Out of Control Policy Blog

Americans Commute Differently in Central Cities than in Metro Areas

Most Americans live in metropolitan regions consisting of communities, towns and cities anchored by one central city. The movement of goods and people does not stop at one city’s border. Sometimes policy makers are guilty of only studying the large central city and forming conclusions on commuter’s mode choices with this incomplete data. 

To examine the differences between cities and metro areas, I randomly selected ten metro areas of differing sizes and geographic locations from across the country. I compared data from the 2010 American Community Survey for the city and metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Phoenix, Portland, Rochester, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. I examined the major commuting options surveyed by the census bureau. These options are driving alone, carpooling, riding public transit, biking, walking, and telecommuting.

2009 Percentage Commute Share in City Limit



City

Drive Alone

Carpool

Public Transit

Bike

Walk

Telecommute

Atlanta

66.6

8.0

12.7

0.7

4.4

5.7

Cincinnati

71.1

9.5

9.7

0.3

5.3

3.6

Minneapolis

61.6

8.4

13.9

3.7

6.7

4.3

New Orleans

68.0

12.4

7.0

1.8

5.3

3.5

New York City

23.0

5.4

55.2

0.7

10.2

3.8

Phoenix

74.0

13.8

3.5

0.6

1.8

4.1

Portland

60.4

9.4

12.0

5.4

5.4

6.0

Rochester, NY

70.3

9.9

8.4

1.1

6.2

2.7

San Francisco

38.1

7.9

32.6

3.0

9.8

6.7

Washington D.C.

35.9

6.5

37.6

2.2

11.9

4.7 

2009 Percentage Commute Share in Metropolitan Statistical Area



City

Drive Alone

Carpool

Public Transit

Bike

Walk

Telecommute

Atlanta

77.5

10.9

3.6

0.2

1.4

5.1

Cincinnati

82.0

9.0

2.5

0.1

2.2

3.5

Minneapolis

78.3

8.9

4.4

0.8

2.3

4.5

New Orleans

77.5

12.2

2.9

0.7

2.3

3.0

New York City

50.4

7.4

30.3

0.4

6.1

3.7

Phoenix

75.2

13.6

2.3

0.8

1.7

4.7

Portland

71.5

10.5

6.3

1.8

3.2

5.7

Rochester, NY

81.8

8.5

2.0

0.4

3.4

3.2

San Francisco

62.3

10.4

14.5

1.4

4.3

5.5

Washington D.C.

66.2

11.1

13.9

0.5

3.0

4.4

The data reveal the difference between cities and metro areas as a whole. In the metro area more than double the percentage of people drive alone compared to the city. Carpooling is typically more popular in the overall metro area but Cincinnati, New Orleans, Phoenix, and Rochester have higher carpooling rates in the city than in the metro area. Not surprisingly, transit usage is higher in the cities sometimes by a factor of three or four. Bicycling is typically 2-3 times as popular in the city as in the metro area except in Phoenix. Walking is more popular in the city typically by a factor of 3 or 4 than in the metro area. And telecommuting is slightly higher in the city.  

The data reveal single occupant vehicles as the primary commuting choice in every metro area and all cities except New York and Washington. Public transit usage varies by metro area and is highest in the largest cities. Walking continues to be a good option for many. Both New York and Washington have more than ten percent of their residents who commute by walking. Telecommuting is more popular than transit in six of the cities.

I want to detail bicycling and carpooling. First, while bicycling is growing it still has the lowest share of any mode. While bikers do comprise more than 5% of total commuters in the city of Portland, that number falls to less than 2% for the metro area as a whole. Many cities including New York fail to have bicycling commuting shares of 1% and many metro areas have bicycling shares below 0.5% including Cincinnati at 0.1%. 

While carpooling is significantly less popular than driving alone, it is the second largest commute choice in most metro areas and in some cities. Many metro areas are expanding the number of managed lanes. Managed lanes either charge a fee or require a minimum number of passengers to use the lane. As the number of managed lanes increases, the number of carpoolers may also increase. 

Cities and metro areas are two different geographies. Commute choices that are popular in one geography may not work in the other. As policymakers formulate solutions to traffic congestion, only examining central city commuting patterns to solve regional commuting challenges provides a misleading picture of the problem.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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