From subways to ferries to working at home—in one table.
Richard Florida’s sobering take from the new Census report on American commuting habits is that the vast majority of the country still drives to work. The reminder is a crucial one for transit advocates, local officials, and city residents engaged in the pursuit of balance. But it’s also worth taking a closer look at how Americans get to work in the cities where they rely on driving the least.
To that end we spruced up the list of the 15 U.S. metros with the lowest rates of car commuting, and their secondary commute choice, found in Brian McKenzie’s Census report:
The table lends itself to three broad categories.
This one’s pretty straightforward. Traffic is so brutal in big metros like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, and Chicago that commuters need to rely on alternative modes of transportation. While Honolulu isn’t at the scale of these cities in terms of population, its rush-hour congestion can compete with the best (worst?) of them.
In most cases that non-car mode ends up being a subway or metro rail system. But the bus does carry the second-highest commuter share in several major metros: the Bay Area, with a strong bus network and legacy trolley in place, still hopes to expand BART to better serve the urban core; Chicago has focused much of its political energy on bus-rapid transit plans; and Honolulu has no major rail option at the moment but will soon get the first driverless metro system in the U.S.
Conspicuously absent from the list are the likes of Los Angeles and Houston. Whether their renewed efforts to reduce their car reliance and expand their bus and rail systems will result in decreased solo commute shares will be something to watch in the coming years.
The list is also notable for its abundance of college towns. Five turn to walking most often in lieu of a car commute: Ithaca (home to Cornell), Iowa City (University of Iowa), Missoula (University of Montana), Champaign-Urbana (University of Illinois), and State College (Penn State). Telecommuting rules in Boulder (University of Colorado), while the bicycle reigns in Corvallis (Oregon State).
McKenzie from the Census tells CityLab that scale is a driving factor in many of these cases: it’s easier to navigate a smaller city without a car almost by definition. In college towns, the urban core is also more likely to account for a greater part of the metro area as a whole—meaning there’s less influence on the commute figures from traditional car-centric suburbs. McKenzie calls Ithaca the “poster city for this effect” via email:
The city of Ithaca itself makes up most of the Ithaca metro area, and its scale makes it very walkable, especially in a university environment. Compare this to DC, where the city itself is very urban and has relatively high rates of transit, biking, and walking, but these extremes are largely “diluted” for the larger metro area when you throw in the suburbs, where travel behavior is more typical of the nation as a whole.
The youth of a college town certainly matters. While plenty of Millennials still drive, they’re also more likely than other age groups to trend away from car reliance. Case in point: Ithaca’s twenty-something walk-to-work mayor. Though tougher to measure, an intellectual setting might promote a higher sense of social responsibility about sustainable transport—especially with regard to climate change.
College campuses and towns also tend to have progressive commuter alternative programs, or city plans, that emphasize non-car modes. It’s no coincidence that the lead image at the city of Missoula’s transport planning page, for instance, features a pedestrian, bicycle, carpool, and bus—but no solo driver. Nor is it blind luck that Corvallis is so friendly to cyclists: roughly 98 percent of its collector and arterial roads have bike lanes.
That’s the less-the-precise way to describe the remaining metros on the list. The ferry rules for non-drivers in Bremerton-Silverdale, Washington, which is separated from Seattle by the Puget Sound. While ferries often go overlooked as public transportation, the case of Bremerton-Silverdale shows it’s a viable complement at times. Washington’s wonderful statewide program to reduce car commuting among big employers also no doubt plays a role.
Non-drivers in Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, rely on the Metro-North commuter rail to reach New York City. You can probably also count Boulder in this group, despite also being a college town, given its proximity to metro Denver. The city has made a name for itself as a telecommuting hub—partly in response to the region’s terrible traffic.
So that’s how people get to work in the U.S. cities with the lowest car commute shares. There’s obviously loads of room for improvement: even on this list, it’s still the norm for seven or eight in 10 people to drive to work (New York City aside). That’s not likely to change in a big way until U.S. cities raise the cost of driving to work, but in the meantime there are some lessons to learn on the margins.