by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
In North Carolina, people want to “be in the driver’s seat.” Good transportation policy begins by respecting that choice.
This may be a hard reality for community reshapers and media to accept. But the goal of transportation policy isn’t to satisfy the local newspaper editor’s dream of dutiful workers lining up to take the train, it’s to move people effectively and efficiently.
And it’s certainly not about reimagining the community or defining away people’s primary mode of choice. Planners should build to serve people’s needs, not try to make them “need” something else.
Why do North Carolinians choose cars? Because we are blessed with room to spread out. Public transit advocates prefer to denigrate that as “sprawl,” but Tar Heels aren’t crammed into a Gothamesque urban nightmarescape, and for that I’m thankful. I don’t know if Robert Frost’s neighbor is right that good fences are what make good neighbors, but having some space of your own between your neighbors certainly helps.
Residents aren’t the only ones able to spread out, though. Businesses are also relatively freer to locate and aren’t pressed to be centrally situated, especially not in North Carolina. The rise of broadband and working from home are also promoting this decentralization.
A recent index of city transportation choices ranked Charlotte and Raleigh among the 10 least “car-free” metropolitans in the U.S. As the index creators explained, choosing not to commute by car “depends on lot on where you live,” and Charlotte and Raleigh are less dense and more spread out places “where it is relatively easy to get around by car.”
According to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), North Carolinians overwhelmingly choose personal vehicles for their commutes: 81.1 percent chose to drive alone in 2017, up from 80.6 percent in 2012. (Carpooling declined from 10.5 percent in 2012 to 8.9 percent in 2017.)
The only other growing option for commuting was to work from home (6.1 percent, up from 4.5 percent).
Other options fell: taking public transit (1.0 percent, down from 1.1 percent), walking (1.7 percent, down from 1.9 percent), and choosing taxis, motorcycles, or biking (1.2 percent, down from 1.3 percent).
BTS didn’t break out the share of commuters who chose to ride bikes in 2013, but in 2017 it was only 0.2 percent. Nationally, it was only 0.5 percent. Especially for commuting, walking and biking depend on population density, closeness of work to home, geography, and not to be forgotten, weather conditions.
Put another way, nine out of 10 people going to work in North Carolina take a car. Over 60 percent of the rest work from home. About half of the ones remaining walk or bike. Of the remaining 2 percent, half of those take a taxi, motorcycle, or other. That last 1 percent takes public transit.
Those proportions are telling. We could increase the proportion of people taking public transportation to work six times over and still not outdo the 6.1 percent who choose to work from home.
Here is how commuting preferences have changed in North Carolina from 2013 to 2017:
Good transportation policy begins by respecting people’s choices. It also means rethinking outdated zoning concepts and other urban regulations that create artificial barriers between where people live and where they work and shop. More people would likely opt for walking and biking if they could opt to live in mixed-use developments or in expanded urban housing options like granny flats and garage units.
In transportation as with other areas, attempting to force your preference on people or take away other choices is a road to nowhere.