King of the Commute

Despite years of spending on public transit, Americans are driving more than ever. Some analysts say policymakers are mistaken to persist in emphasizing rail construction, resisting road construction and urging commuters to carpool or take mass transit."Under the page-one headline "Urban Mecca," The Wall Street Journal recently hailed the planning and mass transit successes of Portland, Ore.

That city has pulled out all the stops to maintain its public transit system, limit urban sprawl and discourage commuters from driving downtown. "Money earmarked for a new freeway was funneled instead into a light-rail system and improved bus service," The Journal reported, adding that Portland planners aim to get rid of 20 percent of the city's parking spaces and reduce car traffic by the same proportion in the next few decades.

But Census Bureau numbers tell a different story. While Portland may indeed be a planning success story, relatively speaking, transportation trends there show that even the most forward-thinking urban engineering has its limits. From 1980 to 1990, more and more Portlanders drove to work alone. Fewer traveled in car pools, used public transit, or walked to their workplaces.

And Portland is hardly alone. Across the nation - despite years of spending on public transit systems, hand-wringing by planners, exhortations by environmental activists and sometimes heavy-handed regulatory efforts - Americans have not left their cars at home. Quite the contrary. The single-occupant vehicle emphatically remains king of the commute.

The U.S. labor force grew by about 19 million workers during the 1980s. And the number of people driving to work alone grew still more, rising by 22 million. In 1980, 64 percent of commuters drove to work solo. By 1990, the figure had risen to 73 percent.

During the same period, the percentage of carpoolers declined from just under 20 percent to just over 13 percent. The proportion of commuters using public transit dropped from 6.4 percent to 5.3 percent. And the percentage of walkers dropped from 5.6 percent to 3.9 percent. Most of the rest worked at home.

"So often when I talk to reporters or other people, they're astonished. They think transit is prospering, that people are getting out of their cars," said Alan E. Pisarski, a prominent transportation consultant who specializes in dissecting the anatomy of American commuting. "But if you look at some of these statistics, these are not lumpy data at all. It's a continuous straight line showing the continuous rise in auto use and the continuing declines of all alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles - walking, transit, carpooling, any option you can think of. The only thing that has shown any growth at all [as an alternative to commuting] is working at home."

Given these patterns, some analysts say that policymakers are fighting an uphill battle when they persist in emphasizing subway and rail construction and urging commuters to carpool or take mass transit. With a landmark 1991 transportation bill, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), up for reauthorization in 1997, highway advocates, transit boosters and environmental activists have already begun lobbying to influence the shape of things to come. And as ISTEA and other measures that determine financing levels and recipients are discussed on Capitol Hill, lawmakers would do well to keep in mind that when it comes to cars, recalcitrant human nature has a way of wreaking havoc with planners' most high-minded intentions.

Already, the anti-car, pro-transit tide may be turning. In action last month that attracted far less attention than the recent repeal of federal speed limits, the House and Senate voted to do away with a hugely unpopular provision of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that required employers in high-pollution areas to make elaborate efforts to get their workers into car pools and mass transit. The ill-fated federal mandate was modeled after a California law, just as unpopular, which was repealed in October.


Transit advocates remain convinced that better information will help them win in the coming financing wars.

In the Dec. 18 newsletter of the American Public Transit Association, Kip Banks, the group's director of government relations, wrote that "lawmakers' reactions to transit funding proposals will be based largely on what they think about transit and what they hear from constituents. And many still do not have a clear understanding of the benefits transit provides to their districts and the nation."

But skeptics say that, if anything, the benefits and success of transit have been vastly overrated. Motorists are making a perfectly rational choice when they drive to work, these transportation specialists observe.

"Fundamentally, you can't get people out of their cars, because cars are a superior way to move," said Anthony Downs, a Senior Fellow in the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Even when you take into account congestion, the automobile is from most people's view a vastly superior method of moving from A to B than other means of transportation."

This shouldn't come as surprise in a land where gasoline is cheap and there are more cars than licensed drivers; a land where, for that matter there are many more drivers than registered voters. Still, the sheer invincibility of the automobile is not always widely appreciated.

Above all, people like to drive to work because it is fast. In 1983, according to the National Personal Transportation Survey conducted periodically by the Transportation Department, mass transit travel times were twice as long as driving times. By 1990, the gap had widened still further. Despite shorter average trip lengths for transit commuters, their average travel time was 49.9 minutes, versus 19 minutes for drivers.

Not only is driving faster, Downs said, "it is more comfortable, it is more flexible in terms of your own timing, it's safer, it's more private and, if you get free parking, it may be cheaper."

