A commuting solution fades away

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

Car-pooling, which proliferated amid painfully high gasoline prices around 1980, has declined significantly in recent years.

The percentage of workers who car-pool to and from their jobs has fallen almost by half since 1980, the US Census Bureau reports, in its first systematic tracking of this mode of transportation.

The New York Times, in an article available here, says:

"The drop has occurred in cities across the country. For example, the car-pooling rate fell by more than half since 1980 in Rochester and its suburbs, as well as in Worcester County, Mass., and in the suburbs of Kansas City. Even in San Diego County, Calif., the state where modern car-pooling began, the rate was down by more than a third.

"Here in the fast-growing suburbs of Washington, the number of people driving alone has more than doubled since 1980. That is a sharp contrast from a generation ago, when Washington had one of the highest car-pooling rates in the nation, with one person car-pooling for every two driving to work alone. Today, for every one car-pooler, there are six solo drivers."

After cheap oil from the Middle East suddenly became scarce in the late 1970s, "Many big companies organized group rides for their employees, and roughly one in four Americans who drove to work shared a ride with others," according to The Times. Over the years, the enthusiasm for ride-sharing dimmed.

Some of the assertions in the Times article are open to question. Here's one debatable passage: “'As cars became more affordable and life became easier, the big car pools broke up,' said Alan Pisarski, a consultant who studies transportation trends." No figures are provided on the costs of buying and operating cars today versus in 1980. Nor is any definition of life becoming "easier" offered byPisarski or The Times.

Anecdotes in the article suggest that with all the additional cars, commuting itself is not getting any easier for those who travel by auto in northern Virginia. If anything, it's getting more frustrating. The difficulties show up "every weekday morning before dawn, when a stretch of Interstate 95 turns into a glittering river of headlights moving so slowly that drivers need to leave up to two hours to cover a 30-mile trip," The Times notes.

The article rounds up a variety of reasons to explain why car-pooling nationally now draws less than 12 percent of all drivers. Among them: "Companies spread out more, and the workday became less predictable. Women went to work in large numbers, raising the incomes of households as well as their ability to own a car [emphasis added]."

Certainly women have flocked into the workforce, but a skeptical reader might like some proof that the ability to own a car has grown. Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, reports in his Jan. 30 column in the Times business section (available here) that over the last decade, inflation-adjusted median income in the US "actually declined."

Moreover, Cowen says that in the 31 years from 1973 to 2004, the inflation-adjusted median income "rose only 22 percent." He points out: If pre-1973 growth rates had continued to the present, America's "median family income would now be more than $90,000, as opposed to its current range of around $50,000." Given how lackluster the growth of median income has been, cars may be a financial burden for quite a few of their owners.

What sets greater Washington apart from many other regions is that for about three decades, car owners there have been offering rides to strangers, who collect at well-known pickup points, such as suburban shopping centers. The motivation: A driver who carries passengers is entitled to get into the expressway's car-pool lane and speed past the lines of single-occupant vehicles. There are other benefits as well: it saves the passengers money, it reduces per-person consumption of fuel, and it decreases air pollution. But car-pooling has its own frustrations, as anyone who tried it knows. 

It would be interesting to know whether some of the people who used to car-pool have switched to mass transit. In Washington and elsewhere, rail transit has grown dramatically since 1980. It offers an enjoyable alternative to sharing a car ride with three other people. Some commuters prefer taking the train, where there's often more freedom to retreat into one's own world. 

Nonetheless, in most regions the expansion of rail and other transit services has been unable to keep up with the dispersal of business to lower-density locations — settings where it's not economical to provide frequent transit connections.

Had employment growth over the past three decades been concentrated in dense places instead of scattered across the landscape, today there might be even more people traveling to work via mass transit (or foot or bicycle) — and fewer people in automobiles. That might have been better for individuals, regions, and the environment. Alas, that possibility goes unexplored in the Times article.