America is still a country of lonely commuters. About 86 percent of us generally get to work in an automobile, according to new Census data from the 2013 American Community Survey released this week. And nearly as many — 76 percent — ride in that car all alone, accompanied only by the radio or the sound of mechanically muffled silence:
That carpooling data above reflects not just commuters who coordinate rides with their neighbors or coworkers, but anyone who drives to work with another adult (including your husband or wife). So what looks like the slow death of old-school carpooling may also reflect the decline of shared commutes among members of the same household. Why head out the door together when we can each take a car of our own!
Given the trajectory of the last half-century, the last few years are actually noteworthy for the fact that these long-term trends — ever-more of us driving to work, and increasingly driving alone — have stalled. Commuting by car is down slightly. Driving alone, which had been on the rise for the last 30 years, has barely budged since 2013. And the new Census data suggests these shifts are partly driven by the young urban millennials we keep hearing are not that interested in cars.
According to a report on car commuting from the Census Bureau's Brian McKenzie that accompanies the new data release, driving to work is down about four percentage points from 2006 to 2013 among urban 25-to-29-year-olds. This stat specifically captures those millennials who live in the principle city of each metropolitan area — so, not the suburbs.
A four-point decline may not sound like much (it means about 76.7 percent of these young urban workers still commute by car). But since 2006, the rate of their decline in driving is about four times greater than the national average. And, as the above chart shows, changes in commuting patterns happen gradually over many years.
In several metropolitan areas, the decline in car commuting is also happening more quickly. The San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area had the steepest drop from 2006 car-commuting levels (about 4 percentage points), followed among major metros by Boston, Durham, Seattle and Philadelphia.
There's a notable difference in this car-commuting data between older, Northern cities like New York and Boston, and more spread-out places like Dallas, Atlanta and Phoenix that grew up in the 20th century dependent on the car. In Dallas, four in five workers typically drive to work alone. In metropolitan New York, just half do:
That chart doesn't necessarily mean that people in Dallas like to drive more than New Yorkers (although people who opt to move there may self-select for a car-heavy lifestyle). These differences, rather, say more about places than people — and, specifically, how we've designed them. New York, Boston, Washington and San Francisco are denser, more compact cities where there are more alternatives to car commuting in public transit, or even walking or biking.
Dallas, Houston and Atlanta, by contrast, have a lot of jobs centers and residential neighborhoods that are only accessible by car. And changing attitudes or preferences — even among young millennials — alone can't change that.
These same patterns are reflected in the share of workers in each metro who commute by transit. In Dallas, just 1.4 percent of workers do:
That last chart, though, says something discouraging about even the most transit-friendly metros. Beyond New York, in places like Boston, Washington and San Francisco, still barely one in 7 workers commute by transit. Nationwide, just one in 20 do.
Granted, some people manage to do both of these things, riding alone in a car to a train stop, or driving on some days and busing on others. The American Community Survey asks "how did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK?" If commuters use multiple modes, they're asked to identify the one used for most of the commuting distance.