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.

Transit commuting is increasing in most places, but not by much

Graph: Yonah Freemark
Table: Yonah Freemark

There are more gainers than losers in this table, but again only the Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle regions increased transit commuting by more than 2 percentage points.

Looking at cities, not regions, Seattle is a real standout in reducing car commutes

Chart: Yonah Freemark
Table: Yonah Freemark

The nearly 9 percentage point drop in car commuting in Seattle is impressive. Nowhere else really comes close.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sun Belt cities and Texas cities stand out as the worst performers.

Washington Metro’s troubles show up in DC’s transit commute rate

Chart: Yonah Freemark
Table: Yonah Freemark

The worst performer here isn’t a Sun Belt city, but Washington, D.C. — where WMATA’s management of the transit system has led to serious safety problems and the agency is currently preparing to make drastic cuts in late night service.

In another surprise, Las Vegas notched a respectable increase.

Overall, these Census commute numbers suggest that while you need good transit service if you want more people to take the bus or the train to work, building transit capacity isn’t sufficient, on its own, to increase transit commuting. Other factors like land use, the safety of walking and biking, and the expansion or shrinkage of car infrastructure have to be taken into account.

14 thoughts on Where Car Commuting Is Shrinking — And Where It’s Not

  1. While I’ll be the first to agree that WMATA’s woes are contributing to transit’s decline in DC over the past decade, it could be argued that the successful roll-out of Capital Bikeshare also contributed to that transit decline, as well as helping to drop DC’s driving-to-work-alone percentage despite the transit problems.

  2. The Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority (known in Houston as “Metro”) has made a big deal by radically reorganizing their bus system to a grid pattern in August, 2015. In fact, they actually won from APTA their “Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award” in 2015 for it. Sadly, Metro does not even serve major portions of Harris County. The Woodlands in Montgomery County to the north does have some weekday-only commuter bus service, but most of Montgomery County is devoid of public transit service. Fort Bend County has a tiny service mostly to Sugar Land, while other cities such as Rosenberg and Richmond have nothing. The city of Galveston has a small bus system while most of Galveston County is also without public transit. Brazoria, Chambers, Waller and Liberty Counties have zero public transit.
    There is really very little public transit in the entire metropolitan area, and at least one article has appeared on this blog touting Houston’s “major” reorganization last year, as if it were some major innovation.
    The same problem exists in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. The numbers above reflect this grim reality.

  3. Do it again Yonah. Does the ACS have a similar compilation by age?

    I wonder how much of this is demographic. Those born in the same decade are driving as much as before, but the generations retiring and dying off driven more than the new generations trying to enter the workforce.

  4. Not really. Transit peaked in Houston in 2005 and the bus reorganization just went into effect in August 2015, so this news, while disappointing, says nothing about policies just enacted there.

  5. The ones with increases in the drive-alone share: LA, Dallas, Houston, the car sprawl suburbs east of LA, Charlotte. On reflection, none surprise me.

    Houston has the most appalling land use I’ve seen in any American city, is completely unwalkable, and Texas state government is still throwing money after roads like it’s the 1950s.

    Dallas…. is in Texas, and the best you can say is that it’s much better than Houston. They’ve built a decent system, but being in Texas hurts.

    Charlotte has terrible sprawl and unwalkable death roads. During this time period the only decent transit was the southern half of the Blue Line, which is quite popular but really doesn’t cover very much of the city, missing most of the important parts.

    I’m surprised Riverside-San Bernadino-Ontario is still considered a separate metro area. They did very little from 2005-2015 to discourage car use and a lot to encourage it; plus which anyone who wanted to not drive alone probably moved closer to LA.

    LA did surprise me, but then I looked at the dates. There was very little capacity expansion from 2005-2015. During this time period, LA opened the Gold Line East Side extension, but that was the only significant improvement to their transit system. (There’s the Orange Line, but I don’t count that as a significant improvement; it attracted riders and then instantly became overcrowded and incapable of absorbing more.) With no downtown connector, no access to Santa Monica, only overcrowded access to the Valley, etc., the system couldn’t absorb more riders.

  6. I certainly am not a reflexive Houston booster nor a basher of cities that urbanists like–I like them too. But one point in Houston’s favor is that it seems to be allowing single-family houses in the inner core to be knocked down and replaced with townhouses. Relatively affordable and family-friendly infill development is something that is happening practically nowhere else in the US.

  7. Cool. But when I look at the core of Houston, I see parking lots. And parking garages. And more parking lots. And parking garages next to them.

    I’ll believe something is happening when the parking lots start being built on.

  8. By “core,” I mean something beyond just the CBD proper, which yes indeed is full of parking lots as is the case in most other cities in the US. Really I mean inside the 610 loop. If you go to the Heights or Montrose you’ll see relatively middle-income households able to afford a close-in townhouse in a way you won’t see in many other prosperous US cities.

  9. Rosenberg-Richmond actually has an inter-city service that’s been around for about two years now. It connects to a transit center on the south side of Rosenberg where access to a Sugar Land/Houston Commuter bus runs for the morning & evening rush hours.

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