America's Ongoing Love Affair With the Car

Despite modest improvements in dense city centers, the vast majority of us are still driving to work alone.

Image Michael Gil / Flickr
Michael Gil / Flickr

With all the consternation in some corners about the so-called “war on cars,” you’d think Americans were giving up their automobiles in droves in favor of mass transit, biking, walking, or telecommuting.

But the latest report on commuting habits from the U.S. Census Bureau reminds us that when it comes to getting to and from work, the United States remains overwhelmingly an auto-dependent nation. The report, by Brian McKenzie of the Census’s Journey to Work and Migration Statistics Branch, finds that 86 percent of U.S. workers get to work in a car. The study is based on data from the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS).

The chart below shows how Americans age 16 and above typically get to work. Three out of four Americans (76.4 percent) report driving to work alone. Almost ten percent (9.4 percent) carpool, though this figure has actually declined significantly from a high of nearly 20 percent in 1980. Just 5.2 percent take mass transit, while 2.3 percent walk to work and less than one percent (0.6 percent) bike to work.

Much has been made of younger Americans opting not to own (or perhaps delay purchasing) cars. Here again, the actual figures are sobering. The chart below from the report categorizes workers based on age, as well as whether they commute by automobile from principal cities, suburban areas within metros but outside of principal cities, and areas outside of metros in 2006 and 2013. Overall, younger workers do show slightly less dependence on cars: 73.6 percent of workers ages 16-24 drive to work, while 76.7 percent of workers ages 25-29—the ones who are supposedly turning in their cars for subway tokens and bikes—drive to work (not far off the national average).

The report does find a modest decline in car commuting among workers of all ages—though especially among younger workers—who lived in principal cities between 2006 and 2013. And workers in the 25-to-29 age group registered the largest increase in commuting by mass transit (from 5.5 to 7.1 percent) over this same period. The report also notes that “driver’s licensing rates among young people have also declined or held steady in recent years.”

It’s also clear that the way we get to work varies widely based on where we live. Workers who live in larger, dense cities with better mass transit systems drive less than those in suburbs. Urban workers (those living in principal cities within a metro area) in 2013 were significantly less likely to commute by car (78 percent) than those living outside principal city metros (89 percent), or elsewhere (91 percent). Workers in principal cities also registered the largest decline in automobile commuting—from 80 per­cent to 78 percent between 2006 and 2013 (though, at 2 percent, that decline was still relatively small).

Greater San Francisco registered the largest decline in automobile commuting of any metro between 2006 and 2013—nearly 4 percent (3.8 percent). Greater Boston saw car commuting decline by 3.3 percent. A diverse group of metros from Cape Coral and Daytona Beach, Florida, to Boise, Syracuse, Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York saw car commuting decline by between 2 and 3 percent. The following table shows the metro areas with the largest rates of decline in automobile commuting.

Largest Declines in Rate of Automobile Commuting From 2006-2013

Rank Metropolitan Statistical Area State Rate of Decline
1 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward CA 3.8
2 Boston-Cambridge-Newton MA-NH 3.3
3 Durham-Chapel Hill NC 2.9
4 Cape Coral-Fort Myers FL 2.9
5 Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk CT 2.8
6 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue WA 2.8
7 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington PA-NJ-DE-MD 2.7
8 Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormon Beach FL 2.7
9 Madison WI 2.7
10 New Orleans-Metairie LA 2.6
11 Springfield MA 2.6
12 Boise City ID 2.4
13 New York-Newark-Jersey City NY-NJ-PA 2.2
14 Syracuse NY 2.1
15 Albuquerque NM 2.1

New York, with its density, high levels of congestion, and extensive transit and rail system remains the metro where the smallest share of workers get to work by car (56.9 percent). But knowledge hubs like San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C., as well as college towns like Boulder, Iowa City, and Ithaca also have relatively lower rates of car commuting. The graph below shows the metro areas with the lowest rates of private vehicle commuting in 2013.

Metro Areas With The Lowest Rates of Private Vehicle Commuting

Rank Metropolitan Statistical Area State % of Workers Commuting By Private Vehicle Alternative Travel Mode with Highest Commuting
Share
Second Most Common Commute Mode
(% of Workers)
1 New York-Newark-Jersey City NY-NJ-PA 56.9 Subway or elevated rail 18.9
2 Ithaca NY 68.7 Walked 17.5
3 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward CA 69.8 Bus or trolley bus 7.6
4 Boulder CO 71.9 Worked at home 11.1
5 Corvallis OR 72.6 Bicycle 8.8
6 Iowa
City
IA 73.4 Walked 11.1
7 Boston-Cambridge-Newton MA 75.6 Subway or elevated rail 6.2
8 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria DC-VA-MD-WV 75.7 Subway or elevated rail 8.0
9 Bremerton-Silverdale WA 77.0 Ferry 6.4
10 Missoula MT 77.2 Walked 8.5
11 Champaign-Urbana IL 78.4 Walked 7.9
12 Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk CT 78.5 Long distance or commuter rail 7.6
13 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin IL-IN-WI 79.1 Bus or trolley bus 4.7
14 Honolulu HI 79.1 Bus or trolley bus 7.9
15 State College PA 79.2 Walked 9.9

The way we get to work also varies by race and ethnicity, as the graph below shows.

White workers are most likely to drive to work alone (80 percent) as of 2013. Asian workers are the least likely to drive to work alone (67 percent), followed by Hispanic workers (69 percent). More than seven in ten (72 percent) African American workers drives to work alone.

More than four in ten Americans are members of two-car families. And just four percent have no access to a car. That said, many of the more than 6 million Americans workers who do not have access to a car are low-income workers who also lack access to decent public transportation, severely limiting their employment opportunities. Workers earning $75,000 or more were the most likely to ride transit to work compared to other commuters without vehicle access.

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These findings are of course not just the product of individual choices but also the result of the deep economic and social structures and public policies that have shaped our car-oriented landscape. Social scientists like Harvard’s Robert Putnam have long warned us of the negative consequences of “bowling alone” (our declining participation in civic institutions and withering social ties). Perhaps we should be even more concerned with our continued tendency to drive alone. After all, study after study has shown how incredibly damaging commuting by ourselves is to our physical, mental, and social health.

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