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Posts from the Commuting Category

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What the Equality of Opportunity Project Actually Says About Commuting

With their powerful results, the studies coming out of the Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, have become an important touchstone for journalists and transportation policy advisers. In their 2014 [PDF] and 2015 [PDF] studies, Chetty and Hendren show that place matters for low-income families. When low-income families have the opportunity to raise their children in better environments, their children do better as adults. And with their use of “big data,” Chetty and Hendren can show that these better environments are not just correlated with improved incomes, but actually cause them.

The Equality of Opportunity Project did not set out to be a study of transportation policy. Only one of the 40 variables that they tested speaks directly to transportation. This variable could have easily disappeared, like most of the other tested variables that did not make the final model.

Instead, transportation turned out to be extremely important. References to the Equality of Opportunity Project’s findings have found their way into numerous newspaper articles, policy reports, grant applications, and prominent public discussions of transportation policy that continue to this day.

The project’s transportation variable involves commutes. I say “involves commutes” because in an unfortunate bit of nomenclature, Chetty and Hendren call this variable “commute time.” This mis-naming has led to continuing confusion among journalists and policy advisers, who make the intuitive, but inaccurate, leap to describing what happens to families when a parent spends a long time commuting.

Instead of measuring “time” in the conventional sense of “minutes,” Chetty and Hendren do something quite different. Their commute variable is defined by the percent of commuting workers who can get to their job in less than 15 minutes. It’s a measure of people, not time.

Moreover, it’s a measure of the relative size of a very select group of people: workers with really short commutes. Nationally, this group is a shrinking minority. In 2000, 29.4 percent of commuters got to work in less than 15 minutes. In 2015, this percentage had fallen to 26.2 percent.

Chetty and Hendren find that for counties and multi-county commute zones, the higher the percentage of workers with really short commutes, the better it is for the children of low-income families.

To humanize what I am rechristening the “short commutes” variable, a journalist or policy adviser could talk about the probability of a parent in a low-income family having a really short commute. The short commutes variable, however, says very little about the impact of lengthy commutes. Nor does it say much of anything about the importance of transit service: Only 3.5 percent of workers who commute by bus or rail enjoy a trip of less than 15 minutes.

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Where Car Commuting Is Shrinking — And Where It’s Not

Where are Americans making the shift away from driving to work?

Crunching newly-released Census data, Yonah Freemark looked at how commute travel is changing in different cities and regions. In general, car commuting in major metro areas declined between 2005 and 2015, but the shift was greater than a couple of percentage points in only a few cities.

Keep in mind that commuting accounts for less than 20 percent of all trips, so these numbers may not reflect trends in other kinds of trips. Annual Census estimates also have fairly high margins of error, so any shifts that aren’t very significant in size should be taken with a grain of salt.

Here are the tables that Freemark compiled.

The share of people driving to work dropped in most major metro areas

Graph: Yonah Freemark via American Community Survey

Table: Yonah Freemark

The standouts here are greater Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Meanwhile, the share of car commuters increased in greater Houston, L.A., and Charlotte. It’s worth nothing that both Houston and L.A. made significant investments in rail infrastructure over the last decade. But apparently that wasn’t enough on its own to shift commuting patterns.

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Car-Free Day Doesn’t Mean Much Without New Policies to Reduce Traffic


To be meaningful, Car-Free Day needs to be tied to permanent traffic reduction policies. Photo: David Meyer

New York City is America’s car-free capital, home to eight and half million people, most of whom get around without owning a car. When so many of us already live car-free, what more can come out of an event like last Friday’s Car-Free Day?

There are basically two ways an awareness-raising event like Car-Free Day can go. It can be a big galvanizing moment, like the original Earth Day in 1970, that shows the political strength of a social movement and leads to real public policy changes. Or it can be an exercise in conscience soothing and public relations, like the modern incarnation of Earth Day, where governments, corporations, and private citizens “go green” for a day, then carry on with business as usual the next morning.

Car-Free Day 2016 wasn’t what you would call a big galvanizing moment.

Don’t get me wrong. City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez mobilized an impressive coalition for the day, working on a short schedule with, I’m guessing, a tiny budget. And it’s great that some of NYC’s large employers asked people to get to work without a car. Most of us do that already, sure, but more than a million of us do not. Maybe some habitual car commuters switched things up on Car-Free Day and found that the train, bus, or bike works better than they thought.

The trouble is, Car-Free Day was not tied to any concrete public policy proposals that would get the city closer to Rodriguez’s goal of reducing private car ownership. Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg ran down the list of what NYC DOT is doing to make streets safer for walking and biking, but those projects were already in the works.

Like San Francisco’s version of Bike to Work Day, where every elected official from the mayor on down gets seen biking to City Hall without making any real policy commitments, New York’s Car-Free Day didn’t take on much more significance than a photo op.

