Americans shift to alternative transportation, but not for the trip to work.

The young and old drive less and less. Baby boomers downsize and move back to the city. Transit is chic. These are the popular narratives that captivate urbanists, minimalists, and transportation planners, and make us glow with optimism. Yet driving has been on the rise since 2013, after a dip and plateau attributed to the Recession. The commute to work, the trip type that transportation planners understand best, is particularly stubborn in its car dependence. It has defied broader cultural shifts toward alternative modes and city living.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ recently released 2017 Pocket Guide to Transportation summarizes trends in passenger and freight transportation in America. The data sources are the most comprehensive and up-to-date available from a swath of federal agencies, as well as the National Household Travel Survey.

The Pocket Guide shows that American travel behavior has generally followed the multi-modal and shorter/fewer trip trajectory that we’re rooting for. Americans are taking fewer trips that are shorter in terms of time and distance. This is especially true for trips taken in private cars. From 1995 to 2009, daily vehicle trips decreased from 3.6 to 3.0 and daily vehicle miles traveled decreased from 32.1 to 29.0. Among all trip types, the mode share of private vehicles decreased from 89.3 to 83.4%.

Better yet, the mode share of walking almost doubled: from 5.5 to 10.4% of all trips. This could reflect an increase in dense, mixed-use developments in city centers and suburban areas, allowing more Americans to access amenities on foot. Other mode shares such as biking and rail transit remained constant, while bus transit increased slightly from 3.0 to 3.3%.

These trends in the guide suggest that Americans’ general travel behavior is becoming more multi-modal and shorter. But this is not necessarily true for their commutes. From 1995 to 2009, the average commute length increased from 11.6 to 11.8 miles, and the average commute time increased from 20.7 to 23.9 minutes. This increase in drive-alone commutes is worrisome for many reasons. The average American driver wastes over 40 hours per year sitting in peak-hour traffic jams. That’s an entire work week, and over $900 in lost value.

There is a now a mountain of research that proves that commuting by driving alone is the single biggest drain on happiness and wellbeing in America today. The findings are all over academia and also mainstream media like the NY Times and Slate Magazine.

The health burdens are physical. As commuting distance increases, physical activity levels decline and health measures like BMI, blood pressure, waist circumference, and cholesterol levels get worse. Time spent driving alone is linked with increased risk of cardiovascular death.

The health burdens are also psychological. Long driving commutes are linked to greater risk of depression, anxiety, social isolation, as well as exhaustion, stress, lack of sleep, and days missed from work. They are also linked with fewer social connections, less time spent exercising, with family, and cooking meals. People dread a longer commute even more than a longer work day.

The benefits of these long commutes, such as having time to yourself to listen to music, and having a bigger house in a quieter neighborhood, are not enough to make up for the drawbacks when it comes to measuring happiness.  Annie Lowrey of Slate reasons that “we forget the additional time in the car is a constant, persistent, daily burden – even if a relatively invisible one.”

Transportation Demand Management (TDM) is a strategy to elevate alternative transportation options in commuters’ minds. It differs from most other areas of the transportation sector in its focus on human behavior rather than infrastructure or service investment. TDM focuses on commuters, employers, and property owners to encourage alternative transportation through carpool programs, subsidized transit passes, pre-tax commuter benefits, parking cash-out programs, bundles of carshare and bikeshare memberships, and more. TDM programs are so challenging and so exciting because they work toward changing commuters’ habits and the culture around driving alone.

There is likely a Transportation Management Association in your region that applies TDM strategies to help commuters find alternative ways to get to work. If you live in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area, check out Go Buffalo Niagara.


About katosulliv

Transportation, mapping, and cities enthusiast.
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