Getting Around Town

The many ways we commute, and what it means

Each morning, nearly 150 million workers across the country go about the business of getting to work.  Commutes are fixtures in our lives and livelihoods, and accessibility to jobs by car, bus, foot, bike or other means is a critical fixture of a regional economy.

The most recent data from the American Community Survey provides some insight on how workers in the New Orleans area commute and how that has evolved in recent years.  

First, and most obviously, the vast majority of workers commute by themselves in their own vehicles.  Nationwide, about 77 percent of workers drive to and from work alone, and with the exception of Orleans Parish (69 percent), those rates are slightly higher in our region. Roughly 80 percent of workers in Jefferson Parish and 84 in St. Tammany, for example, drive themselves to work.  Furthermore, solo commuting is generally on the rise.  Between 2007 and 2015, the percentage of people driving alone to work rose to some extent nationally, statewide, and in Orleans and St. Tammany Parishes.   

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Carpooling and vanpooling, meanwhile, has seen a slight decrease over the same period.  Across the country, the state, and the region, traveling with others is a consistently less common way to get to work.  The change is more dramatic in Orleans Parish, where 9 percent of workers carpooled to work in 2015 compared to 14 percent in 2007, when the displacement and disruption following Katrina still required many people to shuttle back and forth to the Northshore and Baton Rouge.  

Predictably, the percentage of people hoofing it to work is higher in Orleans Parish than its neighboring parishes.  About 10 percent of workers in New Orleans spend their commutes walking or biking (or taking a cab), compared to only 4 percent in Jefferson and 3 percent in St. Tammany.  To my surprise—given the tremendous recent growth in downtown housing—this percentage has actually decreased about 1.5 percentage points since 2007, but is still twice the national average.

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And finally, over 19,000 people in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes rely on public transportation to access their jobs, up from about 8,000 in 2007.  Across the country, the state, and the region, use of public transit ticked upward during this time period, most notably in New Orleans, where it rose approximately two percentage points from 6 percent to over 8 percent.  Nationwide, about five percent of workers utilize transit regularly, but even with a slight increase over 2007, fewer than 2 percent of Louisiana residents commute this way.

Public transportation is an especially important resource in New Orleans, where service to many lower-income neighborhoods still lags well behind its pre-Katrina levels.  A recent report by Ride New Orleans noted that RTA busses made about 7,800 weekly trips in 2015 compared to 17,000 before the storm, and the decreases in service have been sharpest in those which rely on public transit the most heavily.  In a city where 19 percent of households have no vehicle available (more than twice the national rate), the expansion, connectedness, and equity of its transit network must remain a strategic priority.

Among other things, this data serves as a reminder that transportation infrastructure, in all its forms, is the lifeblood of local and regional vitality.  Whichever mode workers use, they reasonably expect a safe, efficient, comfortable and reliable commute.  The ability to get to work is a fundamental component of individual economic mobility, and the provision of a truly accessible and effective network of transportation options is a basic—if challenging—hallmark of a resilient and promising region. 

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Robert Edgecombe is an urban planner and consultant at GCR Inc. He advises a wide range of clients on market conditions, recovery strategies, and demographic and economic trends.


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