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Census Says 75 Percent of US Commuters Drive Alone to Work - 2002-07-02

New census figures show that 75 percent of American commuters drive to work and home again alone in their cars, and spend nearly an hour a day doing so. While polls indicate growing frustration with traffic, Americans often don't think they can switch.

During rush hour in Washington, a constant stream of people flows from the Metro rail subway station into a downtown business district, going to work. On the same block, car after car descends into a cavernous parking garage below the street.

A bank manager described what it would take to switch to public transportation. "Probably a little bit lower cost, because I still need to keep my car relatively handy. If I ride the Metro I have to park at the Metro. And, it's $6 round trip. It all adds up, as opposed to $9 or $10 to park," he said.

A female lawyer said she commutes by car "because there is no Metro [rail service] close to my house."

And, she says, using public transit would double her commute time. These two are among the growing number of people who drive alone to work each day in the Washington metropolitan area. That number increased by 250,000 in Washington over the last decade.

Census data shows that transit ridership is based on availability. In central cities it is more than twice the national average, at 10.5 percent of all commuters. Outside cities transit use is less than one percent.

David Burwell, President of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a transportation reform organization that promotes transportation choices, says the longer and more congested commute is linked to unplanned, sprawling development in metropolitan areas.

"As people move out from the center city they are not having access to transit and find that the only way that they can get to work is by car," he said. "...The job centers are also moving out from the city to suburban edge cities, which are [sites] that would be appropriate for transit, however our transportation in the United States favors building highways and accommodating car travel, not building new transit."

While in recent years transit use has shot up 23 percent overall, outpacing the growth of driving, the majority of Americans see little advantage to leaving their cars behind. Less than half of commuters, 49 percent, have transit stops near where they live. Gasoline remains relatively cheap, and America's more than 6.4 million kilometers of roadway are largely toll-free.

David Burwell says a much greater share of state and federal gasoline taxes is spent on highway construction and repairs than on new public transportation. "We spend about seven times more money building roads in the United States as we do on transit," he explained. "And that is only at the federal level. At the state level only one percent of state gas taxes are devoted to transit and if you are not going to spend the money and not make transit available, people are going to be forced to drive.

Unfortunately since we don't have choice, our transportation agencies only look at behavior, and they only look at driving and they say, we have to accommodate it even though people are saying give us some choice, and we won't drive."

But, Bruce Katz, director of the Center for Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, says some change is already underway. He says cities across the country are beginning to rethink transit, housing, and land use policies to help reverse sprawl development and the congestion it creates.

"Instead of spending a disproportionate amount of your transportation dollars on building new highways further out from the central business district," he said, "the central city and the inner suburbs, they are spending their transportation dollars on fixing it first. [They are] repairing existing roads, and expanding public transit, like buses and light rail systems. What they are also doing is using those investments in transit to drive different kind of development patterns more compact, less dispersed, less decentralized."

Mr. Katz says these changes have been most successful in cities like Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington where citizens have a choice in how they get to work and where they live. But David Burwell with the Surface Transportation Policy Project says more needs to be done on a broader scale.

"Somehow we have to get governments to cooperate," Mr. Burwell said. "Our state governments that build roads and our city governments that build transit and also decide land use have to come together at the regional or metropolitan level and say how can we solve this problem."

Recent polls indicate that Americans are increasingly frustrated with sprawl and ranked traffic as their chief concern, ahead of education and crime. David Burwell says that frustration and a greater commitment by government to more convenient and accessible public transit are what will drive change in how Americans get to work.