Commute Mode Choice

How are Bay Area workers getting to their jobs?

Commute Mode Choice

Definition: 
Commute mode choice, also known as commute mode share, refers to the mode of transportation that a commuter uses to travel to work, such as driving alone, biking, carpooling or taking transit.

No matter where a person lives, commuting can be a challenge. And no matter the location in the Bay Area, residents have different options for getting from home to work. Some commuters walk or ride their bikes to work, others carpool across the Bay Bridge, and still others rely on transit. The choice of how to commute – or commute mode choice – affects everything from traffic congestion to air pollution.

Regional Performance
2015 saw the share of automobile-based commuting decline in the Bay Area for the fifth year in a row.

Regional mode shares have been changing for the first time in decades. While three-quarters of residents still drive to work, the share of residents making this choice has declined by over 5 percentage points since 2000. This trend accelerated in recent years, with nearly half of the shift occurring between 2010 and 2014. Despite this progress, 2015 marked a slowdown, as the year-over-year decrease in the share of driving was modest compared to the preceding four years.

Transit mode shares increased by 2 percentage points in the last five years – the first time this share has markedly increased in more than five decades. At 12 percent, the share of Bay Area public transit commutes is at its highest level since 1970. Walking and biking to work have also become more popular, especially in San Francisco where active transportation has posted the greatest gains in recent years.

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Regional Distribution
Shifts in regional mode choice have largely been driven by changing commute behaviors in four specific counties.

While commuting patterns have been relatively stable over time in the North Bay and South Bay, this has not been the case elsewhere. In Alameda, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, the share of residents driving to work has dropped by four to six percentage points since 2006. Many residents in these counties commute to jobs in San Francisco, where an economic boom has added over 126,000 new jobs during this period. To avoid increasingly congested freeways and limited parking, the bulk of these commuters shifted to public transit – boosting BART and Caltrain ridership to record levels.

While Contra Costa County has not experienced changes as dramatic as those seen in other Central Bay Area counties in recent years, county residents have made consistent and significant shifts in their commute choices over the long term. Since 1960, the share of auto commutes has dropped five percentage points while the share of transit commutes has increased by the same amount; this shift was due in large part to the construction and expansion of the BART system across the county. Despite this long-term trend, Contra Costa County saw a small spike in the share of auto commutes in 2015.

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Historical Trend for Commute Mode Choice by County

Local Focus
San Francisco and inner East Bay communities lead the region in commuting by public transit.

At 33 percent in 2015, San Francisco remains the regional leader in the percentage of residents who take public transit to work. Adding in walking, bicycling and telecommuting, we find that 57 percent of San Franciscans get to work each day without an automobile, a strikingly high mode share for a U.S. city. At the same time, commuters from some central Bay Area cities are outpacing other large urban centers in using transit to get to their jobs. Residents of East Bay cities like Albany, El Cerrito, Emeryville and Berkeley have transit mode shares even higher than much larger urban centers like San Jose and Oakland.

2015 Commute Mode Choice for Cities and Neighborhoods

Select a location on the map for more information.

National Context
Only New York has a greater share of commuters who choose to leave the car at home.

Nearly one-quarter of Bay Area residents choose non-auto modes to get to work, roughly on par with Washington and ahead of Chicago. Only New York, where just half of commuters drive alone each day, significantly outperforms the Bay Area on this metric. The Bay Area performs similarly for other non-automobile modes, ranking fourth for transit commuters (behind New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago) and third for walk commuters (behind New York and Philadelphia).

Miami, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston are in the back of the pack in this regard, with approximately 80 percent of their residents driving alone to work each day. While the data indicate the differences between the Bay Area and these Sunbelt metros, the reality is a bit more complex. The South Bay actually has mode shares quite similar to Miami or Atlanta, while the central part of the Bay Area is much more similar to New York. Silicon Valley’s mode choices are reflective of its development in the era of the automobile.

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Sources: 

U.S. Census Bureau: Decennial Census (1960-2000) - via MTC/ABAG Bay Area Census

U.S. Census Bureau: American Community Survey

Form B08301 (2006-2015; place of residence)

Form B08601 (2015 only; place of employment)

Image: MTC Library, Photographer: Noah Berger (ID# ahz_129a)

Methodology Notes: 

For the decennial Census datasets, the breakdown of auto commuters between drive alone and carpool is not available before 1980. "Other" includes bicycle, motorcycle, taxi, and other modes of transportation. For the American Community Survey datasets, 1-year rolling average data was used for metros, region, and county geographic levels, while 5-year rolling average data was used for cities and tracts. This is due to the fact that more localized data is not included in the 1-year dataset across all Bay Area cities. Regional mode shares are population-weighted averages of the nine counties’ modal shares. "Auto" includes drive alone and carpool for the simple data tables and is broken out in the detailed data tables accordingly, as it was not available before 1980. "Other" includes motorcycle, taxi, and other modes of transportation; bicycle mode share is broken out separately for the first time in the 2006 data and is shown in the detailed data tables. Census tract data is not available for tracts with insufficient numbers of residents or workers.