By Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane, September 30, 2014
Source: Brookings analysis of American Community Survey data
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
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.
Metropolitan Share of Non-Car Commuters, 2007 to 2013
From Los Angeles and Seattle to
Boston and Miami, this shift in commuting patterns is taking place all
across the country, even in traditionally car-centric locations. Large
metros like New York and San Francisco grew their transit shares, but so
did Tucson and Albany. Similar shares of people now bike or walk to
work in Columbia, South Carolina, as they do in Portland, Oregon.
Over time, these evolving commuting habits will help influence — and
be shaped by — the built environment of our communities. The
proliferation of pedestrian-scaled developments, for instance,
represents one way in which many metropolitan areas are stitching
together their urban fabric and responding to a new geography of innovation. As more individuals work from home, stroll to their office, or even engage in widespread bike sharing and car sharing, metropolitan areas will need to consider a range of plans and policies that further address these multimodal needs.
* Due to changing metropolitan definitions and limited county-level
data, we can only compare 69 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas
between 2007 and 2013. For a more thorough technical explanation, see Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes’ report on the same data issues.