How We Commute: Moving Into The "State Of Metropolitan America"

Earlier this month, The Brookings Institution disseminated State Of Metropolitan America: On The Front Lines Of Demographic Transformation. This landmark 172-page report details the demographic and social trends shaping the nation’s essential economic and societal units—its large metropolitan areas—and discusses what they imply for public policies to secure prosperity for these places and their populations. (The 4-page Executive Summary provides an excellent overview).

The report’s chapters discuss population and migration, race and ethnicity, immigration, age, households and families, educational attainment, work, income and poverty, and commuting.

The Commuting chapter holds some findings of particular interest. Commuting flows are the “blood” of regional economies, showing the connections among businesses and the labor market, and tying together the places that define our metropolitan areas. This subject area details how we get to work, how long it takes us, and how patterns in these indicators have changed over time, pointing to significant differences across communities in how workers undertake these daily trips.

Reversing a pair of 40-year trends, the share of Americans that commute by transit increased from 2000 to 2008, while the share of those that drive alone to work fell slightly. However, driving alone remains the method by which fully three-quarters of Americans get to work. Transit usage increased among whites and Asians, while carpooling dropped significantly among blacks and Hispanics.

Regional differences distinguish metropolitan commuting modes. Commuters drive alone to work in high proportions in mid-sized Midwestern and Southern metro areas like Youngstown and Baton Rouge. Carpooling is most popular in Southern and Western metro areas, including many with large Hispanic populations like Bakersfield and McAllen. Public transit commuting is concentrated in the nine large metro areas that have rates above the metropolitan average (7 percent), including New York, San Francisco, Washington, and Boston.

Metropolitan areas with large transit systems were not alone in seeing increased transit usage during the 2000s. While metropolitan areas such as New York and Washington with extensive rail networks saw the largest increases in the share of commuters using transit, metro areas that opened light rail lines this decade such as Charlotte and Phoenix saw upticks as well. Others that rely almost exclusively on buses for transit commuting (Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, and Seattle) also experienced notable increases.

In only 19 of the 100 largest metro areas did more than a quarter of the workforce in 2008 commute by a mode other than driving alone. In only two of those metropolitan areas (New York and San Francisco) did more than a quarter of workers commute other than by car. Carpooling is an important alternative to driving alone in both mid-sized (Honolulu, Stockton) and large (Los Angeles, Seattle) metro areas.

Residents of cities and older, high-density suburbs are more likely to use transit than commuters elsewhere in metro areas. Suburban transit users have higher incomes than both city transit users and suburbanites overall. Rates of working at home are roughly the same across cities and all types of suburbs, though more common among higher educated workers.

For some great infographics, check out this online interactive map section that accompanies the report.

Here, you can click on “commuting” in the subject drop down menu to view visual renderings of “workers commuting by driving alone,” “travel time to work,” “commuting mode by household income,” etc. This section mashes up the data collected from the chapter subject areas outlined above to provide a wealth of visual information.

In addition to all the great information found in this report regarding commuting and how we can better plan for transit and transportation, it is also worth taking note of the seven new classifications of metropolitan areas that have emerged. Based on this demographic research, researchers and planners may be debating and studying the following new archetypes for years to come:

Next Frontier: metro areas that exceed national aver­ages on population growth, diversity and educa­tional attainment
New Heartland: metro areas that are also fast growing, highly educated locales, but have lower shares of Hispanic and Asian populations than the national average
Diverse Giant: metro areas that feature some of the largest in the country and post above-average educational attainment and diversity, but below-average population growth
Border Growth: metro areas that are mostly located in southern border states, and as such are marked by a significant and growing presence of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants
Mid-Sized Magnet: metro areas that have experienced high growth, but exhibit lower shares of Hispanic and Asian minorities, and lower levels of educational attainment
Skilled Anchors: slow-growing, less diverse metro areas that boast higher-than-average levels of educational attainment
Industrial Cores: slower-growing, less diverse, and less educated than national averages, and significantly older than the large metropolitan average

The primary policy message is that all levels of government need to understand these changes in order to more accurately prepare for the future. Given the broadening diversity of metropolitan areas, it is critical that communities within each region understand their unique challenges and opportunities and structure collaborative policy responses to meet these needs.

Image via Flickr.