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Explore National Transportation Change Trends by Age Group

Cross-posted from City Observatory

In some ways, the urban renaissance of the last decade or two has been quite dramatic. Downtown or downtown-adjacent neighborhoods in cities around the country have seen rapid investments, demographic change, and growth in amenities and jobs. Even mayors in places with a reputation for car dependence, like Nashville and Indianapolis, are pushing for big investments in urban public transit.

Because many of those who work in urban planning live in or near these walkable, transit-served neighborhoods, it may be easy to imagine that their changes are representative of the overall pace of transition to a more urban-centric nation. Butas we and others have discussed before, in at least one way — transportation — change has actually been excruciatingly slow at the national level.

According to the American Community Survey, from 2006 to 2014, the proportion of people using a car to get to work declined — from 86.72 percent to 85.70 percent. Even among young people, the shift seems underwhelming: from 85.00 percent to 83.94 percent. (Though, as we stressed last week, these Census data only cover journey-to-work trips and tend to overstate the extent to which households rely exclusively on cars for their transportation needs.)

The changes for transit, biking, and walking are, obviously, similarly small. Transit mode share increased from 4.83 percent to 5.21 percent; among those 20 to 24, the increase was 5.53 to 6.35 percent. The overall share of walking commutes actually fell.

In fact, we’ve built a little tool to let people explore these data in an interactive way, selecting mode type and age ranges to see how things have changed, and haven’t, over the last almost-decade. The tool displays the same data in two ways: first, as a graph (above), and then as a simple table (below), for those who find that easier to read. (On the graph, yes, we have allowed the y-axis to begin at numbers larger than zero — in large part because the changes are so small that a chart that began at zero would be unintelligible. We will trust our readers to be sophisticated enough at reading graphs to understand.)

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Congress Expected to Level Tax Benefit for Transit and Car Commuters

A federal policy that has encouraged Americans to drive to work instead of taking the bus or the train won’t tilt the playing field toward car commuters so much.

Those who take the bus or train to work will soon enjoy the same tax benefits as those who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

People who take the bus or train to work should soon be eligible for the same tax benefits as people who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

A bill that extends provisions of the tax code will permanently set the maximum transit commuter tax benefit at the same level car commuters get for parking expenses. Both classes of commuters can now pay for those costs with up to $255 in pre-tax income per month. The tax deal is expected to clear Congress this week, reports Forbes.

Currently, the monthly pre-tax expense for transit riders is capped at $130, while the cap for parking is set at $250. The mismatch primarily works against commuter rail and express bus services, which can easily cost more than $130 per month.

In recent years, lawmakers went back and forth between temporarily leveling the playing field and stiffing transit riders.

Jason Pavluchuk of the Association for Commuter Transportation applauded the measure, which would take effect in 2016. “This provision will eliminate the financial incentive to drive alone and will increase transit,” he said. “Further, this will help both transit riders as well as drivers who will benefit from less congested roads.”

While commuter tax benefit parity is an improvement, eliminating the benefit entirely would be better.

A report released last year by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group pointed out that commuter tax benefits amount to a gigantic transfer from low earners to high earners, who are best positioned to take advantage of them. Also, the maximum benefit may now be level for individual commuters, but in the aggregate the vast majority of these tax incentives will continue to go toward driving, an enormous subsidy that makes rush hour traffic congestion worse.

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Cities Lead the Way as U.S. Car Commuting Takes Historic Downturn

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Graph: U.S. Census Bureau

The decline is small in number, but in the scheme of things, it’s huge: New census data [PDF] out last week show car commuting among Americans is finally, after decades of growth, starting to reverse itself.

Driving to work is still the predominant mode to a depressing extent. Almost nine in 10 Americans get to work by car and about three in four drive alone. But those numbers are beginning to fall.

Since 1960, the percent of Americans driving to work rose from 64 percent to a high of 87.9 percent in 2000. Since then, it has declined slightly but meaningfully to 85.8 percent. The percent of the population commuting by car ticked down again in 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available.

Even solo car commuting is down from its high in 2010 of 76.6 percent. Despite a precipitous decline in carpooling, solo car commuting was down to 76.4 percent in 2013, after two decades of rapid growth.

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Declines in car commuting for the 10 cities with the highest transit commuting rates by age. Table: U.S. Census

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More New Yorkers Are Getting to Work Without Getting in Their Cars

Image: NYU Furman Center

Since 2000, riding transit to work is up, while car commuting is down. Image: NYU Furman Center

New York City is getting to be even more of a transit town. From 2000 to 2013, the share of working New Yorkers who commute by transit rose from 52.6 percent to 59.1 percent, while the share who commute by car dropped from 33.9 percent to 27.4 percent, according to a new analysis from the New York University Furman Center.

The Furman analysis is based on U.S. Census commute data. Not surprisingly, transit commuting is most prevalent in neighborhoods closest to the Manhattan core, such as Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx, western Queens, and northwest Brooklyn.

