Global warming may be the nation's latest roadside attraction, but the American obsession with the carbon-spewing automobile still seems to be charging full speed ahead.
Seventy-seven percent of workers in the United States – more than 102 million people – drive alone to and from work, up from 1990, according to recently released US Census data, based on surveys conducted in 2005. This happened despite the fact that retail gasoline prices rose by 60 cents per gallon in that same 15-year period, controlling for inflation.
The news comes amid growing hype about going green, in an age when climate change has become as common a conversation topic as its quotidian counterpart, the weather. It could indicate that when it comes to transit, Americans talk the talk, but – put simply – aren't walking.
"People don't have flexibility to respond quickly to changes. And Americans have almost grown accustomed to seeing a three in front of the price of gasoline," says Alan Pisarski, a transportation behavior analyst and author of the "Commuting in America" series. "There's an immense benefit – whether it's convenience or control – that people garner from driving alone."
S. Usman Iqbal drives alone to his job in Boston, but says he's not concerned about global warming. "People are really anxious to show they're conscious about the environment and energy, but they're really not that conscious about it," says the medical researcher, speaking of people he has observed in the Boston area, where he's lived for the past six years. "Their actions don't follow their words."
Sure enough, fuel-saving alternatives to the car commute are actually losing ground. Public transit use is slipping. Biking shows no gains. The share of Americans who carpool, the second most popular method of commuting, is also on a downward trend. Telecommuting – working from home and using technology to communicate with the central place of work – is the only category other than solo driving that has grown over the past 25 years, but still rings in under 4 percent, according to the study.
Some experts, however, suggest that the data underestimate how much Americans are commuting without their cars. "The way [the survey asks] the question is, 'What do you usually do?' It misses people who might use the nondrive-alone option two days or less a week," says Phil Winters, director of the transportation demand program at the Center for Urban Transportation Research.
Given the recent hike in gas prices, data collected after 2005 could show a different trend, Mr. Winters says. And the number of people using public transit has gone up in many places, but the share of people has not changed because of growth in employment, he points out.
Geraldine Kim, a fourth-grade teacher who lives in San Francisco, says she drives to her job in Sunnyvale, Calif., alone because it reduces her commute time from two hours using public transit to 40 minutes. "Every time I pump gas or I'm stuck in traffic, I feel guilty about the fact that I'm contributing to global warming," she says. Ms. Kim recently took a new job in Oakland, where her commute will be closer to 20 minutes each way – about the new national average.
Average travel time to work for American commuters has increased, and the trend of driving more distance is expected to continue. By 2012, the number of miles clocked by drive-alone commuters will increase by 15 percent over 2002 levels, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Some cities are leaps and bounds ahead of others when it comes to alternatives to the automobile. New York leads the nation with less than one-fourth of workers driving alone and the lowest ratio of cars to commuters. But its workers also travel for the most amount of time.
Washington is ranked the top city for alternative commuting by SustainLane, a San Francisco business that publishes rankings of US cities based on "sustainability" criteria. The ranking gives separate weight to the share of people carpooling and the share bicycling and walking, which can give indications about road safety, sidewalks, and bike paths. Warren Karlenzig, the company's chief strategy officer, praises Washington's "modern and efficient" public-transit system, broad boulevards, and greenways for encouraging carless travel.
Several transportation experts say Americans – particularly working women – may be increasing their fuel efficiency in ways not reflected by the study, such as combining their commutes with errands like dropping off laundry.
Kim, in San Francisco, says that on her way home from work, she frequently stops by a market to pick up groceries for the week. But she says she hasn't found other ways to make her commute more efficient.
From Mr. Pisarski's perspective, Americans are most concerned with saving time – not money or the environment. "The safest thing to assume is that if there are going to be environmental gains or fuel-efficiency gains, it will be from technology," he adds. "It will be from the kinds of vehicles we use and the fuels we use, rather than reformations in people's behavior."
Hints of recent change have surfaced. Memorial Day road travel grew less dramatically from last year than usual, according to Mike Pina of the American Automobile Association. He attributes the flattening to high gas prices, but predicts that most Americans will keep driving to work because they want "door-to-door service" and think that driving saves them time.
"There won't be dramatic changes unless [gas] prices are much higher," says Winters. "What you probably will see is a growing interest in working from home."