Labor

Not Driving to Work Is the Hot New High-End Job Perk

And the more money you make, the more likely you are to take public transportation.

Money makers.

Photographer: Jb Reed/Bloomberg

Among the many, many things that the Census Bureau asks in the annual American Community Survey, the 2016 results of which were released last week, is this:

How did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK?  If this person usually used more than one method of transportation during the trip, mark (X) the box of the one used for most of the distance. 

I had the privilege of filling out the survey for my family four or five years ago, and I am still overcome with smugness that I was able to put my "X" next to "bicycle" (as I remember, it had been a brisk, sunny spring week in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Not many people do that! The Census Bureau estimates that just 0.57 percent of U.S. workers commuted primarily by bicycle last year, which is up from 0.45 percent in 2006 but still ... not much. The way the great majority of Americans gets to work is and has long been in a car, truck or van, usually driving alone.

Driving to Work

Percentage of U.S. workers who commuted by car, truck or van

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Still, you might detect a slight downtrend, much more marked with carpooling but apparent (and slightly bigger than the margin of error) in driving alone, too. It's even more apparent if you sort commuters by income.

Who Drives to Work

Percentage driving alone to work, by annual earnings

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Note: Y-axis does not go to zero.

The percentage is down a little for lower- and middle-income workers since 2005, although it's hard to detect much of a trend in either direction since the last recession. Among those making $75,000 or more, though, there's been a significant decline since 2005, and it is continuing. Just as a reality check for Bloomberg's many well-remunerated readers: Only 18.4 percent of U.S. workers made $75,000 or more in 2016, according to the ACS; the median was $35,815. (These numbers are all for individuals; median household incomes, also released last week, are higher.)

So while a big majority of higher-income workers still drives to work, that percentage is shrinking in a way that it isn't for lower-income workers. How are those higher-income workers getting there instead? Well, public transportation is one choice:

Who Rides the Bus and Train

Percentage commuting via public transportation, by annual earnings

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

That's right -- those who make more than $75,000 a year are more likely to take public transportation to work than those with lower incomes, and their transit use has been rising while others' hasn't. Because there are far more people making less than $75,000 a year than more, lower-income workers still make up the great majority of public transit commuters. Still, the fact that affluent workers are the ones most likely to take the bus or train or trolley goes against a lot of preconceptions. Then again, when you think about where high-income jobs cluster these days, it makes sense. The metropolitan areas in the U.S. with the highest household incomes tend to be crowded places with well-developed public transportation systems. 1

Still, that increase in transit use among higher-income workers isn't nearly as big as their decline in driving. So how are they getting to work instead? By walking down the hall, mainly: 2

The Shortest Commute

Percentage working from home, by annual earnings

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Despite the occasional high-profile crackdown on working from home (at International Business Machines Corp. earlier this year, for example), this trend seems to be accelerating. And the lines on the above chart reflect only people who worked from home most of the previous week -- Gallup's most recent survey on telecommuting, in 2015, found that 37 percent of U.S. workers said they had worked from home using a computer to communicate with the office at some point, 3  up from 30 percent in 2008 and 9 percent in 1995. A different 2016 Gallup survey found that 43 percent work remotely at least some of the time, and 75 percent do so more than one-fifth of the time.

This trend toward working at home is most pronounced among those with higher incomes, the census data makes clear. Also among the highly educated -- a new report from Flexjobs and Global Workplace Analytics based on earlier census data found that 53 percent of telecommuters have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 37 percent of non-telecommuters. According to that same report, the metropolitan area with the highest share of telecommuters is Boulder, Colorado (8.5 percent), which also happens to be the metropolitan area with the highest percentage of residents 25 and older with at least a bachelor's degree (60.6 percent in 2016).

Such are the rewards to education. Acquire enough of it, and you might get to live on the edge of the Rockies and not have to drive to work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The top 10 big metropolitan areas (population of 1 million or more) for median household income in 2016 were: San Jose ($110,040), San Francisco ($96,677), Washington ($95,843), Boston ($82,380), Seattle ($78,612), Baltimore ($76,788), Minneapolis-St. Paul ($73,231), Hartford ($72,559), Denver ($71,926) and New York ($71,897).

  2. I also wondered if increased use of Uber, Lyft and the like would show up in the data, but it really doesn't on the national level. In 2005, 1.03 percent of U.S. workers commuted by taxicab and "other means." In 2017 it was 1.05 percent.

  3. I realize that wording is a little awkward, but the survey question is, "Have you ever telecommuted, that is, worked from your home using a computer to communicate for your job?"

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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