Transit commuting grew fastest in the South Bronx, Bushwick, Middle Village, Glendale, Brownsville, and East New York, increasing by more than 10 percentage points in those areas since 2000:

Neighborhoods near the South Bronx, Bushwick, Brownsville, and Middle Village had the biggest increases in transit commute share. Map: NYU Furman Center

Neighborhoods near the South Bronx, Bushwick, Brownsville, and Middle Village had the biggest increases in transit commute share. Map: NYU Furman Center

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Across the U.S., Poor Job Access Compels Even People Without Cars to Drive


Metropolitan share of zero-vehicle commuters driving to work, 2013. Source: Brookings analysis of American Community Survey data

Cross-posted from Brookings’ The Avenue blog. This article is the second in a short series examining new Census data on transportation trends.

While more Americans are relying on alternative modes to get to work every day, cars still define most of our commutes. Over time, these high driving rates not only reflect a built environment that continues to promote vehicle usage — despite recent shifts toward city living and job clustering — but also call into question how well our transportation networks offer access to economic opportunity for all workers.

This is especially important for those workers without cars.

The most recent 2013 Census numbers shed light on the commuting habits of the 6.3 million workers who don’t have a private vehicle at home. That’s about 4.5 percent of all workers, up from 4.2 percent in 2007.

Zero-vehicle workers still do quite a bit of driving. Over 20 percent drive alone to work — meaning they find a private car to borrow — and another 12 percent commute via carpool. Both rates jumped between 2007 and 2013, defying national trends toward less driving. This paints a discouraging picture about transportation access across the country for a segment of commuters who must expend extra effort to get to work.

Metropolitan data underscores the breadth of this problem. Transit-rich metros like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have the most zero-vehicle workers, and they drive less frequently. However, in other large metro areas like Dallas, Detroit, and Riverside, over half the zero-vehicle workers find a car to drive to work. Driving rates jump to over 70 percent in metros like Birmingham, AL; Jackson, MS; and Provo, UT. Across 77 of the 100 largest metro areas, at least 40 percent of zero-vehicle commuters drive to work.

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Car Commuting Still Rules, But New Census Data Reveals Important Shifts

Metropolitan Share of Non-Car Commuters, 2007 to 2013

Source: Brookings analysis of American Community Survey data

Cross-posted from Brookings’ The Avenue blog.

Driving to work has been a staple in the American commute for decades, but it appears the country’s love affair with cars is stalling in many places. After years of sustained growth, driving levels are flat-lining, while more young people are opting for alternative transportation modes.

Newly released Census data from the 2013 American Community Survey offers additional insight into the shifting nature of our daily commutes.

To be sure, the car is still king for the United States as a whole. Based on the new Census estimates, over 85 percent of all workers still get to their jobs by private automobile. That amounts to over 122 million commuters, the vast majority of whom travel alone rather than in a carpool. It’s also relatively consistent with our commuting patterns from 1980, when nearly the same percentage of workers commuted by car.

But those long-term trends mask real changes over the past few years. The share of national commuters traveling by private vehicle is edging down for the first time in decades — from 86.5 percent in 2007 to 85.8 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, other transportation modes have grown in relative importance. Public transportation, which just recorded the most passenger trips since 1956, saw its share jump to over 5 percent, reaching levels not seen since 1990. The share of those bicycling and walking to work also continued to rise, now representing nearly 4 percent of all commuters. The biggest gain, however, came from those workers who didn’t technically commute at all. With the help of burgeoning broadband coverage, nearly as many people now work from home as ride public transportation to their jobs.

Leading these national trends are the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.* Over two-thirds of these places experienced driving declines between 2007 and 2013, while also simultaneously seeing a rise in commuters walking, bicycling or working at home.

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Low-Income Americans Walk and Bike to Work the Most

People with low incomes bike and walk far more than everyone else. Image: U.S. Census

People with low incomes commute by biking and walking far more than more affluent Americans. Image: U.S. Census

The U.S. Census Bureau just released its first-ever report exclusively on walking and biking. Using data from the American Community Survey, the report shows how rates of active transportation vary by age, income, education, race, and the availability of a vehicle. It’s a lot more detail than the usual Census data release on how people get to work, which only breaks active commuting down by gender.

The Census report shows that low-income people bike and walk to work the most, hands down. Of those who make less than $10,000 a year, 1.5 percent commute by bike and 8.2 percent walk. In the $25,000-34,999 range, those numbers are halved. Then at the highest earning levels, active commuting rates start to creep back up. The income stats provide more evidence that safe walking and biking infrastructure isn’t mainly the concern of geared-up weekend warriors with expensive bikes.

Looking at education reveals more of a U pattern, with active commuting rates bottoming out in the middle. Out of five educational attainment levels categorized by the Census, people who’ve completed a graduate or professional degree — the highest level — have the highest bike commute rate (0.9 percent) and second-highest walk commute rate (2.7 percent). People who have not completed high school — the lowest level — walk to work the most (3.7 percent) and bike to work the second most (0.7 percent).

Compared to education, there’s a much clearer linear relationship between vehicle ownership and active commuting. Workers with no available vehicle walked four times more and biked three-and-a-half times more than workers with one available vehicle. Rates of active transportation decline with each additional vehicle.

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