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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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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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