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What the Equality of Opportunity Project Actually Says About Commuting

With their powerful results, the studies coming out of the Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, have become an important touchstone for journalists and transportation policy advisers. In their 2014 [PDF] and 2015 [PDF] studies, Chetty and Hendren show that place matters for low-income families. When low-income families have the opportunity to raise their children in better environments, their children do better as adults. And with their use of “big data,” Chetty and Hendren can show that these better environments are not just correlated with improved incomes, but actually cause them.

The Equality of Opportunity Project did not set out to be a study of transportation policy. Only one of the 40 variables that they tested speaks directly to transportation. This variable could have easily disappeared, like most of the other tested variables that did not make the final model.

Instead, transportation turned out to be extremely important. References to the Equality of Opportunity Project’s findings have found their way into numerous newspaper articles, policy reports, grant applications, and prominent public discussions of transportation policy that continue to this day.

The project’s transportation variable involves commutes. I say “involves commutes” because in an unfortunate bit of nomenclature, Chetty and Hendren call this variable “commute time.” This mis-naming has led to continuing confusion among journalists and policy advisers, who make the intuitive, but inaccurate, leap to describing what happens to families when a parent spends a long time commuting.

Instead of measuring “time” in the conventional sense of “minutes,” Chetty and Hendren do something quite different. Their commute variable is defined by the percent of commuting workers who can get to their job in less than 15 minutes. It’s a measure of people, not time.

Moreover, it’s a measure of the relative size of a very select group of people: workers with really short commutes. Nationally, this group is a shrinking minority. In 2000, 29.4 percent of commuters got to work in less than 15 minutes. In 2015, this percentage had fallen to 26.2 percent.

Chetty and Hendren find that for counties and multi-county commute zones, the higher the percentage of workers with really short commutes, the better it is for the children of low-income families.

To humanize what I am rechristening the “short commutes” variable, a journalist or policy adviser could talk about the probability of a parent in a low-income family having a really short commute. The short commutes variable, however, says very little about the impact of lengthy commutes. Nor does it say much of anything about the importance of transit service: Only 3.5 percent of workers who commute by bus or rail enjoy a trip of less than 15 minutes.

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Where Car Commuting Is Shrinking — And Where It’s Not

Where are Americans making the shift away from driving to work?

Crunching newly-released Census data, Yonah Freemark looked at how commute travel is changing in different cities and regions. In general, car commuting in major metro areas declined between 2005 and 2015, but the shift was greater than a couple of percentage points in only a few cities.

Keep in mind that commuting accounts for less than 20 percent of all trips, so these numbers may not reflect trends in other kinds of trips. Annual Census estimates also have fairly high margins of error, so any shifts that aren’t very significant in size should be taken with a grain of salt.

Here are the tables that Freemark compiled.

The share of people driving to work dropped in most major metro areas

Graph: Yonah Freemark via American Community Survey

Table: Yonah Freemark

The standouts here are greater Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Meanwhile, the share of car commuters increased in greater Houston, L.A., and Charlotte. It’s worth nothing that both Houston and L.A. made significant investments in rail infrastructure over the last decade. But apparently that wasn’t enough on its own to shift commuting patterns.

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“Opportunity Score” Shows Best Places to Find a Job Without Owning a Car

This screenshot shows how many jobs are available near the author's house. Addresses at more than 350 cities are searchable and ranked by jobs within a half-hour's trip by walking or transit. Image: Redfin/Opportunity Score

The 30-minute transit shed near the author’s house, overlaid with a heatmap of jobs paying $40,000 or more. Image: Redfin/Opportunity Score

Which places put economic opportunity within reach for residents who don’t own cars?

There’s a new tool to evaluate housing locations according to the accessibility of jobs via transit and walking. Redfin, the company that runs Walk Score, today released “Opportunity Score,” which ranks millions of addresses across 350 cities based on the number of jobs within a 30-minute walk or transit ride.

The above map shows the results of a search near my home in Cleveland. My neighborhood grades out as a “job-seeker’s paradise,” according to Opportunity Score, with 64,000 jobs paying more than $40,000 within a half hour car-free commute. Compare that to the cul-de-sac where I grew up in Hilliard, Ohio — which has an Opportunity Score of 1.

Redfin created the tool in partnership with the White House’s Opportunity Project, which seeks to address inequality “by putting data and digital tools in the hands of families, communities, and local leaders.” Opportunity Score combines jobs data from the feds with Redfin’s software measuring transit and walking travel times. The tool also factors in population, otherwise the biggest cities would all rise to the top (here’s the formula).

