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Which US metros have the greenest commuting habits?

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 25, 2012 in Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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  NYC subway (by: "Bitch Cakes", creative commons)

As most readers know only too well, the US pales by comparison to the rest of the world when it comes to getting around by anything other than single-occupancy cars.  Starting in the 1950s, we fell in love with spread-out living and with automobiles in a way that other countries didn’t, at least not to the same degree.  (Even Canadians and Australians don’t drive as much as we do.)  We soon simply (and wrongly) assumed that everyone could and should drive to do most anything, and built our suburbs accordingly, guaranteeing that the trend would perpetuate.

Slowly but surely, the trend is now beginning to reverse as the hot markets are in downtowns and walkable neighborhoods, with the ones having good transit service commanding the highest premiums on a per-square-foot basis.  But we have a long, long way to go.

(Disclosure:  As my enviro colleagues know, I am not a purist on these matters.  I have a very nice car, thank you very much, and I happen to love it.  But I am also fortunate to live somewhere that allows me to leave it parked much of the time.  I get to choose when to drive; most Americans don’t have that choice, unfortunately.  Yet.)

walking to work (by: Ryan Coleman, creative commons)As pathetic as we are when it comes to our lack of realistic transportation choices – we’ve built and grown our newer communities in a way that makes transit ridiculously inefficient and walking anywhere important just about impossible – some US metro areas perform much better than others in enabling greener travel habits.  Which ones?  Glad you asked.

Last month, Aaron Renn, a city analyst best known for his terrific blog Urbanophile, published a highly informative summary of the newest commuting data in the online journal newgeography.  While it focuses on trips to and from work and not all trips, Aaron’s summary gives us a pretty good picture of how we get around and to what extent our daily transportation habits may be changing.  It contains both good and bad news for people such as myself who would like to see our patterns become greener as quickly as possible. 

Aaron’s analysis is based on 2011 data from the American Community Survey, a product of the US Census Bureau.  I’ll hit the highlights here, and you can go to the article for more detail.

First (and this won’t be surprising), New York City dominates in transit usage, with a metro commute mode share for transit of 31.1 percent and an estimated 2,686,406 transit commuters.  The rest of the country combined adds only 3,530,932 transit commuters.  This means that the Big Apple accounts for a whopping 39 percent of all transit commuters in the United States.  The Washington, DC metro area is second in transit mode share at 14.8 percent, and the San Francisco Bay area a close third at 14.6 percent.  Only five American cities have a transit mode share of even 10 percent.

Moreover, only New York and Washington significantly increased their transit mode shares in the last decade.  I was a little surprised not to see big gains in Denver, Dallas and San Diego, given those areas’ recent transit investments.  (Charlotte and Los Angeles, which have also made significant investment in the last decade, did register gains in transit mode share, but both increased by less than one percent compared to 2000.)

bike commuting in San Francisco (by: luxomedia, creative commons)New York also leads the way in walking to work with a 6.3 percent mode share, but other metros are much closer to matching New York’s performance on walking than they are with regard to matching its transit usage.  Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area are second and third at 5.3 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively.  Portland has the most bike commuters, followed by three California metros:  the Bay Area, San Jose/Silicon Valley, and Sacramento.  (I guess weather helps, Portland notwithstanding.)  Those four metros are the only ones where the bike commuting share approaches or (slightly) exceeds two percent.

The percentage of people who work from home is significant and somewhat higher than the portion who walk.  Austin leads the way with a 7.1 percent work-from-home share.

Aaron also presents the ten US metro areas with the longest commute times.  I think the real finding from that list is that everyone in big cities takes more or less half an hour to get to work.  Number one New York and number ten Philadelphia are separated by only six minutes at 34.9 and 28.5 minutes, respectively.  I’ve heard knowledgeable analysts say that, actually, the 30-minute commute has been fairly stable for centuries; only the modes and distances have changed.

  working from home (by: Ben McLeod, creative commons)

It is interesting to compare these data with a similar summary that I wrote three years ago.  I think Aaron’s is more meaningful, not only because it is more current but also because metro data are more telling than central-city data, which are what I had to work with.  That said, there is a lot of consistency among the top performers.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Comments

CathyOct 26 2012 06:53 AM

A trend that I hope will contribute to greener commutes is the rising popularity of e-bikes. Especially for hilly cities like San Francisco, I think they have a lot of potential to help people consider biking to places they would otherwise think were too difficult (too far away or too hilly) to cycle to.

KirkWOct 27 2012 08:27 PM

"Pales in comparison?" Why so negative and unpatriotic? I prefer, "When it comes to VMT per capita, the US is a top performer!"

AliceHOct 29 2012 01:35 PM

It would be helpful if Renn and anyone else who wants to talk about changing mode share would include transportation investments in all modes. If a city invests in transit and also continues to expand roads, then one would not expect as large a mode shift as if the transit investment were the only change. This is especially true in places that start with significant road infrastructure and little or no transit infrastructure. An appropriate data set would include the amount of investment by mode for the last 20 years. Then the magnitude of changes in mode investment would have some context.

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