Slow Shift from Car Commuting Continues: What We Learned from the 2013 Census Data

Transit commuting increased while car commuting - especially in carpools - continued a slow decline.

The Census Bureau came out this morning with its 2013 one-year data from the American Community Survey (ACS), which gives us the best look we have (though not a complete one) at how Americans’ transportation habits change from year to year.

Here is a quick take on what the data tell us:

  • Winner: transit. The percentage of Americans who take transit to work increased to 5.17% in 2013, from 5.01% in 2012. The percentage of commuters using transit was the highest recorded since the ACS began in 2005. (In 2000, the percentage of Americans commuting by transit stood at only 4.7%.)
  • Loser: carpooling. Commuting by carpool continues its long, slow, sad decline. In 2013, 9.4% of Americans carpooled to work, compared with 9.7% the year before, 12.2% in 2000 and 19.7% (!) in 1980.
  • Car commuting continues to fall: The percentage of Americans getting to work by car (either solo or as part of a carpool) fell to 85.8% in 2013, down from 86% the year before. The decline has been more or less consistent since the mid-2000s, and the share of car commuters is well lower than the 87.9% who traveled to work by car in 2000.
  • Active modes are essentially unchanged: Last year saw a significant uptick in the number of Americans biking to work, while there has been a long-term trend toward working from home. In 2013, momentum on both fronts stalled: the share of Americans commuting by bike or on foot, as well as working from home, remained essentially unchanged from the year before.
  • Transit use increased among all age groups: While the focus of much of the recent discussion of changing transportation trends has been on the youngest Americans, 16 to 24 year-olds did not distinguish themselves from other age groups in terms of how their transportation behaviors changed in 2013. Transit commute mode share increased among all age groups, while 16 to 24 year-olds actually saw a slight increase in their car commute mode share, with car commuting dipping mainly among 25 to 44 year-olds.
  • More cars on road for commuting, but still below the peak: One of the more obscure ACS data points is the survey’s calculation of “aggregate vehicles used in commuting” – in other words, how many cars and trucks are typically on the road carrying people to and from work. In large part because of an increase in the total number of workers, the number of vehicles used in commuting increased by 1.5% in 2013. However, the number of cars used in commuting remains below the number in the peak year of 2008.

It is important to note that there is a lot that the American Community Survey data don’t tell us about how Americans are getting around. Commuting – which is the main focus of the ACS – accounts for only 16 percent of all person-trips and 28 percent of vehicle-miles traveled. The Census Bureau data notoriously undercount bicycle trips and still haven’t caught up to the increasingly multi-modal reality of many Americans.

The overall story from the 2013 data, though, seems to be that Americans are continuing an evolution from car-centered lifestyles to ones that employ a variety of transportation options. But change, while it continues, is occurring slowly in much of the country.

(The League of American Bicyclists is out with a quick but thorough take on changes in bike commuting, which you can find here. )


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.