Indeed, price is a key factor in driving behavior. The stock response from many environmental activists and planners to the apparent unstoppability of the automobile is that motorists would be likely to make different transportation decisions if policymakers gave them different incentives. Items on the anti-auto wish list range from steep gasoline taxes (to force motorists to confront the "true social costs" of driving) to land-use policies that discourage suburban sprawl to changes in the tax rules that allow employers to deduct the costs of free parking for their employees.

But Charles Lave, an Economics Professor at the University of California (Irvine) and a leading proponent of the "cars-are-here-to-stay" school of transportation economics, says the urge to drive isn't so easy to squelch. From 1965 to 1987, he observes, there was 3 to 1 difference between the United States and Western Europe in the growth rate of per capita auto ownership. And the direction of the disparity would come as a surprise to many.

"You might be inclined to credit that impressive difference to Europe's pro-transit, anti-auto, anti-suburbanization policies," he wrote in an August 1992 Washington Post op-ed piece, "except for one thing: The place on the high end of that 3 to 1 ratio is Western Europe. The slow growth curve is in the United States." Notwithstanding Europe's array of anti-car policies, Lave argues, as Europeans' incomes increased, they began buying automobiles as fast as they could.In the view of Lave and like-minded analysts, the intractability of driving behavior means that technological fixes are the most realistic means of mitigating car-related problems such as pollution.

"We have failed at shaming people into driving less, but we have produced better cars," Lave wrote in a March 1993 Los Angeles Times article. "Today's cars use only half as much energy as was normal 20 years ago. Today's cars emit only 1/20th as much gunk as cars did 30 years ago. More engineering advances are the strategy to pursue. We know how to improve cars. We don't know how to improve people."


Trying to improve people has been exactly the problem with many failed transportation policies, said Pisarski, who has analyzed travel trends for the federal Transportation Department, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the American Public Transit Association, among other clients.

"We use artful terms like 'demand management,' which basically says people are just going to have to learn to do things differently," he said, "when I think a better understanding of the society and behavior and the demography of the situation says all demographics are going in the wrong direction for what you're trying to accomplish.

"The commuter is a resilient beast and a very creative one," he continued. "I just have a lot of trouble with a public policy notion that the American public is misguided and confused and we smart people have to straighten them out and make them do the right thing."

Pisarski and other analysts say that understanding the tremendous growth of auto use in the United States isn't so difficult if one understands the extent to which much of the convenient wisdom about commuting is wrong.

Despite a substantial increase in the average distance of work trips (which from 1983 to 1990 grew from 9.9 miles to 10.7 miles) for instance, on average it didn't take commuters any longer than before to get to work. (The Census found average commute times rose by about 40 seconds from 1980 to 1990, from 21.7 minutes to 22.4 minutes to 19.7 minutes.)

The reason: the same sprawl that is so often cited as a factor behind supposedly more time-consuming commutes.

"The shifting of residences and workplaces to the metropolitan fringes, where highway speeds are faster, is responsible for easing this commuting burden," explains a 1994 Federal Highway Administration summary of a conference on travel trends. "Average speeds in many cases have actually improved, allowing people to exercise their choice to live further away from the center with little or no time penalty." From 1983 to 1990, mean speeds during the morning commute for single-occupancy vehicles became faster both inside and outside central cities.

Even in Southern California, there is apparently far less to the region's reputedly nightmarish commuting conditions than meets the eye. University of Southern California Professors Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson observed in a 1993 paper that 1990 traffic speeds in metropolitan Los Angeles ranked "among the highest in the country," despite a population increase of more than three million people during the 1980s. Average commuting times, they reported, "have remained surprisingly constant over the past 20 years, at around 24-25 minutes."

Melvin M. Webber, a University of California (Berkeley) transportation expert, says that such stable commuting times are no accident. "Congestion has always been a self-solving problem," he told a recent gathering of the California Alliance for Advanced Transportation Systems. "Whenever the costs of congestion are perceived as excessive, commuters move - they change jobs or change houses to places where they judge congestion levels to be tolerable. That's always been so. Indeed, that's where the suburbs came from, as families, factories and offices left the overcrowding of the old central cities for the uncrowded edge of town."


Public transit planning often hasn't kept up with these changing living and working patterns. While there has been some improvement in suburb-to-suburb bus service, the fixed-rail systems that have become popular in recent decades can't simply be rerouted when residences and jobs start moving in ways that planners hadn't anticipated.

