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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Which US cities have the greenest commuting habits?

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 2, 2009

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Big-time kudos to Bike Pittsburgh for combing through new census data to extract and rank the commuting habits of the 60 largest US cities.  The data chart on the organization's website, naturally, opens up with the ranking of bicycle commuting:  Portland is number one, with a rate (six percent) astonishingly ten times the national median.  But what is cool for nerds like me is that the table is interactive, cycling to work in the SF Bay Area (by: Stanford University)allowing us to see the rankings and numbers for several other measures important to the environment, including the rankings and percentages of commuters driving alone, those taking public transit, and those walking to work. 

Here are the ten cities that in 2008 had the smallest portions of commuters driving alone to work, and the percentage of workers in each who did so.  The national median for this statistic, sadly, is 74.2 percent, and the national average is 70.1 percent:

  1. New York NY               23.3
  2. Washington DC            37.2
  3. San Francisco CA        38.4
  4. Boston MA                  41.1
  5. Chicago IL                   50.5
  6. Philadelphia PA           50.7
  7. Pittsburgh PA              52.8
  8. Seattle WA                  52.9
  9. Baltimore MD               57.9
  10. Oakland CA                 58.1

New York (no surprise), DC and San Francisco all managed to cut their rates to half the national median or less.  The worst performers among the 60 largest cities, incidentally, were Wichita and Oklahoma City.

new Metrobus in DC (by: Jason Lawson, creative commons license)Here are the top ten performers displayed by the percentage of commuters who took public transit to work.  The national median in the Census's American Community Survey is a sorry 4.5 percent; the average is higher at 9.0 percent (probably because the large, transit-rich population of New York City is included as a raw number).  The rankings are almost identical to those for driving alone:

  1. New York NY                  54.8
  2. Washington DC               35.7
  3. San Francisco CA           31.9
  4. Boston MA                     31.2
  5. Philadelphia                    26.8
  6. Chicago IL                      26.7
  7. Pittsburgh PA                 20.9
  8. Baltimore MD                  19.5
  9. Seattle WA                     17.7
  10. Oakland CA                    17.1

The Big Apple had an impressive rate twelve times the national median; today is Walk to Work Day in Australia (by: The Pedestrian Council)DC's rate was eight times the national median; and San Francisco's was seven times.  The worst performers?  Arlington, Texas at a paltry 0.3 percent, and Oklahoma City and Tulsa at 0.8 percent.

My favorite of the tables, though, is the one for the percentage of commuters walking to work.  Here the national median is 2.5 percent (I'm actually surprised that it's that high) and the average is 3.8 percent.  The city rankings this time are a little different:

  1. Boston MA                   14.3
  2. Washington DC             12.1
  3. Pittsburgh PA               11.1
  4. New York NY                10.3
  5. San Francisco CA           9.4
  6. Seattle WA                    9.3
  7. Philadelphia PA              8.6
  8. Honolulu HI                    7.9
  9. Minneapolis MN             6.1
  10. Baltimore MD                 6.0

It's encouraging to see several cities near or above ten percent and, rooting for the home team, to see DC beat New York (take that, David Owen).  And now that I have seen Honolulu on several lists like this, I'm going to have to stop being surprised.  The worst performers were Bakersfield and Dallas.

The rankings would be even more telling, I think, if they had also included numbers for metro areas in addition to those for people living within city limits.  No doubt we would have less to feel encouraged about, and there probably would be less variation top to bottom.  But Bike Pittsburgh acknowledges the shortcoming, along with some other limitations.  They used the data available, and it's still very interesting to confirm once again that communities that are built (relatively) compactly, with mixed uses, good transit and a decent pedestrian environment, display their merits in good transportation performance.  Go here for data on all 60 cities.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Greg CastilloOct 2 2009 12:19 PM

Those are some very interesting and promising numbers. I'm out in Los Angeles, and I of course wasn't surprised to see us anywhere near those lists. We need to get to work out here, but in all honesty, how would a major city like ours even get started? What problems should we be looking at first?

Dave ReidOct 2 2009 12:30 PM

The walking to work numbers are very interesting... I wonder what plays into that, of course density but something else is in play as well.

Megan CarrOct 2 2009 12:52 PM

@Dave: The other main component contributing to walkability is having a diverse mix of land use. It'd be interesting to see a list of cities by their use of mixed-use zoning and see how closely it matches the walk to work list.

KirstenOct 2 2009 05:04 PM

Interesting. I'm in DC and bike or bus in, so I'm proud to see my city on the green commute list.

I do have to wonder if that factors in the whole DC metro area or just the city itself. I can't see why you'd drive to work from one part of DC to another, but it can be much more difficult to get in to the city without driving from the burbs, not to mention all the people commuting from one burb to another.

Kaid @ NRDCOct 2 2009 05:13 PM

It is residents of the city itself, regardless of where they work. My wife and I live in the city, but she drives to Alexandria for work, which counts as a car trip. I take Metro to downtown, which counts as transit. As I suggested above, the numbers would undoubtedly be less impressive if whole metro areas were considered. But it's still significant, I think, especially the numbers for walking. Cities that have good walk-to-work numbers have good land use, as Dave and Megan say above.

Laurence AurbachOct 3 2009 10:19 AM

But many parts of Los Angeles have a great mix of land uses and have fairly high density as well, and the city still has a middling level of alternative transportation performance. The problem is nearly all of the city is entirely dominated by cars - and it always has been. LA has more of its area in roads and parking than other cities in the U.S. The streets are very wide and packed with high volumes of fast-moving traffic. Residences and businesses tend to be spread apart by plentiful parking on every lot.

There are some spots of LA that are preserving and enhancing a pedestrian oriented environment - I'd highlight Pasadena in particular. The cause of alternative transportation in LA is hampered by its dedication to extreme auto orientation. As Donald Shoup says, "Los Angeles is dense and getting denser, and as long as accommodating the car remains a primary focus of its development regulations, this increasing density will be a problem rather than a solution."

Kaid @ NRDCOct 3 2009 01:22 PM

Excellent point - it still might be encouraging, though, if average trip length were getting shorter as a result of increased density. We can accomplish a lot environmentally apart from mode shifts. But somehow I'm not optimistic on that front, either, for LA.

T. CaineOct 3 2009 05:03 PM

Way to go NYC! There is nothing quite like walking to work.

It is great to see these kinds of numbers for alternative transit support. I think it only underscores the need to support alternative transit as a system of options, rather than a supposed silver bullet solution like high speed rail. Diverting people from car travel has to be done holistically on every scale of commuting distance from walking and biking to the people who take the multi-hour ride on the LIRR from Montauk to Penn Station. The greatest access levels and efficiencies arise from co-developing all of these options together.

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