(September 2008) With gas prices soaring, there are reports of more Americans using carpools, public transportation, bikes, and running shoes to make their daily commutes. But new estimates from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey show that these reports may be overstating the trend; in 2007, the share of people driving alone to work (76 percent) was unchanged from 2000, when gas cost around $1.50 per gallon.1 And for some minority groups, the share of drivers has increased over the decade.

The 1960 Census was the first to ask about the "usual means" of transportation that people use to get to their jobs. Fifty years ago, the majority of people drove to work—about 64 percent—but a substantial number also took public transportation (12 percent), walked to work (10 percent), or worked at home (7 percent). Starting in 1980, the Census Bureau added a question on carpooling, which showed that one in five workers was sharing a ride to work with other people.

Over the last several decades, commuting patterns have changed significantly with more people driving alone and fewer using carpools or walking to work. There are several reasons cited for this trend including increases in car ownership, job growth in suburban and exurban areas, and an increase in "trip chaining," or interspersing trips to work with stops at the day care, grocery store, and other locations.2 Urban sprawl is also a key factor: employment and population growth are increasingly concentrated in suburban areas, where most people need a car to get around efficiently.3

There is anecdotal evidence that the recent increase in gas prices has nudged some workers out of their cars and into carpools,4 trains,5 and other modes of transportation.6 Some areas have reported increases in telecommuting.7

However, the national data tell a different story. Over three-fourths of workers are still driving alone to work—close to an all-time high—and the share of carpoolers dropped from a fifth of workers in 1980 to a tenth of workers in 2007 (see Table 1). Since 2000, the only commuting alternatives to show slight increases are telecommuting and "other means" of getting to work, such as taxis, motorcycles, and bicycles, accounting for only 2 percent of all workers.8


Table 1
Means of Transportation to Work, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2007

  1980
(%)
1990
(%)
2000
(%)
2007
(%)
Drove alone
64
73
76
76
Carpooled
20
13
12
10
Public transportation
6
5
5
5
Walked
6
4
3
3
Worked from home
2
3
3
4
Other means*
2
1
1
2

* Includes taxis, motorcycle, bicycle, and other means.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, decennial census and American Community Survey.


There are some interesting racial/ethnic differences hidden in these national trends. Non-Hispanic whites are the most likely to drive alone, while racial/ethnic minorities—who tend to be more concentrated in urban areas—have higher rates of public transportation use and carpooling. However, since 2000, the proportion of African American and Latino workers driving alone to work increased by 5 percentage points each (see Table 2). These trends suggest that commuting patterns among minority groups are converging with those of non-Hispanic whites, despite the increasing costs of driving to work.


Table 2
Share of Workers Driving Alone to Work, 2000 and 2007

  2000 (%) 2007 (%)
Total 76 76
White, non-Hispanic 80 80
Black 66 71
Asian 66 67
Hispanic/Latino 61 66

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, decennial census and American Community Survey.


Trends by poverty status suggest that vehicle use is increasing the fastest among those with lower incomes. Since 2000, the share of poor workers9 driving alone to work increased from 58 percent to 61 percent. For those with higher incomes, at least 150 percent above the poverty line, the share who drive held steady at 78 percent.

There is often a "spatial mismatch" between the places where lower-income families live and work. The rise in car ownership and use can be viewed as a positive trend for poor workers who are increasingly living in the suburbs or exurbs and face long commutes on public transit.10 Cars offer more flexibility, employment options, and often shorter commutes than other means of transportation. However, the increase in gas prices puts an additional financial burden on families that are already struggling to make ends meet.


Mark Mather is associate vice president for Domestic Programs at the Population Reference Bureau.


References

  1. Unadjusted for inflation.
  2. David Ungemah, Ginger Goodin, and Casey Dusza, "Examining Incentives and Preferential Treatment of Carpools on Managed Lane Facilities," Journal of Public Transportation 10, no. 4, (2007).
  3. Edward L. Glaeser and Matthew E. Kahn, "Sprawl and Urban Growth," accessed online at www.economics.harvard.edu/pub/hier/2003/HIER2004.pdf, on Sept. 22, 2008.
  4. Alexandra Clough, "Commuters combat soaring gas prices by pooling in vans," Palm Beach Post, June 13, 2008.
  5. Francisco Vara-Orta and Joanna Lin, "Gas prices drive rail use," Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2008.
  6. Rob Pavey, "Rising gas prices create bicycle business boom," Augusta Chronicle, June 2, 2008.
  7. Fredrick Kunkle, "Beating Gas Prices by Skipping the Commute: Nonprofit Group Tries Telecommuting to Ease Employees' Shock at the Pump," Washington Post, May 26, 2007.
  8. The share of workers driving alone was slightly higher in 2005 (77 percent) before dropping to 76 percent in 2006 and 2007.
  9. Workers ages 16 and older with family incomes below 100 percent of official poverty thresholds.
  10. Evelyn Blumenburg, "Transportation and Low-Income Households," presentation at the Brooking Institution event on Low-Income Car Ownership: New Policy for Employment and Family Well-Being, Dec. 5, 2005.