A Broader Perspective on Commuting to Work


A recent Census release discussed changes in bicycling and walking to work since 2000. There’s clearly interest in this topic, as local governments have actively promoted walking and bicycling, sometimes as explicit criteria for new development.

A broader perspective may also be useful, so this post considers additional ways of getting to work, including the ones used most often. Like the Census release, it uses information from the 2000 Census and the American Community Survey (ACS). Because published tables don’t break out bicycling, NAHB tabulated the 2000 Census and single-year ACS public use data files itself. Results show that, from 2000 to 2012, the U.S. added 12.7 million workers, and by far the largest change in commuting was 10.4 million more Americans driving themselves to work, alone in a vehicle. Next largest was a nearly 2 million increase in Americans working at home—while car pooling actually declined by 1.9 million. Other changes, including changes in bicycling and walking, were considerably smaller.

commuting 2000

Although the 2000 Census and ACS use the same commuting question (How did you usually get to work last week?), the ACS collects data continually during the year, which would make a difference if commuting behavior is at all seasonal. The next chart shows changes since 2005, when consistent ACS data first become available. The changes tend to be smaller over the shorter time frame, but the relative sizes of the bars are similar, except for walking to work. Because the 2005 ACS showed fewer walkers than the 2000 Census (a case where data collection differences could be a factor), the increase in walking is greater in the second chart. The charts also show most of the increase in bicycling occurring after 2005.

commuting 2005

On a percentage basis, roughly three-fourths of all workers drive themselves to work alone in a vehicle, and the next chart looks at how this predominant share has changed over time. Although the share of workers driving alone was lower in 2012 than in 2005, there was something of a spike in 2005—so the driving-alone share was actually higher in 2012 than in 2006-2009. After 2010 the share edges downward slowly, while still remaining above the 2006-2009 range.

Drive Alone

In summary, since 2000 the U.S. has added over 10 million workers driving themselves to work each day, alone in the vehicle, which remains the dominant means of commuting. The changes in numbers of bicyclers and walkers over that time, while positive, are small in comparison. Any success in keeping cars off the road during rush hour has been largely due to letting electrons and photons do the commuting while people work from home. The ongoing decline in car pooling, meanwhile, has been a largely untold story.

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1 reply

  1. And in the Denver/Boulder area we’re building a bike path down the middle of the highway (US 36)! Sigh. And no, I will not be riding my bike on the highway – you couldn’t pay me enough!

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