Commuting Trends in NJ Show Tilt Toward Taking Public Transit

Most still drive alone to work, but younger residents are more likely to ride bikes, take trains or buses, or even walk – and 4 percent of us telecommute

A national public advocacy group is touting the end of the “driving boom” in the United States.

So far, though, New Jersey has seen only the slightest change in commuters’ habits.

Almost 72 percent of New Jerseyans drove alone to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates, which average data for 2011-13. That was just one-10th of a percent lower than in 2007. The number of workers driving alone actually increased by .7 percent, as the total number of workers rose by 35,000.

But more of those additional workers chose to take buses, trains and other public transportation to work, with the number of those workers using mass transit rising by 6 percent to nearly 11 percent.

Last month, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group declared that Federal Highway Administration had “very quietly acknowledged that the Driving Boom is over,” according to a press release it issued. It stated that the FHWA had cut driving forecast estimates by between 24 and 44 percent and that the average American drove 9 percent fewer miles between 2004 and 2014.

The forecast estimated an increase of just .75 percent in total miles driven between 2012 and 2042, with a population increase of some .7 percent leading to the amount of driving per person remaining essentially flat. During the last 30 years, the total number of vehicle miles traveled rose by nearly 2.1 percent a year, although that increase has been less than 1 percent a year since 2004, according to PIRG.

“The agency plays the vital role of guiding decisions for future infrastructure investment,” said Phineas Baxandall, a PIRG senior analyst. “By recognizing changing travel behavior and the preferences of a rising Millennial generation, America can avoid billions in unnecessary spending for additional highway capacity that shouldn’t be a priority.”

PIRG supports greater investment in road maintenance, and investment in other types of transportation rather than more spending on new or wider highways.

Preliminary FHWA data shows the total vehicle miles driven in New Jersey rose just under 1 percent from 2011 to 2013, to a total of nearly 73.8 billion miles

Evidence of the slowdown, or perhaps an eventual decline, in driving can be found in the commuting estimates for different age groups. The number of New Jerseyans ages 20-44 declined between 2007 and 2013, while the number in those age groups taking public transportation rose. Although the number of those ages 45-59 driving alone increased, the number taking mass transit rose even more. Proportionally, fewer workers ages 20-59 drove to work alone, and a greater percentage took public transportation in 2013 than in 2007, the data show.

A report issued by PIRG last fall titled “Millennials in Motion” stated that “Young Americans drive less than older Americans and use public transportation more.” It gave a number of reasons, including high — until recently — gas prices, the effects of the Great Recession, tougher driver-licensing laws, the adoption of bikesharing and ridesharing alternatives like Uber, and a greater interest in urban living and walkable communities.

“It is definitely true that transit-rich urban and suburban areas have been growing much faster in the last decade than they had for many decades before that, while the outer suburban, car-dependent counties have really tailed off and in some cases have actually started losing population,” said Tim Evans, director of research for New Jersey Future.

“The counties with the highest rates of transit commuting — Hudson, Essex, Bergen, Union, Middlesex, and Passaic — all rank much higher in terms of their growth rates between 2008 and 2013 than they had ranked in recent decades,” he said. “On the other hand, the counties with the lowest rates of transit commuting … have all grown a lot slower from 2008-2013 than had been the case in recent decades.”

Evans said the percentage of New Jerseyans driving alone has held fairly steady dating back to the 1990 Census, while the number of people commuting by mass transit has risen steadily — at the expense of carpooling.

That is evident in the data. The number of commuters carpooling, which was once heavily touted as a way to reduce traffic congestion, dropped by 9 percent from 2007 to 2013, with 8.3 percent of people carpooling. Fewer people are also walking to work — 3 percent, or a drop of 8 percent.

On the other hand, almost 2 percent of commuters took a taxi, motorcycle, bicycle or other means to work, about 3 percent more than in 2007, according to the estimates.

But the biggest increase was in those telecommuting. Four percent of all workers now work from home, an increase of almost 25 percent between 2007 and 2013.

There are clear geographical differences in commuting in the state. The more urbanized areas in Northeast Jersey, where people have greater access to mass transit, have the smallest proportion of people driving alone to work. The greatest percentage of people in Sussex and Hunterdon, where access to highways tends to be better than access to trains or buses, drive to work. And the state’s smaller cities and compact areas — Atlantic City, Princeton, New Brunswick, Union City and West New York — have the largest proportion of workers walking to work.