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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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Garodnick Bill Would Give Transit Riders a Tax Break

A City Council bill from Dan Garodnick could save a lot of transit riders a nice chunk of change.

Hundreds of thousands of NYC commuters could save $443 a year by buying a monthly MetroCard with pre-tax dollars. Photo:##https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/5460212022/in/photolist-9jv1NA-bDQkXm-bWoBRH-dwvtkn-9K5XbZ-7FUuE-5XKoqA-jFDLr9-5S4TWT-5SkBj3-4g2GLm-8m3q1D-dwvv2e-4Ea5iS-e32iSn-617i6v-7Hucq1-5SzRcs-bXdFu6-5SHxsX-diocNN-5S9f37-5SwWRW-4TesNy-4kEKU3-5TTjiV-9PgYp6-pxmEh-5S9f1L-82TkQ3-dbLJRp-e32iun-e32iC2-e37ZKY-e32iMc-e3811N-4T9hkr-7LLc2L-fwqqCg-9yhssj-fwEH7Y-o4GnR-dbLLxC-68EQcr-dyxMPa-e3819q-5QXy5T-5QwG7h-6nTYHQ-5QAB8N##Tim Adama/Flickr##

Hundreds of thousands of NYC commuters could save $443 a year by buying a monthly MetroCard with pre-tax dollars. Photo: Tim Adams/Flickr

Federal law lets commuters spend up to $130 in tax-free income a month on transit fares. For a New Yorker earning an average wage, buying a monthly MetroCard with pre-tax dollars adds up to $443 in annual savings, according to Riders Alliance, which issued a report backing the benefit. But it’s only available through employers who offer the program.

Garodnick’s bill would require companies with a staff of 20 or more to make the benefit available to employees. The bill would make the benefit available to 605,000 New Yorkers, and commuters who work in the city but live elsewhere can also sign up. 

Garodnick was joined by council colleagues Ydanis Rodriguez and Helen Rosenthal, along with Riders Alliance, at a Sunday presser announcing the measure.

“It’s not just a savings for employees, but for the employers themselves,” said Garodnick. “Dollars come out before they pay their payroll taxes for their employees.” The Riders Alliance report says companies that offer the program can save $103 per year per participating employee.

Riders Alliance estimates that the benefit would reduce city and state tax revenues by at least $6 million and $10 million, respectively. However, the report says, “not only would tens of millions of dollars be saved each year by New Yorkers, but it would also enter the economy in a way that directly encourages increased use of — and spending toward — public transit.”

With the lower tax burden, transit riders would collectively have $85 million to inject into the local economy, the report notes.

“Fares keep going up and this is something the city can do to help riders save money,” said John Raskin, Riders Alliance executive director.

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Five Ways Colleges Are Coaxing Students Out of Their Cars

104 colleges and universities around the United States provide free or reduced-price transit service to students. Map: U.S. PIRG

The University of Wisconsin-Madison provides bike valet at its football games. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill supports free transit for everyone in the region. The University of California, Irvine launched a bike-share system in 2009, long before any major city in California had done so.

American colleges and universities are leaders in reducing driving and promoting sustainable transportation. It allows colleges to make good on their commitments to protecting the environment. It makes life easier for students and staff. And, perhaps most critically, it’s saving schools big money on parking. Stanford University estimates its efforts to reduce solo car commuting have saved the school from sinking $100 million into the construction and maintenance of parking facilities.

Here are some of the smart ways universities have been able to reduce solo car travel, according to a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. PIRG is recommending cities hurry up and follow their lead.

1. Discounted or free transit passes

Among the most common and effective strategies colleges employ to reduce driving to campus is providing free or reduced transit fares. PIRG reports 104 universities around the country offer this perk, often called “U-Pass,” to students and/or staff. Universities typically fund the program with fees collected from students or with revenue from parking permit sales.

After the University of Missouri at Kansas City adopted a U-Pass program in 2011, transit use by students climbed 9 percent. Now other universities in the Kansas City region are looking to replicate that success, PIRG reports.

Chapel Hill took it one step further and made transit free for everyone. As a result, transit use by students more than doubled between 1997 and 2011, from 21 to 53 percent.

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Study: All Across America, Car Commuting Is Dropping

Driving is declining and non-driving transportation is increasing in urbanized areas. Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

Since 2000, car commuting has dropped across the board while other forms of travel have tended to increase in America’s 100 biggest urban areas. Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group are on a mission to explore the downward trend in driving. In a series of reports, they point to evidence that it isn’t just a temporary blip, but a long-term shift in how Americans get around. Today, the two organizations released a new report, “Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America’s Biggest Cities,” which shows that these changes are happening in regions all over the country.

