How where we live affects how we get to work

A new report from The Atlantic magazine looks in detail at how citizens from various cities get to work, and whether where they live makes a difference in that decision.

Here are the key highlights from The Atlantic story:

Todd Gabe, an economics professor at the University of Maine and an MPI Affiliate, ran a series of statistical analyses to gauge the determinants of public transportation use and walking and biking in US metropolitan areas. He looked at factors like population density, rainfall, temperature levels, housing development, and the kinds of work people do. The upshot is this:

  • Population density increases public transportation usage, but has no effect on walking and biking.
  • Weather and climate do play a role, but not necessarily what you’d think. People are more likely to drive to work where the weather is warm and/or wet. Public transit use as well as walking and biking are more common in drier climes but also in places with colder January temperatures.
  • The longer the commute (based on the average commute time), the more likely people are to use public transit, but–not surprisingly–the less likely they are to bike or walk.
  • The type of housing development matters. The share of housing units built between 2000 and 2006 is negatively associated with the percentage of people who bike, walk or take public transit to work. Rapidly growing cities of sprawl – those which built the most houses during the height of the bubble – remain much more car-dependent than other places.
  • Finally, and perhaps most interesting, the way we get to work is associated with the kinds of work we do. The share of workers in the creative class–scientists, engineers, techies, innovators, and researchers, as well as artists, designers, writers, musicians and professionals in healthcare, business and finance, the legal sector, and education–is positively associated with the percentages of people who take public transit or walk or bike to work. In fact this creative class variable was the largest of all.

A slideshow on the site shows the 15 metro areas where commuters use their cars the least, based on the most current data from the American Community Survey.  Chicago was 10th on that list, with total non-car use at just over 20%, and 11.5% of commuters using public transportation. “The Greater New York metro (where more than four in 10 workers get to work without their cars) is first, San Francisco is fourth, Boston sixth, Greater D.C. seventh.” Champaign-Urbana was eighth on the list.


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  • Still some ambiguities in this.

    It is not sure what they define as "commuters." It doesn't seem necessarily to be "employees," as college towns are high on the list, and I assume that most students in college towns can't afford or don't have cars. At least it explains why Champaign has articulated buses.

    There doesn't seem to be any distinction based on mode. One would figure, with the comment about people with the longer trip use commuter rail, at least in NYC, Chicago, and Boston. Some light rail shows up, which has even been cited in Car & Driver as being more appropriate in sprawl metropolitan areas.

    It doesn't mention things that cancel out. For instance, it doesn't explain why walking and biking are not affected by population density, especially when the main article says people in housing built between 2000 and 2006 are less likely to do so. You would think that people in the city would walk and bike more, but maybe they are getting run over more.

    Being by percentage skews things. Sure, Ithaca NY may be #2, but besides being a college town, it is small, and impossible to walk or bike because of all the hills and ravines.

    Finally, one has to distinguish the destination. Compare parking costs in Manhattan or the Loop to working in Schaumburg. Are telecommuters even counted?

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