Study Finds More Urban Texans are Commuting Car-Free

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I-635 flyover in Dallas
David Herrera/Flickr
More Texas commuters are avoiding scenic highway flyovers like this, where I-635 crosses U.S. 75 in Dallas.

People in big Texas cities are driving less, and riding bikes and public transportation more, according to a new study of American commuters.

The U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a consumer research group, studied commuters in America’s 100 largest cities and found that in all but one city, car commuting has declined in roughly the last 10 years. The researchers called it the “first ever national study to compare transportation trends for America’s largest cities,” and said said the study made it clear the “driving boom is over.” That’s true even in Texas, a state known for its love of cars, big trucks and highway sprawl.

The report, released Wednesday, included Texas’ five largest metropolitan areas: Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, McAllen and San Antonio. Researchers based their findings on data from the U.S. Census and U.S. Department of Transportation. (You can read the full report below.)

TexPIRG—the national group’s Texas offshoot—hailed Austin as a leader in reducing the number of drivers on the road, with a decrease of 4.5 percent in the number of workers commuting to work by private car between 2000 and an average of the years from 2007-2011. Austin’s was the third largest reduction in the country.

McAllen came in next at 3 percent, followed by El Paso (2 percent), Dallas (1.2 percent), San Antonio (0.6 percent) and Houston (0.3 percent).

McAllen saw the most dramatic rise in the nation in passenger miles traveled on public transit per capita from 2005 to 2010, with a 366 percent increase. The Monitor noted that while McAllen bus ridership is growing fast, its average—0.79 miles per capita—is still far below cities with bigger bus systems. Austin residents, for instance, average 145 miles per capita on a bus.

El Paso also saw a 29 percent increase in miles traveled on public transit, followed by Austin (22.9 percent) and San Antonio (1.5 percent). Public transit miles actually decreased in Dallas by 12.6 percent, and in Houston by 7.6 percent.

Researchers also considered the possibility that the 2008 recession drove car owners to take cheaper public transit. But many cities with the biggest decreases in car commuting, like Austin, were also affected less by the recession. Urban areas with the highest unemployment, poverty and falling income didn’t correlate with declining car use. The largest reduction in drivers comes from the youngest generation with an age range of 16 to 34.

The researchers offered a few possible explanations: an increase in interest in biking and public transit from millennials, paired with the retirement of car-commuting baby boomers; more people working from home; and expectations that gas prices will remain high in the long run.

It may be hard to picture Texans outside of Austin running to public transit, but Houston Mayor Annise Parker responded to the study with enthusiasm for her city’s “aggressive approach to providing alternatives to driving,” with new light rail and bus routes, and bike-friendly initiatives in one of the country’s most spread-out cities. Pulling Texans out of their cars may not be such a stretch after all.