In 99 of the nation’s 100 largest regions — the cities and suburbs that are home to more than half the U.S. population — fewer people got to work in a private vehicle in 2010 than in 2000. In the vast majority of those areas, households are shedding cars while more people are getting on the bus and taking up biking. These 100 regions are the engines of the U.S. economy and where most of the nation’s population growth is happening.

Since state DOT data collection leaves much to be desired, PIRG and Frontier Group encountered some situations where they couldn’t do an apples-to-apples comparison. As a result, they examined vehicle miles traveled trends in only 74 of the 100 largest urbanized areas. In 54 of those, VMT had dropped. Across the country, mileage is down 7.6 percent per capita since 2004.

“Each city has a different story,” U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall said in an email. “Sometimes the stories are hard to see because the data is messy, but the overall picture suggests real changes in how people get around.”

The report kicks off with a lovely tale about one city’s fight to keep a highway from destroying downtown:

When Madison, Wisconsin, was given the opportunity to bring the interstate into the city in the 1960s, local officials decided to keep its downtown highway-free — they believed that a highway running through Madison’s narrow downtown isthmus would make the city less attractive. But without the Interstate, city officials needed to make sure that residents had access to other modes of transportation to travel down-town. So city planners sought to build a multimodal transportation network that promoted bicycling, public transit and walking.

And guess what? Those investments are still paying off. As attitudes about transportation and urban living shifted over the past decade and more people decided to explore life outside the automobile, Madisonians had lots of good options to choose from. On average, each city resident drove 18 percent fewer miles in 2011 than in 2006 — from 8,900 miles down to 7,300. Meanwhile, biking to work soared 88 percent in the last 11 years, and bus ridership is way up.

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group encourage other places to follow Madison’s lead. Madison started investing in multi-modalism in the 1960s and 70s, when driving was still ascendant. Today, as Americans embrace transit and active transportation in greater numbers, driving declines, and new roads become increasingly poor investments, those same strategies should seem like ordinary common sense.

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Census: American Bike Commuting Up Nine Percent in 2012

Congratulations, America. We’re biking to work more than ever before.

Photo: Hudson TMA

We’ve known for a while that Americans are driving less than they used to, even as the economy grows. And just about every quarter, the American Public Transportation Association delivers more stats about increasing transit ridership. Now the Census brings another measure of Americans’ shifting transportation habits: Bicycle commuting grew 9 percent last year, bringing it to a historic high.

Now, compared to countries with better bike infrastructure, America’s rate of bike commuting is still puny. But the Census shows it’s heading in the right direction: Almost 865,000 people, or 0.61 percent of the commuting public, reported biking as their primary method of getting to work in the 2012 American Community Survey. That’s not much mode-share, but it’s still a 9 percent jump over 2011, when 0.56 percent of commuters reported biking to work. While the three years before that didn’t show much growth at all, bike commuting has grown 61 percent since 2000. (A few caveats about the Census as a measurement of overall cycling: It only counts commuting, not other trips, and people who bike to work less than half the time don’t get counted either.)

The bicycling gender gap seems to be narrowing as well. Ken McLeod of the League of American Bicyclists took a look at women bike commuters, noting that their numbers have risen almost 59 percent since 2006:

What’s more, the ACS data shows that the growth in bike commuting by women is outpacing that of men. Between 2011 and 2012, the growth in bike commuting by women was 10.9 percent, compared to 8.4 percent for men.

The growth in bicycling isn’t happening in a vacuum. Safe infrastructure for bicycling is becoming a priority in cities across the country. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC, are competing to add the most bike lanes. Smaller cities like Indianapolis and Memphis are also building bike routes at an impressive rate. Last year alone, the number of protected bike lanes in the United States rose from 62 to 102. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of bike-share is reducing barriers to cycling in several cities. Any wagers on how much bike commuting will increase in next year’s Census?

While bike commuting is on the rise, the simple walk to work is losing ground. Almost four million people walked to work last year — 2.8 percent of all commuters. That’s a 28 percent drop in mode share since 1990, when nearly 4.5 million people commuted on foot. The percentage of people walking continues to drop — about 1.5 percent even since 2009. Nearly half the people who walk to work report that the trip takes less than 10 minutes. A hardy 163,000 people walk more than 35 minutes to get to work.