Redfin ranked 50 major American cities according to Opportunity Score, and the result was a top ten list with some surprises:

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Explore National Transportation Change Trends by Age Group

Cross-posted from City Observatory

In some ways, the urban renaissance of the last decade or two has been quite dramatic. Downtown or downtown-adjacent neighborhoods in cities around the country have seen rapid investments, demographic change, and growth in amenities and jobs. Even mayors in places with a reputation for car dependence, like Nashville and Indianapolis, are pushing for big investments in urban public transit.

Because many of those who work in urban planning live in or near these walkable, transit-served neighborhoods, it may be easy to imagine that their changes are representative of the overall pace of transition to a more urban-centric nation. Butas we and others have discussed before, in at least one way — transportation — change has actually been excruciatingly slow at the national level.

According to the American Community Survey, from 2006 to 2014, the proportion of people using a car to get to work declined — from 86.72 percent to 85.70 percent. Even among young people, the shift seems underwhelming: from 85.00 percent to 83.94 percent. (Though, as we stressed last week, these Census data only cover journey-to-work trips and tend to overstate the extent to which households rely exclusively on cars for their transportation needs.)

The changes for transit, biking, and walking are, obviously, similarly small. Transit mode share increased from 4.83 percent to 5.21 percent; among those 20 to 24, the increase was 5.53 to 6.35 percent. The overall share of walking commutes actually fell.

In fact, we’ve built a little tool to let people explore these data in an interactive way, selecting mode type and age ranges to see how things have changed, and haven’t, over the last almost-decade. The tool displays the same data in two ways: first, as a graph (above), and then as a simple table (below), for those who find that easier to read. (On the graph, yes, we have allowed the y-axis to begin at numbers larger than zero — in large part because the changes are so small that a chart that began at zero would be unintelligible. We will trust our readers to be sophisticated enough at reading graphs to understand.)

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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

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The Parking Tax Benefit: A $7.3 Billion Subsidy for Traffic Congestion

Graph: TransitCenter/Frontier Group

Not only does the parking tax benefit pay people to drive during the most congested times of day, the whole system of commuter benefits functions as a gigantic transfer from poor workers to affluent workers, who have greater access to subsidized travel to work. Graph: TransitCenter/Frontier Group

The federal government spends billions of dollars a year on tax subsidies that make traffic congestion worse, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group. The culprit is the parking commuter tax benefit, which costs taxpayers $7.3 billion in foregone revenue each year, all while adding more than 800,000 cars to rush-hour traffic on the nation’s roads each workday, the authors estimate.

The parking tax benefit allows people to claim up to $250 in parking expenses as tax-free income per month. It originated in the late 1970s, when, in the name of fairness, Congress prevented the IRS from taxing the free parking perks that employers gave their workers, without any thought to the effect on transportation. The new report shows that not only does the parking tax benefit have a disastrous effect on traffic, it’s not even fair to car commuters — amounting to a gigantic transfer to the most affluent drivers.

Most advocacy efforts centered on commuter tax subsidies attempt to raise the transit benefit — currently capped at $130 per month. Last week, for instance, two members of Congress pledged to fight for an equal commuter benefit for transit and parking. TransitCenter and the Frontier Group argue that this is the bare minimum to strive for. The real impact lies in simply getting rid of the parking benefit.

The transit benefit, they write, is a “relatively inefficient tool for motivating changes in transportation behavior” and “only weakly counteracts the negative impact of the parking tax benefit” — and should be thrown out, as it were, with the bathwater. If commuter benefits are retained, however, they recommend some key reforms: equalizing the transit benefit, and mandating that employers who offer parking benefits also provide the option of receiving a cash equivalent instead.

TransitCenter and Frontier Group estimate that while most people don’t change their commuting behavior based on the incentives created by these tax benefits, about 2 percent do — and that 2 percent drives 4.6 billion additional miles per year.

To make matters worse, they do that extra driving at peak hours, in crowded downtown areas, worsening congestion that the country’s transportation policy is supposedly oriented toward fixing.

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Census Finds DC and NYC Bike Commuting Has Doubled in Four Years

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

For the first and second U.S. cities to start building networks of modern protected bike lanes, the payoff seems to have arrived.

In both Washington, DC, and New York City, the rate of bike commuting has doubled since 2009, according to Census figures released Thursday.

