Way Too Many People Without Cars Still Drive To Work

The car-free commute is still a reach in most cities, regardless of whether commuters are taking their own or someone else’s.

Way Too Many People Without Cars Still Drive To Work
[Top photo: Flickr user Poeloq]

Across the country, rates of car commuting are dropping while bike and public transportation become more popular. Long live the car-free city, right? Not exactly.


As the Brookings Institution notes in a recent blog post, the 6.3 million U.S. workers who don’t own a car are, in many cases, nonetheless still reliant on vehicles to get to work. Over 20% of these workers still drive a car to their jobs (by borrowing a car from others), and 12% commute in a carpool. The rate of zero-vehicle drivers using a car to get to work actually rose between 2007 and 2013, bucking the overall trend of an overall decline in car use.

In places with decent public transit, like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, people without cars still don’t drive that much, for obvious reasons. But in other metro areas, like Provo, Utah, and Birmingham, Alabama, over 70% of zero-vehicle workers drive to their jobs.

Here’s a map view of driving rates across the country, courtesy of Brookings:

It’s not that these car-less commuters are lazy for neglecting to take public transportation or biking to work; even in metro areas with usable public transit, driving is often by far the fastest way to get to work. Public transit is often inefficient even for people living on transit lines. MIT’s You Are Here project shows the fastest commutes from different parts of cities across the country, and driving almost always wins out.

This is the map for my former neighborhood in San Francisco, which is serviced by a number of nearby transit lines. As you can see, driving is still by far the fastest way to get around most of the city:

If anything, this signals that transportation planners need to be strategic about extending the reach of public transportation to places that lack decent options today. It wouldn’t hurt if city planners and local governments could do more to keep people living close to where they work, either.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.