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Posts from the Commuting Category

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

car-free-day-2016

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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Streetsblog USA
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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

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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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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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