Powered by one of the country’s most successful bike-share systems, a solid network of painted lanes, a handful of protected lanes, and the burgeoning bicycle culture that resulted from those changes, Washington’s bike commute mode share vaulted to 4.5 percent in 2013, up from 2.2 percent in 2009. Among major U.S. cities, that estimate would place DC second only to Portland, Oregon, as a bike commuting town.

“DC has been coming up strong for several years,” said Darren Flusche, policy director for the DC-based League of American Bicyclists. “It’s the nation’s capital; I keep waiting for someone to say they’re the nation’s bike capital.”

New York City, meanwhile, has a lower biking rate — just 1.2 percent, up from 0.6 percent in 2009. But that comes out to 46,000 daily bike commuters, about as many as Portland and DC combined. New York added an estimated 10,000 bike commuters in 2013 alone, its fifth straight year of growth.

Flusche credited the Michael Bloomberg administration, led by former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, for rapidly dedicating space on New York streets for painted or protected bike lanes.

“I think we’re finally seeing the benefits of those decisions made as far back as ’09, ’10, ’11,” Flusche said.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Crown Prince of Fresh Air

podcast icon logoWhat would you think of a city planner, out ruffling feathers with his bold ideas about density and urbanism — who commutes to work an hour each way from his ranch way outside the city? Ironic — or hypocritical? That’s the question we wrestle with in our discussion of Brad Buchanan, the head honcho at Denver’s Department of Community Planning and Development.

And then we head from Denver to Dallas, where MPO chief Michael Morris has unilaterally declared that the plan to convert I-345 into a boulevard is going nowhere. Trouble is, he doesn’t actually have the authority to say that, and his facts are wrong. But by asserting it, will he make it true?

Say your piece in the comments. And subscribe to this podcast on iTunesStitcher, or our RSS feed.


Apple Transportation Program Stuck in the Past

Tom Fairchild is the director of Mobility Lab. This article was originally published by METRO Magazine.


Apple’s new Cupertino HQ will force its thousands of employees into long commutes, many of which will undoubtedly be made by driving alone. Photo: Chris/flickr

As an avid iPhone user, I have bought into the sense that Apple could literally peer into the future and deliver me technology that I never realized I would so desperately need.

For years, Steve Jobs and company seem to have been our reliable guides to a better tomorrow. For new technology, Apple’s vision towards the future seems nearly flawless. But for corporate responsibility? Well, that’s a different story.

Apple’s decision to build a mammoth new headquarters in Cupertino, California — miles from public transportation and adequate housing — amounts to a corporate denunciation of sustainability and a giant corporate shrug to Mother Earth.

Leadership for the tech giant maintains that the new campus will offer “a serene environment reflecting Apple’s values of innovation, ease of use, and beauty.” But the simple fact is that many of Apple’s 13,000 employees will now be commuting to an isolated location 45 miles south of San Francisco.

This reality seems a world apart from Apple’s corporate communications, which state:

Our commute programs reduce traffic, smog, and GHG emissions by providing incentives for biking, using public transportation, and reducing the use of single-occupancy vehicles.

How exactly is this possible when the new headquarters is being built on a location without any existing public-transportation options?

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Five Ways Colleges Are Coaxing Students Out of Their Cars

104 colleges and universities around the United States provide free or reduced-price transit service to students. Map: U.S. PIRG

The University of Wisconsin-Madison provides bike valet at its football games. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill supports free transit for everyone in the region. The University of California, Irvine launched a bike-share system in 2009, long before any major city in California had done so.

American colleges and universities are leaders in reducing driving and promoting sustainable transportation. It allows colleges to make good on their commitments to protecting the environment. It makes life easier for students and staff. And, perhaps most critically, it’s saving schools big money on parking. Stanford University estimates its efforts to reduce solo car commuting have saved the school from sinking $100 million into the construction and maintenance of parking facilities.

Here are some of the smart ways universities have been able to reduce solo car travel, according to a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. PIRG is recommending cities hurry up and follow their lead.

1. Discounted or free transit passes

Among the most common and effective strategies colleges employ to reduce driving to campus is providing free or reduced transit fares. PIRG reports 104 universities around the country offer this perk, often called “U-Pass,” to students and/or staff. Universities typically fund the program with fees collected from students or with revenue from parking permit sales.

After the University of Missouri at Kansas City adopted a U-Pass program in 2011, transit use by students climbed 9 percent. Now other universities in the Kansas City region are looking to replicate that success, PIRG reports.

Chapel Hill took it one step further and made transit free for everyone. As a result, transit use by students more than doubled between 1997 and 2011, from 21 to 53 percent.

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