NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Higher Gas Prices Don't Deter Solo Commuting

October 20, 2011

Federal and state governments have placed a great deal of emphasis on improvements in infrastructure, often highlighting projects involving mass transit that purportedly would alleviate traffic congestion, reduce emissions and cut commute time.  However, despite higher prices and huge media hype over shifts to public transit, the big surprise out of the 2010 American Community Survey has been the continued growth over the last decade of driving alone to work, says Wendell Cox, principal of the Wendell Cox Consultancy and an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

  • Out of the 8.7 million additional jobs created between 2000 and 2010, 7.8 million of those new workers are reaching work by driving alone.
  • Driving alone to work now accounts for 76.5 percent of the nation's workers, up from 75.6 percent in 2000, and constitutes the highest this figure has ever been since it was first measured in 1960.
  • While the 2010 survey shows a slight reduction in terms of overall car usage (87.9 percent of workers in 2000 to 86.2 in 2010), this reduction is due largely to a drop in carpooling from 12.2 percent to 9.7 percent.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the increase in driving alone and the decrease in carpooling is that they occurred in tandem with a decadal increase in real gas prices of 46 percent.  The increase in the cost of commuting caused many to believe that American workers on the whole would choose alternative means of transportation, yet the empirical evidence does not support this assertion. 

Furthermore, transit systems saw only a meager gain in overall usage from 4.6 percent in 2000 to 4.9 percent in 2010, despite the enormous prominence that transit infrastructure improvement is given in the media.

A number of factors have come together to limit potential increases in mass commuting.

  • Less than 10 percent of the jobs in major metropolitan areas can be reached within 45 minutes using transit, compared with a 21-minute median commute time for lone drivers.
  • Working at home increased from 3.3 percent of the workforce in 2000 to 4.3 percent in 2010, thereby reducing the total number of commuters.
  • Despite the fact that light rail has been the dominant form of rail transit expansion, it accounted for only 2 percent of the additional volume in transit commuting.

Source: Wendell Cox, "Surprise: Higher Gas Prices, Data Show More Solo Auto Commuting," New Geography, October 17, 2011.

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