If you live in one of America's major cities, mobility often feels inextricably linked to public transportation. New York City couldn't function without its iconic subway. Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles have made big expansions to their metros. Chicago and San Francisco are planning state-of-the-art rapid bus lines to complement their rail systems. Even historically sprawling, car-reliant cities like Denver, Phoenix, and Houston are betting on light rail to guide their future growth.
Amid news of all this transit growth, it's far too easy to forget that on any given day, most city residents still drive to work. The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll is a sobering reminder of that reality. Among every single urban demographic group—let alone non-urban groups—the majority of respondents commuted by car.
Let's start with all 897 poll respondents who had a job (out of a total sample of 1,656): 84 percent drove to work, with just 5 percent taking the bus, 3 percent traveling by rail, and 3 percent walking or cycling. The car commute share among suburban (85 percent) and rural respondents (92 percent) did exceed this overall automobile share. But city residents weren't far behind: 78 percent drove to work, with 8 percent taking the bus, 6 percent the train or subway, and 4 percent going by bike or on foot.
In other words, the numbers belie the stereotypes that suburbanites drive while urbanites ride. On the contrary, even among urban-only sub-demographics, an overwhelming majority of respondents commuted by car.
Take an area we'd expect to find a major commute-mode disparity: race. There was, indeed, a significant racial difference here, as 85 percent of urban white respondents commuted by car, compared with 70 percent of urban non-white respondents. But that's still seven in ten non-whites driving to work. The minorities so often associated with city transit are themselves huge minorities when it comes to commuting: only 14 percent take the bus, and 7 percent the train or subway.
Money didn't matter as much as one might think, either, at least along this poll's main income divide of $50,000 a year. About 82 percent of urban residents making north of that number drove to work, compared with 76 percent making less—a statistically insignificant difference. (Income did matter on the bus: only 4 percent of the higher-income group rode, compared with 11 percent of the lower.) The education gap was even narrower: 77 percent of urban respondents with a college degree drove, against 79 percent of those without one.
Political party and home-ownership carried a similar tune. A full 89 percent of urban Republicans (or GOP leans) drove to work, higher than 74 percent of Democrats (or liberal leans). Similarly, 86 percent of urban residents who owned their home drove to work, against 71 percent of urban renters. Those gaps were significantly, but again, when seven out of ten people driving to work is the low end of the spectrum, we're seeing a difference in degree—not kind.
Drilling down even further into race, urban whites in our sample were especially beholden to their car commutes. On gender, age, education, income, home ownership, and parenting status—you name the sub-demographic—at least 80 percent of white respondents drove to work.
Where we finally start to see some more balanced commute mode splits is among lower-income urban minorities. Some 68 percent of urban minorities without a college degree drove to work (21 percent took the bus). About 63 percent of urban minorities making less than $50,000 a year commute by car (20 percent took the bus, and 8 percent the train); that mode split was essentially the same for urban minority renters. Urban minority women had the lowest share of car commutes. Still, 56 percent drove to work, with a quarter taking the bus and 10 percent the train.
Simply put: even in those demographics least reliant on cars to commute, the majority of respondents relied on cars to commute.
These results align closely with driving figures in the latest Commuting in America report, widely considering the most thorough resource on the subject. In that report, the share of car commutes (driving alone plus carpooling) topped 86 percent circa 2010, right on par with the 84 percent in our total working sample. Driving shares do seem to have stabilized or dipped a bit in recent years, following a huge jump in the 1980s. Still, just a small handful of metro areas have car commute shares below 70 percent (led by New York, the only city where those driving to work are in the minority). Most major metros hover around 75 or 80 percent.
Among smaller metros, the drive-to-work shares are even higher—often topping nine in ten commuters. On average, U.S. metro areas with 2.5 million people or fewer have a car commute share at or around 90 percent. The very largest metros do a lot better, falling short of 80 percent, though New York has a lot to do with that average. As a national whole, despite all the investments made in public transportation over the years and decades, about 85 percent of people living in metro areas get to work in a car.
If these commuter statistics share an underlying message, it's that the obstacles to balanced transportation networks are truly enormous, in both cities and suburbs alike. There is a long, long history here of great personal investment in a lifestyle whose basic purpose, in most cases, was just to provide a more tolerable existence for a working American family. The daily choice of commuting by car every morning is no longer really a choice at all for most people, but rather the lingering habitual aftermath of a decision made long ago.
This is why it's essential—not just preferable, but absolutely essential—to build proper transit systems and to provide service frequent enough to rival the car in convenience. And why even cities that provide great service may still need to take the politically toxic step of raising the cost of driving (and parking) to reduce car reliance. And why every one of the above policies is so tough to achieve: every transit initiative means convincing some of the majority to join the minority for the good of everyone.
The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656 U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For more details on the poll's methodology, go here.