Things don't look so bad.
Nathan Yau of FlowingData has put together an interactive map tool that shows how Americans get to work. From a national perspective, there are counties all across the nation where people walk, bicycle, and use public transit to get to work. And carpooling is a popular option just about everywhere.
That's the way things look, anyway, when you consider every option out there except driving alone. Throw that mode into the mix, and, welp, the map looks very different. The majority of residents in almost every county in the nation drives alone to work. It's not even close.
This we've known for a while, of course. The last Commuting in America report put the share of commuters who drive alone or carpool at 86 percent. The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll, conducted for CityLab last year, found that the majority of respondents in every urban demographic group (plus the non-urban groups, of course) commuted by car. Yet the FlowingData map tool casts even this well-covered territory in stark relief.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2013 American Community Survey, Yau tabulated the commuting mode favored by the majority of residents at the county level. Looking at the East Coast, for example—with "driving alone" disengaged as an option—reveals some things you'd expect to find. Public transit is the favored transportation mode in several counties that are coterminal or contiguous with metro areas. The New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., metro areas also show strong support for public transit in metro and adjacent counties.
Zooming in closer on New York alone, and hovering over New York County, reveals a complete breakdown of commuter preferences: 59 percent of commuters take public transit, while 21 percent—one in five!—walk to work. Moving outward from Manhattan to Queens (Queens County), Brooklyn (Kings County), and the other boroughs and nearby counties, the share of drivers rises, but the share of commuters who rely on public transit is still strong.
Now add drivers back in. Suddenly, New York City looks isolated.
In New Jersey's Hudson County—the geographically smallest and most densely populated county in the state (and home to Jersey City), 40 percent of commuters use public transit. But at a very close second, 39 percent of commuters there drive alone. In Staten Island (Richmond County), 30 percent of commuters use public transit, but 56 percent of them drive alone. If New York's five boroughs don't all side for the city's transit system, what chance do commuters elsewhere have?
There appear to be a few other counties where driving alone is not the preferred commuting method, but looks can be deceiving. While a large minority of commuters (33 percent) in San Juan County, Colorado, prefer to walk to work, that may not make the place a model walkable community: It's simply too sparsely populated, and the margin of error too high (+/- 12.7 percent), to read too much from the data. Counties that show a lot of residents working from home typically indicate rural farmers working from home.
And it's only a guess, but all the snow machines and dog sleds in Alaska—okay, in reality, the extremely rural nature of its counties—likely explain why that state is such an outlier.
The FlowingData map also allows users to compare commuting modes in isolation or in comparison. Once again, from a national perspective, things look fairly bleak for cyclists and transit riders. For all the media talk about bike lanes, the much-ballyhooed War On Cars, and the everyday foibles of traveling on public transit, the commuters who prefer these means over driving alone to work are few and far between.
Cyclists and transit riders are scattered more thinly than the Star Wars Rebel Alliance on the ice-planet Hoth.
Looking at the West Coast, and controlling for commuters who drive alone, only in the Bay Area is public transit a true contender. (Those people walking to work in rural Nevada are mostly employed as desert hermits, I suspect, like Obi-Wan Kenobi.)
Looking more closely at San Francisco, it would appear that the commuter shed for Bay Area Rapid Transit extends mostly to Oakland in Alameda County. Even there, only 12 percent of commuters rely on public transit to get to work.
Add in the option to drive alone, and even San Francisco County goes green—so to speak.
What this mapping tool needs is a function that shows changes over time. Dallas County, as you might expect, is driver country: 79 percent of commuters there take I-35, I-635, or any of the city's many highways, all alone, day in and day out. But in Dallas County specifically, and throughout the Dallas area more broadly, the city is investing in new commuter infrastructure, such as bike lanes and light rail. How long will it take for these investments to swing Dallas commuters by a percentage point? By 10 percentage points?
I'd like to watch the map evolve over time for places like Travis County, which is more or less coterminal with Austin. This is one of the fastest-growing cities in Texas (and in America). The region's infrastructure has been overwhelmed by new commuters who overwhelmingly drive alone, clogging the I-35 and Mopac highways as well as city streets, even outside of rush hour. I'd like to see how long it takes for Austin's (kinda-sorta) investments in bus rapid transit and light rail to pay off—and I'd also like to know how many more drivers the city is adding every year.
For an at-a-glance look, the FlowingData chart may be the best tool yet for seeing the truth we think we already know: That the U.S. is still very much a car country.