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An interesting recent Richard Florida article in The Atlantic brings up a number of questions about how we get around, and how where we live makes a difference in our transportation choices. Some of his assertions are counter to commonly accepted explanations for commuting behaviors.

He begins by noting that America is a nation of drivers, in spite of the fact that driving is increasingly expensive (after housing, transportation is the biggest item in a typical family’s budget, accounting for an average of 20 percent) and stressful (being stuck in traffic ranks high on almost every list of the things that make us the most unhappy). Eighty-six percent of Americans commute to work by car and 76.1 percent drive to work alone, according to the most recent estimates from the American Community Survey.  Only five percent use public transit to get to work.

Convention wisdom says that density, weather, housing types, and occupations are the key factors in shaping commuting patterns, so Florida ran a series of statistical analyses to gauge the determinants of public transportation use and walking and biking in US metropolitan areas. His findings include:

  • 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, the more likely people are to use public transit, but 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 remain much more car-dependent than other places.
  • 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 health care, 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. This variable was the largest of all.
Many of these findings can be seen in real-world examples in our area. 82 percent of Manhattan workers get to their places of employment via public transit, bicycle, or on foot. But more than four in ten (43 percent) of all commuters in the Greater New York metro don’t use cars either. Less than three percent (2.9) of Americans walk to work, but more than five percent of New Yorkers do. Walking and biking to work are especially prevalent in compact college towns, including Princeton, where almost seven percent of the population bikes to work, much higher than the state or national average.
Florida concludes, “Reducing our dependence on the car would relieve many families of a pressing financial burden, reduce emissions and lessen our carbon footprint.  Changing where and how we live may help us get there faster. “
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