Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

What transportation looked like in Washington, D.C., 2010

September 23, 2011 - 02:21 PM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This past Thursday may have been international Car Free Day, but D.C. commutes already reflect alternative modes of transportation, from walking to biking to Metro to Zipcar. A record number of Washingtonians pledged to go car-free this year, and the trend is already reflected in our city's transit numbers from last year.

The U.S. Census Bureau has released the latest census figures for 2010, and I've been poring over the numbers for Washington, D.C. All of these statistics carry with them some doubt, naturally, and have a margin of error, but they provide an illuminating projection of what transportation in the District looks like. Of the 296,717 people estimated to travel to work every day in the District in 2010, 174,848 didn't travel to work in a car. Instead, these people walked, took public transportation like the Metro or the bus, rode in taxis, telecommuted, and biked. The number of bike commuters in the District, we know, rose to 3.3% in 2010, 8/10 of a percentage higher than the national average percentage of bike commuters. 120,869 commuters rely on a car, truck, or van to get to work, the vast majority (more than 100,000) driving alone.

So to put that in perspective: last year, only 40.7% of D.C. residents drove to work, according to the census, compared to the 58.9% who chose other means. These numbers, to give context, represent a slight increase in the use of public transportation from the American Community Survey 2005-2009 data that we've been relying on. In previous ACS numbers, a little more than 56% of District residents choose car-free ways of getting to work compared to the nearly 44% who drove.

The numbers reinforce recent trends — we're driving less and walking, biking, and Metroing more.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: U.S. Census Bureau)

I'm sympathetic to the commuting stress that must surely befall the third of commuters in D.C. who drive alone through our congested circles and avenues. Driving in D.C. is no easy task, especially on a daily basis. And just how many of these cars, trucks, and vans are on the road every day amid these commutes? In 2010, the aggregate number of cars used by commuters was 111,075.

Interestingly, many who chose public transportation to commute to work could have driven. Just over 38% of those who took public transportation had one vehicle available to them, and another 17% had two or three vehicles available — but they still chose public transportation. I fit into this broad category. I own a car but commute to work by Metro. It takes a little longer but it's probably cheaper, is definitely easier, and I avoid the stress of traffic and parking. That said, it's worth noting that 27% of the people commuting to work in D.C. lack any vehicle whatsoever.

The median age for all these workers, based on transportation type, was typically 30s to 40s — nothing too extraordinary. Peple who walked to work were, unsurprisingly, the youngest, at a median age of 31.1 years. The oldest group was people who worked at home, at 47.3 years old. People who took public transit were slightly younger than drivers, at a median age of just under 35 compared to a median age of about 39 to 42.

Gender provided to show some more interesting divides — like the fact that men are far more likely than women to commute to work by bike.

Of the 9,288 people in D.C. who biked to work in 2010, according to American Community Survey estimates, 6,303 were men compared to 2,985 women. In other words, women made up just over 32% of D.C.'s bike commuting population. But women, despite a lower inclination for biking to work, showed themselves to be the leaders in public transportation. Women make up just over 55% of those who take public transportation to work in the District, 62,775 of the 113,648 total who do so.

Although the numbers provide a fascinating window into the District's transit, I do wish they contained more hopeful news about our city's levels of poverty. What do all these numbers mean? That people are seeking out transit options other than walking, primarily, and I suspect a combination of factors are responsible. One is the sheer cost of cars — of gas, of parking, of insurance, of the automobile itself, the tickets, the registration, the transience of D.C. That's a cost sure to drive people to their nearest sidewalk and Metro station fast. Another factor is the increased smart-growth focus of D.C. in recent years, with what now may be more than 60,000 Zipsters, our expanding, year-old Capital Bikeshare program, the addition of bike lanes and streetscaping enhancements, the increased technology that allows for telecommuting, and the awareness that such events as yesterday's Car Free Day fosters.

I'm even more curious about what the 2011 numbers will look.

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