There’s good news, I think, in the new Census numbers that are just out on commuting habits in the fifty largest US cities. Here’s how the two in the Northwest stack up.
|Work at home….||5.3||2nd||5.1||3rd|
[Figures show the percent of commuters who use each mode of transportation, and national rank.]
I always like a head to head comparison. But what’s really interesting is not the contrast between the two cities but their similarities. Both cities are in the nation’s top 10 (or nearly so) in four of the five categories, and they’re often neck and neck in the rankings. (Over at Slog, Josh Feit has more detailed listings.)
Neither city is near the top for carpooling, but that’s primarily because carpooling tends to be more popular in sprawling cities where cars are the only practical option. So places like Phoenix, Fort Worth, and Charlotte tend to be in the lead for carpooling.
I think the upshot here is that both Northwest cities have done an impressive amount to foster transportation choices. Relative to big eastern and midwestern cities, both Seattle and Portland are young. And partly as a result, they’re less dense and didn’t benefit from industrial-era investments in subways or elevated trains.
Even so, the Northwest’s big cities are among the best for providing real alternatives to solo driving. (Notably, Seattle is the only city in the top 10 for transit use that doesn’t have fixed rail or rapid transit.) Seattle’s and Portland’s successes show that it really is possible for cities to provide meaningful transportation choices—and thereby to wean themselves from petroleum and congestion.
Note that these rankings are for commuters working within a particular city’s boundaries, not in the overall metropolitan area. (i.e. the Seattle numbers don’t include Bellevue workers, the Portland numbers don’t include Beaverton workers, etc.)So while I agree that the Northwest’s big city areas have done well, I’m not sure these are the numbers that show our success. If Seattle annexed, say, SeaTac, Burien and Renton, our ranking here would probably go down quite a bit even if there were no change in the regional commute pattern.
What’s interesting to me is that I have an impression that these in-city bike commute shares have grown a bunch. I’ll try to check into that for the Bicycle Neglect series.
Eric de Place
Steve, thanks for pointing that out. But I’m unclear what the result of a hypothetical annexation would be in the rankings. If any big US city annexed its nearby ‘burbs, it’s ranking would almost certainly decline. So that’s no particular knock on Pdx or Seattle—I imagine it’d be true anywhere.Having said that, however, I think the surprising strength of Pdx and Sea in the rankings shows that it is indeed possible for younger cities—those places not built and organized before the car became dominant—to create alternatives to solo-driving. So Bellevue and Beaverton can do it too, if they have the will.Alan, these figures are reported to be for 2005 (American Community Survey). A close look at the methodology is probably in order—I think the question may be posed as “how do you most often get to work?” So twice a week bike commuters (like me) actually don’t get counted. But don’t quote me on that!
Planners take the ACS with a grain of salt & try not to base policy on it.
Eric de Place
Why is that, Dan? I’ve seen coverage of the commuting results in a number of different locations. So what’s the big flaw?If I’m not mistaken, over the last few years hasn’t the ACS has been ramping up in rigor and geographic coverage?
There was a long article, Eric, in JAPA last year detailing the planning community’s concerns about the ACS; a shorter on-line version is here. Nutshell piece here (link to original LAT article dead) and here, original article behind a sub wall that I can send you if you wish. Bottom line: it’s not the best idea to base policy on this work-in-progress. I, personally, would wait a couple more years til the bugs are worked out.
I was particularly interested in this article’s comment that, “Notably, Seattle is the only city in the top 10 for transit use that doesn’t have fixed rail or rapid transit.” Unlike bus transit which covers a widely dispersed geographical area and can change routes over time, Portland’s light rail is a fixed linear system which has an immobile geographical impact. Light rail is predicated on its ability to create proximate land use demand in order to concentrate ridership, as opposed to bus routes which respond to changing land use and demographic patterns as people and markets change. With these differences in mind, it makes me question whether Seattle’s more responsive bus transit system is in fact doing a better job at meeting public need, as evidenced by the significantly higher ridership. It also seems logical that with its higher absorption of transportation resources, particularly in Portland where car lengths are limited to just 200 feet, light rail effectively restricts expansion of the bus network and therefore reduces transit’s overall capacity to serve the public. Conversely, Seattle’s lack of light rail may have had the opposite impact of allowing enhanced resource allocation into bus expansion, thus developing a transit system that is more responsive to public need. Don’t know if that’s true or not, but seems food for thought given the evidence of lower transit ridership in Portland.
more likely seattle’s higher transit usage is a result of its being considerably denser than portland.