In every urban demographic group in our State of City poll, the majority commuted by car.
By Eric Jaffe, September 9, 2014
If you live in one of America's major cities, mobility often feels
inextricably linked to public transportation. New York City couldn't
function without its iconic subway. Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles have made big expansions to their metros. Chicago and San Francisco
are planning state-of-the-art rapid bus lines to complement their rail
systems. Even historically sprawling, car-reliant cities like Denver, Phoenix, and Houston are betting on light rail to guide their future growth.
Amid news of all this transit growth, it's far too easy to forget that on any given day, most city residents still drive to work. The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll
is a sobering reminder of that reality. Among every single urban
demographic group—let alone non-urban groups—the majority of respondents
commuted by car.
Let's start with all 897 poll respondents who had a job (out of a
total sample of 1,656): 84 percent drove to work, with just 5 percent
taking the bus, 3 percent traveling by rail, and 3 percent walking or
cycling. The car commute share among suburban (85 percent) and rural
respondents (92 percent) did exceed this overall automobile share. But
city residents weren't far behind: 78 percent drove to work, with 8
percent taking the bus, 6 percent the train or subway, and 4 percent
going by bike or on foot.
In other words, the numbers belie the stereotypes that suburbanites
drive while urbanites ride. On the contrary, even among urban-only
sub-demographics, an overwhelming majority of respondents commuted by
Take an area we'd expect to find a major commute-mode disparity:
race. There was, indeed, a significant racial difference here, as 85
percent of urban white respondents commuted by car, compared with 70
percent of urban non-white respondents. But that's still seven in ten
non-whites driving to work. The minorities so often associated with
city transit are themselves huge minorities when it comes to commuting:
only 14 percent take the bus, and 7 percent the train or subway.
didn't matter as much as one might think, either, at least along this
poll's main income divide of $50,000 a year. About 82 percent of urban
residents making north of that number drove to work, compared with 76
percent making less—a statistically insignificant difference. (Income
did matter on the bus: only 4 percent of the higher-income group rode,
compared with 11 percent of the lower.) The education gap was even
narrower: 77 percent of urban respondents with a college degree drove,
against 79 percent of those without one.
party and home-ownership carried a similar tune. A full 89 percent of
urban Republicans (or GOP leans) drove to work, higher than 74 percent
of Democrats (or liberal leans). Similarly, 86 percent of urban
residents who owned their home drove to work, against 71 percent of
urban renters. Those gaps were significantly, but again, when seven out
of ten people driving to work is the low end of the spectrum, we're seeing a difference in degree—not kind.
down even further into race, urban whites in our sample were especially
beholden to their car commutes. On gender, age, education, income, home
ownership, and parenting status—you name the sub-demographic—at least
80 percent of white respondents drove to work.
Where we finally start to see some more balanced commute mode splits
is among lower-income urban minorities. Some 68 percent of urban
minorities without a college degree drove to work (21 percent took the
bus). About 63 percent of urban minorities making less than $50,000 a
year commute by car (20 percent took the bus, and 8 percent the train);
that mode split was essentially the same for urban minority renters.
Urban minority women had the lowest share of car commutes. Still, 56
percent drove to work, with a quarter taking the bus and 10 percent the
Simply put: even in those demographics least reliant on cars to commute, the majority of respondents relied on cars to commute.
These results align closely with driving figures in the latest Commuting in America report,
widely considering the most thorough resource on the subject. In that
report, the share of car commutes (driving alone plus carpooling) topped 86 percent circa 2010,
right on par with the 84 percent in our total working sample. Driving
shares do seem to have stabilized or dipped a bit in recent years,
following a huge jump in the 1980s. Still, just a small handful of metro
areas have car commute shares below 70 percent (led by New York, the
only city where those driving to work are in the minority). Most major
metros hover around 75 or 80 percent.
Among smaller metros, the drive-to-work shares are even higher—often topping nine in ten commuters.
On average, U.S. metro areas with 2.5 million people or fewer have a
car commute share at or around 90 percent. The very largest metros do a
lot better, falling short of 80 percent, though New York has a lot to do
with that average. As a national whole, despite all the investments
made in public transportation over the years and decades, about 85
percent of people living in metro areas get to work in a car.
these commuter statistics share an underlying message, it's that the
obstacles to balanced transportation networks are truly enormous, in
both cities and suburbs alike. There is a long, long history
here of great personal investment in a lifestyle whose basic purpose,
in most cases, was just to provide a more tolerable existence for a
working American family. The daily choice of commuting by car every
morning is no longer really a choice at all for most people, but rather
the lingering habitual aftermath of a decision made long ago.
This is why it's essential—not just preferable, but absolutely essential—to build proper transit systems and to provide service frequent enough to rival the car in convenience. And why even cities that provide great service may still need to take the politically toxic step of raising the cost of driving (and parking)
to reduce car reliance. And why every one of the above policies is so
tough to achieve: every transit initiative means convincing some of the
majority to join the minority for the good of everyone.
The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll, conducted
by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656
U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin
of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For more details on the
poll's methodology, go here.