Many metro areas stuck in neutral according to new Census commute data

While 2.9 million more commuters hit the roads, rails, and bike paths in 2014, most areas remain stuck in neutral when it comes to the actual transportation modes and facilities used. That’s the story, at least, when comparing the newest Census data in the 2014 American Community Survey to 2013.  

Instead, one of the more interesting takeaways from the data does not concern transportation modes at all. As improved broadband adoption and flexible work schedules become the norm in many markets, the share of people working from home now sits at 4.5 percent, gaining 314,000 workers over the past year alone. This includes 15 metro areas that have seen a statistically significant increase, including tech centers like Raleigh, San Diego, and San Jose. And these numbers likely undercount the individuals who commute some days and telecommute on others.

The share of people working from home also continues to eclipse the 3.5 percent of commuters who took a taxi, walked, or biked to work, which has remained fairly steady. In total, fewer than 10 metro areas have shown a significant increase or decrease in any of these modes since 2013, and none have observed a change greater than 1.5 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the share of commuters driving to work (85.7 percent) has changed little from the previous year and falls in line with the relatively flat trends in vehicle miles traveled. While most of these workers continue to drive alone, those choosing to carpool are hitting new lows—down to 9.2 percent of all commuters and now at roughly half the levels seen three decades ago. At the local level, only 15 of the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas showed any statistically significant change in their driving rates over the last year. Most declined, however, including traditional car-centric markets like Louisville, Charleston, and Knoxville.   

In addition, the share of commuters taking public transportation has barely budged from 5.2 percent between 2013 and 2014. Although the United States is seeing a record number of passenger trips across a variety of transit systems, the share of workers commuting by public transportation is only steadily inching up in most markets. Since 2013, just eight of the 100 largest metro areas have seen a significant increase, led by 1.3 percentage point gains in Honolulu and Las Vegas due in large part to growing bus commuters.          

Ultimately, these year-to-year changes, including a notable rise in workers from home, only tell part of the commuting story. Long-term changes—driven by new transportation preferences among millennials, new technologies like car sharing, and multigenerational investments like new transit infrastructure—take time to unfold. As the country looks to improve physical access to opportunity, we’ll keep digging into the newest Census numbers to see whether they reflect the continuation of long-term trends or new ones just starting to emerge.