Where we live makes a huge difference in our commuting choices -- but not always in the ways you'd think


The combination of the Great Recession, rising gas prices, and growing environmental concerns have caused may people to rethink how they commute. After housing, transportation is the biggest item in a typical family's budget, accounting for an average of 20 percent. The sheer fact of car ownership can make the difference between who spends and who saves, and even which homes go into foreclosure, as I noted here.  Not to mention that being stuck in traffic ranks high on almost every list of the things that make us the most unhappy.

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.
What factors shape these commuting patterns?  You'd think that density would matter for one--transit is more available and it's easier for commuters to walk or bike to work in cities and metros that have less sprawl.  Weather and climate should also play a role: Who wants to cycle or walk to work in wet, cold, and snowy places? It's much easier and more pleasurable to use your feet to get to work when and where the weather is nice.

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.
The slideshow immediately below shows the 15 metros where commuters use their cars the least. It's based on the most current data from the American Community Survey. The Greater New York metro (where more than four in 10 workers get to work without their cars) is first, San Francisco is fourth, Boston sixth, Greater D.C. seventh. and Chicago tenth. Smaller metros like Ithaca, New York, and Boulder, Colorado, rank quite highly.

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

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