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Drivers increasingly go it alone

Census Bureau says the percentage of people using a carpool or public transportation to get to work is declining.

June 14, 2007|From Reuters

More people than ever are driving alone to work as the nation's commuters balk at carpools and mass transit.

Regardless of fuel prices, housing and work patterns make it hard for suburban commuters to change their gas-guzzling ways.

From 2000 to 2005, the share of people driving alone to work increased slightly to 77%, according to a Census Bureau report Wednesday. Carpooling dropped and the share of commuters using public transportation stayed the same.

More recent statistics -- through March -- show that few drivers are cutting back despite gasoline prices topping $3 a gallon.

For most suburban commuters, "it's very hard to find someone to ride with, and it's very hard to find public transportation," said Alan Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America." "There aren't always a lot of options for people."

People have been flocking to the suburbs since the end of World War II. Jobs have followed, enabling commuters to move even farther from central cities -- and public transportation systems.

Mass transit is most popular in older cities such as New York, San Francisco, Washington and Chicago, according the Census Bureau.

Midwesterners are the most prone to solo driving -- half of the top 10 metro areas for driving alone to work are in Ohio.

Carpooling is most popular in the West, driven in part by immigrants. Seven of the top 10 metro areas for carpooling are in California. Most are in the center of the state, where a lot of immigrant farm workers share rides.

Ron Hughes runs a ride-sharing program in Central California. In 2000, the program started supplying vans to transport farm workers from the suburbs to the fields, he said. It has since grown to more than 300 vans and includes workers in other industries, operating much like a rural mass transit system, with riders paying $25 or more a week.

"It just grew, and we just added people and vans to meet that growing demand," said Hughes, executive director of the Kings County Area Public Transit Agency.

As for fuel prices, the average price of regular unleaded gasoline increased from $1.50 a gallon at the start of the decade to $2.28 a gallon in 2005, according to the American Automobile Assn.

During the same period, the share of people carpooling dropped from 12.2% to 10.7%. The nation's public transportation systems report that ridership is up, but the share of commuters using transit stayed the same at 4.7%, according to the Census Bureau.

Gasoline prices have since topped $3 gallon. Miles driven by Americans increased through 2006, though they leveled off in the first three months of 2007, the Federal Highway Administration says.

The report on commuting came as the Senate started debating an energy bill this week that would raise auto fuel economy standards for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Democratic leaders in both the Senate and House said they wanted broad energy legislation passed before the Fourth of July congressional recess, though President Bush has opposed mandatory increases in fuel efficiency.

AAA spokesman Geoff Sundstrom said commuters were willing to drive more fuel-efficient autos but were loath to give up the keys entirely, regardless of gas prices. He said many people equate carpooling and mass transit with "a decline in their personal standard of living."

"The freedom of mobility that comes with the use of a personal automobile is something we are very, very reluctant to give up as individuals," Sundstrom said.

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