Where we live makes a huge difference in our commuting choices -- but not always in the ways you'd think
And yet for all that, America overwhelmingly remains a nation of drivers. Across the board, nearly nine in 10 (86 percent) of Americans commute to work by car and more than three-quarters (76.1 percent) drive to work alone, according to the most recent estimates from the American Community Survey. Only five percent use public transit to get to work.
But does where we live make a difference in how we commute?
- It's no surprise that 82 percent of Manhattan workers get to their places of employment via public transit, bicycle, or on foot. But more than four in ten (43 percent) of all commuters in the Greater New York metro don't use cars either. Neither do 25 to 30 percent of workers in San Francisco, Boston, and Greater Washington, DC.
- Less than three percent (2.9) of Americans walk to work, but more than five percent of New Yorkers do. And in the college town of Ithaca, New York, 14 percent do.
- Only a little more than half of one percent (0.6) of Americans ride their bikes to work. But more than five percent do in Eugene, Oregon and Fort Collins, Colorado. In the Portland, Oregon metro, more than two percent of commuters cycle to work, and in San Francisco and San Jose (Silicon Valley) roughly 1.5 percent do.
- Walking and biking to work are especially prevalent in compact college towns, including Boulder, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; Iowa City, Iowa; Corvallis, Oregon; Gainesville, Florida; Burlington, Vermont; State College, Pennsylvania; and Lafayette, Indiana, among others.
But "what you'd think" isn't always what is. To get a better idea, my colleague Todd Gabe, an economics professor at the University of Maine and an MPI Affiliate, ran a series of statistical analyses to gauge the determinants of public transportation use and walking and biking in US metropolitan areas. He looked at factors like population density, rainfall, temperature levels, housing development, and the kinds of work people do. The upshot is this:
- Population density increases public transportation usage, but has no effect on walking and biking.
- Weather and climate do play a role, but not necessarily what you'd think. People are more likely to drive to work where the weather is warm and/or wet. Public transit use as well as walking and biking are more common in drier climes but also in places with colder January temperatures.
- The longer the commute (based on the average commute time), the more likely people are to use public transit, but--not surprisingly--the less likely they are to bike or walk.
- The type of housing development matters. The share of housing units built between 2000 and 2006 is negatively associated with the percentage of people who bike, walk or take public transit to work. Rapidly growing cities of sprawl - those which built the most houses during the height of the bubble - remain much more car-dependent than other places.
- Finally, and perhaps most interesting, the way we get to work is associated with the kinds of work we do. The share of workers in the creative class--scientists, engineers, techies, innovators, and researchers, as well as artists, designers, writers, musicians and professionals in healthcare, business and finance, the legal sector, and education--is positively associated with the percentages of people who take public transit or walk or bike to work. In fact this creative class variable was the largest of all.
Reducing our dependence on the car would relieve many families of a pressing financial burden, reduce emissions and lessen our carbon footprint. Changing where and how we live may help us get there faster.
Image Credit: Ed Coyle Photography/Flickr