Commute Mode Choice

How are Bay Area workers getting to their jobs?

Commute Mode Choice

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 you live, commuting can be a challenge. And no matter where you live in the Bay Area, there are different options for how residents choose to get from home to work. Some commuters walk or ride their bikes to work, while others carpool across the Bay Bridge, and still others rely on transit. The choice of how we commute – or commute mode choice – affects everything from traffic congestion to air pollution.

Regional Performance
2014 saw the share of automobile-based commuting decline in the Bay Area.

For the first time in decades, regional mode shares are changing. While three-quarters of residents still drive to work, the share of residents making this choice has declined by 5 percentage points since 2000. In fact, this trend has accelerated – nearly half of those gains occurred in the last four years. Concurrently, transit mode shares increased by 2 percentage points in the last four years – the first time this share has markedly increased in more than five decades. 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.

Notably, though, these shifts are being driven solely by the central Bay Area. Mode shares in the North Bay and South Bay remained relatively consistent between 2006 and 2014, but this was certainly not the case in the central Bay Area. The auto mode share dropped from 73 percent to 68 percent in eight years, with residents shifting to non-auto modes instead. In particular, this is driven by booming BART and Caltrain ridership in suburban communities and by higher rates of active transportation in San Francisco.

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

San Francisco remains the regional leader in the percentage of residents who take public transit to work, at 33 percent. Adding in walking, bicycling and telecommuting, we find that 56 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 cities like Emeryville, El Cerrito, Albany and Berkeley have transit mode shares even higher than much larger urban centers like San Jose and Oakland.

2014 Commute Mode Choice for Cities and Neighborhoods

Top Cities for Taking Transit

1. San Francisco 24%
2. Berkeley 21%
3. Palo Alto 18%
4. San Rafael 17%
5. Oakland 17%
6. Emeryville 16%
7. San Ramon 16%
8. South San Francisco 15%
9. Alameda 15%
10. Walnut Creek 14%

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, on par with Washington and ahead of Chicago. Only New York, where just half of commuters drive alone each day, outperforms the Bay Area on this metric. Our region performs similarly for other non-automobile modes, ranking fourth for transit commuters (only behind New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago) and third for walk commuters (only behind New York and Philadelphia).

Miami, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston all fall in the back of the pack in this regard, with approximately 80 percent of their residents driving alone. 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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U.S. Census Bureau: Decennial Census (1960-2000) - via MTC/ABAG Bay Area Census

U.S. Census Bureau: American Community Survey

Form B08301 (2006-2014; place of residence)

Form B08601 (2014 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 share was calculated using county modal data and calculating the weighted average based on county populations. "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. The metropolitan area comparison was performed for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area in addition to the primary MSAs for the nine other major metropolitan areas.