense. Give it up.

She does have a point though about how people live in Central time. They need to commit and stop this wanna-be Eastern Time Zone thing.

Unless you've got the worries someone is getting ahead of you in NYC, I recommend Hawaii Standard Time. They don't do DST. They are southern enough so the day length doesn't change much. And you go in at 7 am, catch the East Coast after their morning crisis but also, they are heading home by your lunch. In the mean time, you pick up your West Coast starting around 9 am HST after their morning crush but they are closing up by 2 pm HST. Then you do your Hawaii business to end your day at 3:30 with plenty of time for a long afternoon on the beach.

It's not a "wanna-be Eastern Time Zone thing," it's a cultural thing. Midwesterners like getting up earlier and leaving earlier, even those who have nothing to do w/ businesses located in NY/DC.

Agreed. I'm in the midwest, eastern time zone, and start time is 8am.
My NY family still gets up at the same time though, so it may have something to do with all the BS traffic there.

Yeah, Detroit is an EST city, and the restaurants are packed at 6.

I'm not sure if you are familiar with Alan Parsons, but here are some of his thoughts on this weighty matter:

Time, flowing like a river
Time, beckoning me
Who knows when we shall meet again
If ever
But time
Keeps flowing like a river
To the sea

Other than some local oddities noted, time zones are fine.

The 'revelation' that Chicago 'starts' at the same time as New York is classic flyover wonderment.

There are three time zones- Asia, Europe, and America. These are the centers of gravity that provide the daily rhythm around which human activity is organized.

Geography and rotation matter. The day starts in Japan. Smooth hand-offs until the West Coast of Europe. Then an ocean- Brazil is in-between, but the ocean is small enough that Europe can hand-off to America.

America is big and bi-coastal, and the other side of Cali is a BIG ocean. That's why the day ends there, and why the West Coast has its own say, its own semi-center of gravity, which I think is healthy and isn't a product of time zones.

I've been in Hawaii many times, and I can never shake the feeling of being unconnected with the rest of the planet. It's weird.

OK, if I had my way, we would all use Zulu and each country would have its own conventional working hours. But whatever.

The USSR had a uniform time-zone and it was an excellent idea. If I understand it correctly, people out outer Foobania would work in an unoffocial local timezone, **unless** they were official people. Thus the entire thing was actually just a device of no importance except that it tortured communists. How do y'all think this would work out the USA?

"I found that in Austin, everyone did things at the same times they do them in New York, despite the difference in time zone. People got to work at 8 am instead of 9 am, restaurants were packed at 6 pm instead of 7 pm, and even the TV schedule was an hour earlier."

Well yeah, why bother getting to the office at 8 in NY when Texas won't get going for another hour?

Arizona does not do daylight savings time. The Navajo Indian Reservation in Aizona does. Crazy!

This is a case when everyone is right and no one is right.

Clearly there is a public good in having time zones else we wouldn't maintain them for commercial coordination. For individual people or firms that wish to be in sync with a key geographic area, it is a simple matter to change the work schedule an hour or so. Instead of 9 to 5 it's 8 to 4 or 10 to 6. Big deal.

The cases where commerce is global already use some variant of Zulu time.

I don't find examples of totalitarian states mandating a single time zone particularly persuasive. Without claiming to know the optimal number of time zones, The actions of the free market in creating 300 time zones leads me to believe that more than one time zone is preferred by the vast majority of people and firms.

Let's finuly rashunulyze Inglish speling to!

I never understand people's drive to make arbitrary sweeping cultural changes whose benefit is orders of magnitude lower than the cost, even if such changes were possible.

TV schedules being "offset an hour already" is exactly because the broadcast networks didn't want to have to create four national feeds given the high-cost of renting microwave and coax relay facilities from the Bell System in the 1950s. Having lived in a country with one time zone (India) it largely worked because the major business hubs tended to be around the same longitude and didn't work well when you were trying to contact someone outside those lines.

I think the social cuing given by 9-5 is more helpful than hurtful and if you know the problems involved with different national "weekends" you can see the sort of problems that would develop with a single global timezone.

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