National Survey: Driving Down in 2009, Sustainable Transport Up

nhts0109.jpgNHTS data from 2001 and 2009 shows a major increase in sustainable transportation. Image via Mobilizing the Region.

Between 2001 and 2009, the share of trips that Americans made in cars dropped by more than four percent, with walking, bicycling and transit use picking up the slack, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Last year, 11.9 percent of all trips were on foot or by bike, while 4.2 percent of trips were on transit. Both figures signify major increases.

The National Household Travel Survey, the source of the new stats, is the gold-standard for transportation data. As Mobilizing the Region reported, while the Census only tracks how people get to work, the NHTS gathers data on all trips taken. It also distinguishes between, say, driving to a park-and-ride bus area and walking to the local bus stop.

The downside to the NHTS is how infrequently the survey is conducted, which makes it difficult to determine how much the 2009 data reflects a larger trend, and how much may be due to temporary changes brought on by fluctuating gas prices and the recession.

The high quality of NHTS data means that it can supplement NYC DOT’s own numbers, which have shown a large rise in cycling over the same period. We’ve put in a request to the state DOT and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council to get access to city-level data once it becomes available. 

  • Um, the number of trips in cars didn’t drop by 4% — the share of trips by Americans that were made in cars dropped by 4% (actually, the share dropped by 3.8 percentage points, and the percentage dropped by 4.4%).

    Sorry to be such a stickler, especially in the face of such encouraging data, but clarity is usually a good idea in discussing this kind of stuff.

  • Noah Kazis

    Fixed – thanks Charles.

  • Ian Turner

    This despite bailouts for cars and cuts for transit?

  • garyg

    The numbers presented here are highly misleading. As the report states “Of course, the good news for walking, bicycling and transit use may reflect fluctuating gasoline prices and the current economic recession (respondents were surveyed between March 2008 and April 2009).” In fact, this survey period coincided with the peak of gas prices, which reached over $4/gallon during the summer of 2008, and the trough of the recent decline in Vehicle Miles Travelled, which bottomed out in the same year. Since then, gas prices have fallen dramatically, VMT has started rising again, despite the persistence of the recession, and mass transit use has fallen significantly. APTA’s most recent ridership report, for the third quarter of 2009, shows a decline in unlinked passenger trips of over 6% compared to the same quarter in 2008.

    Moreover, the methodology grossly overstates the contribution of walking and transit to complete trips by counting each “trip segment” as a separate trip. As the report states “a walk to the subway followed by a subway trip to work is counted as two separate trips.” The same trip to work by car would be counted as only a single driving trip.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Hey GaryG, perhaps there are other explanations.

    1) A generational shift. Younger generations may not be as car oriented as yours. For example, a rising share are choosing to live in central cities, among those with other choices. Is it 100% or 50%? No, but it is significantly higher than in the past. If you’re from here, just look around.

    (Or course, you might say that older generations making younger generations poorer is part of the explanation, but we have a permanent shift regardless, whether people are choosing to do without as much auto use or have no choice).

    2) More seniors, some of whom can’t drive. My in-laws just moved from their retirement home on a hill in the western Catskills to a senior citizen apartment building in downtown Schenectady.

    Perhaps Gary, you might want to consider how it is that the United States of America elected a Black man President. It isn’t because people who were bigots in the 1950s changed their minds, although a few did. Most people don’t have open minds. It is because they died, and were replaced by other people. Same thing here.

  • garyg

    A generational shift. Younger generations may not be as car oriented as yours. For example, a rising share are choosing to live in central cities, among those with other choices.

    I see this claim a lot, that there is a “back to the city” trend in America, but the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. See, for example, Table 4 in this analysis. Between 2000 and 2008, the “historic core counties” of large metropolitan areas experienced a net loss of about 4.6 million domestic migrants, while suburban counties experienced a net gain of about 2 million domestic migrants.

  • molly

    @garyg, since walking and transit are separate modes, why is it an overstatement of their contribution to the increase to count a walk/transit trip as two trip segments? Wouldn’t a drive/transit trip also count as two trip segments too?

  • jon

    Shouldnt walk be grouped with transit instead of grouped with cycle? walk and cycle use the same infrastructure (for the most part) and are active transport but transit riders are pedestrians. cyclists walk about as much as motorists.

  • garyg

    Because it counts stops on the way to the destination as separate trips. 20 people walking from their home to their workplace would be counted as 20 walk trips. 10 people taking the bus from their home to their workplace would also be counted as 20 walk trips, plus 10 bus trips, even though only half as many people got to work that way.

  • JK

    garyg, so all those domestic migrants are fleeing transit oriented center cities like NYC, Chicago, SF, Boston, Seattle, Portland? Must be why rents are so low in these cities compared to America’s top hot spots like say Odessa TX or your other top picks over at newgeography. I like sites like yours which purport to oppose federal subsidies and then give high rankings to places whose automobile infrastructure is being built out using the federal tax dollars from transit cities like mine. (Let’s take a look at who the net donor cities are.) I don’t see tracts on your site calling for eliminating the mortgage tax deduction — which dwarfs transit subsidies. As for the claim that ACS or census overcount bike/ped trips, that’s hard to believe given the innumerable studies showing that bike and pedestrians trips are typically hugely undercounted. Maybe a Komanoff or Pucher can chime in on that.

  • garyg


    You cannot infer anything about the relative demand for housing in different locations from price comparisons alone, let alone infer trends in domestic migration from such comparisons. San Francisco’s housing prices continued to increase even as the city was losing population after the tech bust. The fundamental reason why housing is so expensive in places like New York and San Francisco is that the supply is so limited. You could try and persuade New Yorkers to open up Central Park to condo developers and try to persuade San Franciscans to allow their beautiful old low-rise residential neighborhoods to be converted into blocks of high-rise apartments, but I rather doubt they’d agree to it.

    As for subsidies, transit users receive massively higher subsidies per passenger-mile than motor vehicle users. We’ve been over this before in other threads.

  • Please don’t feed the troll.

  • The Dynamic Mumeshantz

    Even if the numbers were taken at the height of the surge in gas prices, it just proves the point that if we charged more for gas in this country people start to alter their behavior.

    So it’s good news either way GaryG.

  • Phil

    Dear GaryG,

    You must accept that there are certain benefits to a non car-centric lifestyle that cannot be expressed as a statistic. Just the ability to be out in the world, out in the fresh air, walking to your desination without the responsibility of 2000 pound vehicle, enjoying the presence of others is thrilling.We embraced car-culture, and what have been become? Obese, disconnected and burdened with over-stretched infrastructure.

  • Arguing with GaryG is like trying to convince an argument clinic worker that an argument is indeed a series of statements meant to establish a proposition. It’s only fun up to a point, and it never has a real meaning.


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