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City Lays an Old Board Over Upper Manhattan Greenway Pit

The Parks Department doesn’t know when a hole that opened up two months ago on the Hudson River Greenway will be repaired.

A tipster sent us photos of the pit, located just north of 181st Street in Washington Heights, in June. These pictures were taken by the same reader about a week and a half ago, on July 26. Compared to the June pics, it looks like part of the hole has been filled with dirt, and some of it covered with a wooden board. The metal barriers have been shifted, so there’s more room for people to pass. Other than some yellow tape, there is no warning signage. You can also see a crack forming around the existing hole, stretching almost the width of the greenway.

In June, a Parks spokesperson said the department was “assessing the damage.” Parks told us Tuesday that the Department of Environmental Protection inspected the hole, and “found a broken pipe in the roadway drainage system.”

“State DOT is reviewing the findings to determine the next steps,” a Parks spokesperson said, in an email. We’ve asked New York State DOT when the hole will be repaired, and whether the work might entail a detour for greenway users. We’ll update here.

In the meantime, one of the most heavily trafficked bike and pedestrian paths in New York City is patched with an old board.

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Commuter Idyll Winner Jake Williams Tells His Dramatic Story of Salvation

Jake's girlfriend and her co-worker at Sam Schwartz Engineering were so excited that he won Streetsblog's "Commuter Idyll" challenge that they created this "infographic" of his commutes.

When we saw that Washington’s news-traffic-weather radio station, WTOP, was holding a ”Commuter Idle” contest for the worst commute in the DC area — and rewarding it with $1,000 in gas money — we couldn’t resist. We went looking for the best “Commuter Idyll” — the trips to work that made people happy, got them fresh air, helped them fit exercise into their day, gave them some extra time to sleep or read, and brought them to work more clear-headed and ready to tackle the day. And Streetsblog readers had lots of great stories to share of ditching long car commutes for transit, biking, or walking. We shared some of them yesterday.

Meanwhile, check out the painful stories of soul-sucking commutes of WTOP’s 10 finalists. Some are out of the house by 4:00 a.m., drive 80 miles each way, are stuck in their car for six hours a day. Imagine all the better ways they could use that time and money!

Our “Commuter Idyll” winner — Jake Williams of Chicago — had a hellish commute too. He made big changes to get control over his time, his health, and his happiness. Here’s Jake’s story.

Upon graduating from college at UCLA, I moved back home to Chicago to start my working career as an engineer. I had commuted to internships before, one in Kenosha, WI and one in Melrose Park, IL, so I was already exposed and accustomed to the solo commute by automobile. I was looking for work anywhere in the metro area, and when I was offered a job in Lincolnshire, a suburb of Chicago 26 miles from my apartment, I was not fazed. Little did I know that the next four years would at times literally “drive” me crazy.

The guts of Jake's old ride.

The commute affected my whole life and actually made me dread going to and from work. I tried waking up early in the morning, and while it was nice seeing the sunrise, it was not a sustainable schedule. I worked longer hours, and although the morning commute was somewhat more tolerable, the commute home was about as awful. I tried breaking up the afternoon commute by heading straight to the gym and then going home. The result was that I was gone 14 hours a day and exhausted, constantly.

I would become angry and irritable. I needed a “cool-off” period when I got home. I stalked the roads religiously on traffic sites and on the various radio stations, but knowing never changed what was coming. I realized that the commute had completely conquered me when I left work one snowy winter day and got so frustrated with the stagnation on the road that I turned around and went back to work, for hours.

So, when times got rough and I was laid off from work, the strange, overwhelming feeling was of relief. Ironically, I was supposed to be laid off a day earlier, but I had to call off work because my car had broken down. I was disenchanted with my career choice and lifestyle choice, and I realized after a couple of months that I had the power to change all of that. I decided that I had one of many new goals: to walk to work.

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Dreamy Routines: Some of Our Readers’ Best “Commuter Idylls”

Some of you have some fabulous commutes. Rather than watch the stress-filled minutes and hours tick by stuck in traffic, you go outside, get exercise, and connect with your community.

Think car-free parenting is a drag? Babies like smiling at other passengers on the bus way more than they like being restrained in a rear-facing car seat. Photo: Mommy Bluebird

I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of your commuter tales over the last few days, since we launched our Commuter Idyll contest. It’s our response to WTOP’s “Commuter Idle” contest for the worst commute in the DC area, with its prize of $1,000 in gas money. We’d rather focus on the positive: the wonderful daily transportation routines you can have when you get out of your car.

