Transit’s Road Dependence

Alan Pisaraski has a very illuminating post (Nov 4, 2011) over at (“Brand Loyalty Dominates Trip to Work“) that really puts choices about transportation modes in perspective. Alan is looking at the most recent commuting data from the 2010 census and, no surprise, automobile travel trounces all other modes (as it has since the 1960s when two-thirds of commuters got to work by car or truck).

But the more insightful and interesting part of his analysis comes from the National Household Travel Survey, which asked commuters: 1) how they usually got to work, and 2) what mode they used the day before to get to work. Almost 94 percent of auto commuters said they used a car or truck to get to work the day before (excluding carpooling). If carpooling is included, the percentage goes to 99 percent. Not surprise here (in part because many automobile commuters don’t live places by choice where alternative modes are easily accessible).

Transit commuters show a more complicated commuting pattern. Of those identifying themselves as regular transit commuters only about two thirds, 68.3 percent, said they used transit to get to work the day before. Thirteen percent said they drove to work alone and another 9 percent said they carpooled the day before. Bicycle commuters were a little more loyal: 73 percent said they used their bike to get to work the day before. But, when faced with using an alternative mode, 13.8 percent said they drove alone and 3.3 percent said they carpooled. Just 6 percent used transit. (On this note, look at my most recent post at where I discuss why I gave up the bus for my bike in getting to work.)

Walkers were the most loyal next to automobile users. Eighty percent said they walked the day before. Transit still didn’t get more of a nod during the non-walking days than carpooling or driving alone.

One important lesson from these data is that the road system is crucial to everyone, whether they walk, use transit, or bike. Lobbying against highway and road funds to support bicycle, transit, or walking “alternatives” is akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. The more important policy question is how to prioritize the funding and improve the operation of the network to ensure the system of roads (and highways) is functioning smoothly so everyone gets to work on time. Short changing roads in the budget process inevitably short changes everyone.