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June 02
Commuting Patterns Across Counties

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Understanding commuting patterns — or the journey from home to work — is important for counties in planning transportation projects and economic development efforts.  The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data from 2008 – 2012, shows variation in the ways workers travel to work in counties across the country.

Although the automobile was still the dominant mode of transport for commuters nationwide, there is variation in the numbers of people commuting to work by automobile across regions of the U.S. and across small, medium and large size counties.  Compared to other modes of transport including public transportation, walking, biking, taxicab or motorcycle — driving to work in an automobile has the largest share of workers nationwide, with 86 percent of workers in this category.  However, there is variation in the share of workers that drive to work across regions of the U.S.  In the northeast only 74 percent of workers drive to work, while in the South slightly over 90 percent of workers drive an automobile to work.  In examining the data at the county level, large counties—those with a population over 500,000—have a smaller share of workers that drive to work, at 82 percent.  Both medium-sized and small counties have a share of 91 percent of commuters that drive to work.

While most workers that drive to work drive alone, carpooling makes up a significant share of commutes by automobile, at 12 percent.  The region of the U.S. with the highest percentage of carpoolers is the West at 13 percent, and lowest is the Midwest with only 10 percent of automobile commuters in carpool.  The share of carpoolers out of total workers who drive to work is similar across small, medium and large counties, but the ten counties with the highest percentage of drivers that carpool are all small counties.  For example, in Quitman County, Ga. over 28 percent of all commuters who drive to work do so in a carpool.

There is significant variation across counties in the share of workers commuting using public transportation.  Nationwide the percent of workers commuting by public transit is 5 percent.  Large counties have 10 percent of workers commuting by public transportation, while medium-sized counties have only 1.4 percent and small counties have even fewer—less than 1 percent.  This result is not surprising given that larger counties tend to be more urbanized and may have larger transit systems, compared to most medium and small sized counties.  The only county with more than half of its workers commuting by public transit is New York City, with 56 percent of workers getting to work using public transportation.  On the other hand, in 18 percent of all counties, there are no workers that travel to work using public transportation.   Most of these counties with no public transportation commutes are located in the South or Midwest regions of the U.S.

Non-motorized transport, which includes bicycling and walking, makes up a small share of all commutes, but this share has been growing over time.  The Census Bureau recently released an American Community Survey report that examined trends in bicycling and walking commutes over the U.S.  The report found that the share of commuters nationwide that bike to work is only 0.6 percent and walking is 2.8 percent.  While these percentages are small, the study found that the number of commutes by bicycle increased from 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000 in 2008 - 2012.  The Western region of the U.S. has the highest share of workers commuting by bicycle; only thirteen counties have over 5 percent of workers commuting via bicycle, but of these counties, nine are in the West.  Gunnison County, a small county in western Colorado, has a large share of bicycle commuters, at 11 percent.

These local commuting statistics paint a picture of the commuting patterns in counties across the country, with effects on transportation planning and economic development.  While driving alone is still the dominant mode of transport to work, carpooling has a significant share of commutes in many counties.  Public transportation has a relatively small share of commutes nationwide, but varies greatly across counties, with large urban counties having a far higher share of commutes via public transit.  For more information about commuting statistics, please visit www.census.gov/acs/www/.

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