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

The decline was led by younger people and those living in central cities. City residents ages 25 to 29 registered a 4 percentage point dip in car commuting between 2006 and 2013 — the most by far of any group, the Census Bureau reports. Among this group, the number of people who commute by transit increased from 5.5 percent to 7.1 percent. Bike commuting appears to have played a role as well, increasing 0.3 percentage points for workers between 25 and 34.

“The likelihood of driving alone to work increased with age,” wrote Brian McKenzie, who compiled the report for the Census Bureau.

Leading the way were some of the nation’s largest cities, college towns, and other metros that have made significant investments in transit, including San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, and Raleigh. In the New York metro area, for example, car commuting dropped nearly a full percentage point since 2006.

Driving to work ticked down again slightly in 2013. Graph: U.S. Census
Driving to work ticked down again slightly in 2013. Graph: U.S. Census
  • AlexWithAK

    Contrast this to Five Thirty Eight’s take on this data which was, “Americans still love to drive,” as if most of them have a viable alternative.

  • Bobberooni

    I don’t understand the data presented. The first graph shows that fewer than 53% of workers commute by automobile in these 10 cities. And yet, the table below it shows NYC as having a 56.9% automobile commute share in 2013 — and that is LOWER than any of the other cities reported. Something is not computing here… Help??

  • Kyle

    The second table is for metropolitan areas, not limited to cities as the first chart is.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Note The Census data also exagerrates the car Modal share.For example If One drives partially and then takes Transit, Counts as driving. If One bikes to work during good weather, but drives the rest of the time: counts as driving.

    Therefore, one can believe the driving share has actually dropped more than indicated. Not a huge additional percentage drop, but might add a couple of points to the 4%.

    Also note that even those Millenial’s that do drive are driving significantly less than other generations. Millennials who do drive as their primary mode of transport average a mere 8,700 miles per year.

    This is clearly a structural change.

  • Dave Weckl

    ACS survey asks your predominate mode. If you bike 3 out 5 days…it is bike. If your total trip is 12 miles long and 1 mile of that is driving to the train station…it is transit. The respondent needs to make that judgement. I am fairly certain the avid bike commuter, if they get the ACS, will indicate bike regardless of what the weather is that week (or month).

  • Peter Erskine

    Title says this: Cities Lead the Way as U.S. Car Commuting Takes Historic Downturn

    Data says the following:

    2010 Solo Car Commuting: 76.6 percent.
    2013 Solo Car Commuting: 76.4

    Where is the historic downturn? 0.02% is a “Historic Downturn”?

  • Alexander Vucelic

    possible but unlikely

  • davistrain

    “America’s love affair with the car” is (for most of us) more a “marriage of convenience”. The “gearheads” who write automotive columns and evaluate cars may praise slick-shifting manual transmissions, turn-carving road manners, luxurious interiors and sonorous exhaust notes, but the average car buyer wants a reliable, comfortable ride that has an automatic tranny and a reasonable price tag. Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys may not stir the blood, but they get the job done.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    It’s historic because it’s the *first* downturn in recorded history.

  • Peter Erskine

    No it is not the first recorded downturn in recorded history. Look at the Commuting in America series of reports which were first published in the 1980s. In general, solo car commuting has been getting slightly smaller since about 2000. In all likelihood, it is holding steady if you look at the statistical errors and such.

    Regardless, the percents do not tell the whole story. Even though mode share has been changing (interestingly, work at home as a mode share is equal to transit), the total number of trips have been increasing. VMT is on the upswing. Transit trips are on the upswing. Bike share is on the upswing. The pie is of trips is growing. Percents are just one part of the overall story.

  • Dave Wekcl

    Look at the ACS and how it is implemented. You need to understand how the data is collected before making generalized statements about how bad it is or how much it exaggerates a data element. The data are statistically valid. Period.

  • neroden

    The percents are important…

  • C Monroe

    Funny thing is Iaccoca saved Chrysler by going to the basics. The K car series saved the company and it was just a basic plain box with 4 wheels. It wasn’t until the 90s that Chrysler started flirting with fancy looking cars like the viper and the Plymouth Prowler(though it was under powered and had a bad steer radius). It started losing market share again.

  • davistrain

    I can relate to the K-car; I had a 1988 Dodge Aries that served me well for over ten years. It was comfortable, got good gas mileage and was rated among the ten models least likely to be stolen. It was a great car for going where I didn’t want to be noticed, because many public utilities and government agencies used K-cars. What’s ironic was that I was driving this “appliance car” when I got my only speeding ticket in the last 40 years.

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