Complaining that "local planners are out of touch" with commuting trends, Gordon and Richardson have assailed Los Angeles County's focus on creating expensive rail services. Many riders on Los Angeles's new Blue Line light-rail route, Gordon and Richardson observe, were previously bus riders; just 21 percent were formerly behind the wheels of single-occupant vehicles. Thus, they write, the highly subsidized Blue Line - a 22-mile light-rail line that connects Long Beach with Los Angeles - has so far cost taxpayers $37,489 annually for each car removed from the highways.

Steep subsidy levels have been a persistent problem for transit systems that were once practically self-sufficient. "In the 1960s, farebox revenues still provided about 90 percent of the income of transit systems. Today, it's around 35 percent," said Robert W. Poole Jr., president of the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank that has published numerous studies - on transportation issues. An infusion of federal dollars into mass transit - first for capital costs, then for operating subsidies-"has been singularly ineffective in changing people's travel behavior," he said.

A reason federal operating subsidies didn't do much to improve transit service and hence attract more riders, according to Poole, is that too much money has gone to salaries rather than to better buses and trains. Unionized transit workers, he said, "were able to extract monopoly rents" by threatening to shut down the only transit systems available if their salary demands weren't met. "So more money, instead of leading to better service, has often led to higher costs," he said, noting that municipal bus drivers typically earn far higher wages than do drivers for private fleets.


Still another factor in the rise of automobile use in the United States is women's growing labor force participation and their increasing presence behind the steering wheel. Although fewer women than men hold driver's licenses, the increase in driving among women in recent years has been huge. Twice as many women have licenses today as in 1965. From 1983 to 1990, the proportion of women with licenses grew from 77 percent to 85 percent, a period during which the percentage of men with licenses - about 92 percent - remained stable.

Because women who drive take many more trips, and longer trips, than those who don't, Pisarski wrote in a 1992 report for the Federal Highway Administration, "for every 1 per- cent shift from nondriver to driver in the female population, total travel jumps almost 10 billion miles per year" and transit use declines considerably.

Women are far more likely than men to make multiple stops to and from work - so-called trip chaining, which might include dropping off children at day care facilities, picking up groceries and so forth. These kinds of responsibilities are extremely difficult to fulfill using public transit or car pools. Thus, some transportation experts worry that heavy-handed efforts to wean drivers from their cars will have an unintended adverse effect on women. A local transportation plan that required carpooling "would create a burden for many working women," concluded a set of participants in the July 1994 Federal Highway Administration conference on travel patterns. "It might also increase cold-start trips as additional trips are made to compensate for trips lost because of denied trip chaining. It is necessary to understand the true effect of trip reduction strategies to protect gender equity."


Although high rates of automobile use seem unlikely to taper off any time soon, many economists have argued for years that the only way to test how much people really value driving-in particular how much they value rush hour driving - is to make them pay more directly for the time they spend on the road. The concept appeals to free-marketers and environmental activists alike.

Hank Dittmar, who heads the pro-transit Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, says the disappointing experience to date of the new Dulles Greenway in Virginia - a private toll road that has seen far less usage than was expected in its first few months of operation-could mean that drivers simply aren't willing to pay the real costs of driving. "It shows that if you do increase the variable costs of driving, you might see some dramatic reduction in driving," he said.

But many transportation economists have higher hopes for the new private toll road that recently opened in Los Angeles. Unlike the Dulles Greenway, the Los Angeles Freeway is using "congestion pricing," in which drivers pay higher tolls for the privilege of using the freeway during rush hours.

Still, advocates see a long road ahead. "There doesn't seem to be serious support among average members of the public for road pricing," Poole said. "That's still the big challenge for transportation people, to try to convince the public that it makes sense for roads, just as it makes sense for telephones, movie theaters and happy hours."

For new road-pricing mechanisms to succeed, many transportation specialists maintain, they should be tried out on new facilities rather than on existing roads. Motorists are often furious when the rules governing the use of existing highway capacity are changed - when an unrestricted freeway lane is converted for use only by "high-occupancy vehicles," for instance. But they are likely to feel less aggrieved when they are told that charging for use of new roads is the only way such additional traffic capacity is likely to be added.

Whether private toll roads or other road-pricing mechanisms can overcome political opposition to become fixtures on the American transportation scene remains to be seen. If the public tires enough of congestion, voters may simply cry out for more taxpayer-financed asphalt. As for public transit, perhaps policymakers can be persuaded to spend money on innovations such as flexible suburban minibuses rather than on new rail lines. One thing is certain, however: Cars aren't likely to be run off the road any time soon.