The Slowly Changing U.S. Commute

By Nikos Tsafos

For all the talk about a revolution in mobility, the data on commuting show that car is still king. In 2017, commuting to and from work accounted for about a quarter of total vehicle trips, and about 30 percent of vehicle-miles traveled—so commuting is not the entire story, but it is a big one. The U.S. Census Bureau first collected data on commuting in 1960; looking at this long-term picture reveals a few clear trends.

First, it was only by 1980 that car travel reached its current position, accounting for about 84 percent of all commuting trips. Car travel was dominant in 1960, but not overwhelmingly so. More people walked to work or used public transport, but these modes have declined over time. Relative to 1960, the share of people commuting through public transportation in 2017 was down 59 percent; those who are commuting on foot down 72 percent. Most of that shift happened from 1960 to 1990, with far less change thereafter.

Second, carpooling is down (carpooling does not include ride-hailing such as Uber and Lyft). In 1980, the first year with data, about a quarter of the commuting trips on car include more than one person. By 2017, that number has fallen to just 10 percent. One likely culprit is the shifting composition of U.S. households. In 1960, 13 percent of households contained only one person. By 2017, that number was 28 percent—by far the most significant increase in the data. Meanwhile, households with four people or more have declined from over 40 percent in 1960 to just 22 percent in 2017. It is harder to carpool when you do not live with many other people.

Finally, there is limited change recently. Relative to earlier decades, the change in overall commuting patterns is minor from 2010 to 2017 (even accounting for the shorter interval). Ride-hailing is not visible in the data either due to scale or, more likely, because these trips are not necessarily about getting to and from work. The main shift is an increase in the share of people who work from home—and people at home consume energy there, and perhaps use a second car to run errands during the day. The share of people carpooling has fallen, although we cannot tell if the people who used to carpool are the same people now working from home. But overall, compared to the 1960s and 1970s, the 2010s have been a slow decade for changes in commuting.