We did have one overall favorite, which we’ll post tomorrow, but there were so many that deserve mention. Here are some ancillary awards:

Most Family-Friendly

Katie from the DC suburbs won my heart with her story of taking her 10-month-old son to daycare on the bus. “He loves the bus, and despite the fact that he can’t talk yet, he manages to make lots of friends,” she writes. “As soon as he sees the bus coming down the road, he starts squealing and kicking his legs, and once we get on, he just charms everyone on the bus by smiling and chattering away at all of them.”

“The other day, someone started snapping out a beat, and my little guy was just dancing along,” she said. “I seriously thought maybe someone was about to break into song, like we were in a musical or something.” Sure beats strapping him in to a car seat in the back where you can’t even see him.

Plus, waiting at the stop gives them some nice outdoor time. After dropping her son off at daycare, Katie continues on to work on the bus or walks – a healthy 30 minutes of exercise.

Runner-Up: Most Family-Friendly

Parents of young children will also appreciate this story from reader “TalF.” He had been driving his commute from Riverdale, New York, to his job in New Jersey, but that could take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. The transit connections weren’t great either. Then last summer, he started cycling 45 minutes down the Hudson River Greenway to the 39th Street ferry, where it was 10 minutes across the river to New Jersey. He even biked the commute through the winter.

“So far it has been great!” TalF wrote. “I’ve lost weight and, paradoxically, feel like I have more energy for dealing with a newborn at night.”

Best of all, he and his wife have been able to sell one of their cars, saving them a bundle they can now spend on their little bundle.

Best Use of Rational Transportation Economics

We’ve got to hand it to Pancake for making his decisions based on rational economics. The Center for Neighborhood Technology has pioneered the H+T model for evaluating household expenses – Housing + Transportation, that is. Pancake says he pays more to live in the city because the cost of owning a car or taking public transportation into the city every day can erase the savings of marginally cheaper housing in the suburbs. He walks or bike-shares to his job that’s just over a mile from home. “Some days, I even come home for lunch for a nap,” Pancake writes. “That availability alone makes my form of transportation (my legs) well worth the extra money expelled in rent.”

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Tell Us About Your “Commuter Idyll”

Before I became your editor here at Streetsblog Capitol Hill, I was a reporter for WTOP, the DC area’s “most-listened-to” radio station. Its traffic reports “on the 8s” helped feed my ire toward auto-centrism – they wasted one out of every 10 minutes of airtime on an unintelligible litany of route numbers and exits. Meanwhile, I only got 35 seconds for actual news stories.

Did you give this up for a healthy bike ride or relaxing transit commute? We want to hear about it in our new "Commuter Idyll" contest. Photo: Allstate blog

WTOP assumes that most of its listeners are tuning in from inside their cars, and for that reason, the station focuses heavily on commuter issues. About 80 percent of their audience lives in the suburbs, so WTOP has a soft spot for people with long, solo car commutes from unwalkable places who get all road-ragey in rush hour traffic — crawling along no matter how good the traffic report is.

As part of its solidarity with extreme drivers, WTOP is launching its second season of what it calls “Commuter Idle” (I think that’s a pun on American Idol), in which listeners compete for the worst commute. They tell their horror stories of traffic jams and delays, and guess what the winner gets? Aside from radio fame and a limo ride to work, the unfortunate soul with the worst commute gets gas money. A thousand dollars to pour into their hellish daily slog.

Ah yes, that's better. Photo: Stylelist

Here at Streetsblog, we don’t “idle-ize” horrific car commutes. While one can sympathize with people who end up with long treks to work, especially if their financial circumstances and the sprawl of their region conspired to eliminate other options, “extreme commutes” are nothing to glorify.

So we’re taking this opportunity to launch what we’re calling “Commuter Idyll.” We’d like to hear from people who’ve made changes in their lives recently to make their commutes more enjoyable and less time-consuming.

Did you give up the drive for a refreshing, invigorating bike ride? Did you start taking the train so you can relax or read a paperback on your way to work? Did you move closer to the office – or get a new job closer to home – so you didn’t have to cover impossible distances?

Leave your story in the comments. Give as much detail as you want. Instead of gas money (who needs it?), we’ll mail you a copy of the anthology, “On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life,” to which Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield contributed a chapter.

You could be Streetsblog’s first Commuter Idyll contest winner!