1. Transport
February 16, 2015updated 03 Aug 2023 2:30pm

This depressing map shows how the US is still a nation of drivers

By City Monitor Staff

Everyone knows that the car rules in the US. It’s an enormous, spread-out country built for drivers, filled with cities flanked by sprawling, unwalkable suburbs. But as Europe begins to turn against cars – Madrid’s city centre is banning non-resident vehicles; Hamburg hopes to be car-free in 20 years – is there any comparable trend in the US?

Well, in a word: no. This map shows how people get to work across the US, drawn from the US Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey and mapped by FlowingData. The colour represents the most popular mode of transport in each county; the darker the shade, the more popular it is.

Click for a larger image. 

We probably don’t need to tell you this, but that mint green colour means that a majority of people in that statistical area said, in not so many words: “I drive alone to work. I don’t carpool, I don’t do public transport – I just drive my big oil-guzzling machine back and forth to work every day”. 

Okay, we’re being a little harsh. It isn’t actually the entire US – it’s just everywhere except the northern bit of Alaska, the areas around New York City, and the good folk of San Juan County, Colorado (population 700).

And if you redraw the map without the “drive alone” option enabled, you can see that the second most popular transport option across the US is reasonably diverse. Carpooling is the next most popular in many counties, but there’s a fair sprinkling of walkers and home workers and, around Chicago and Washington DC, public transport users.

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Click for a larger image.

But none of this changes the fact that around 80 per cent of Americans drive alone to work. The US has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world:

Source: World Bank.

…and its carbon emissions aren’t looking great, either:

Source: World Bank.

Even in the nation’s largest cities (with the notable exception of New York), solo driving doesn’t lose its top spot. These are the counties containing Chicago and LA:

It does, however, drop off significiantly in Boston, which has a decent public transport system:

So will the States ever cut down on driving? In New York, cars are unpopular because there’s good public transport, terrible congestion, and, anyway, everything is relatively close together. That’ll be hard to replicate in much of the country.

But self-driving cars might help a little. A new study from the University of Michigan estimates that driverless cars could cut ownership rates in half, since they could carry out multiple journeys for multiple passengers throughout the day, making carpooling far more workable. 

This data raises one other question: why are Alaskans walking so much?

It might be because those counties are so sparsely populated: the smaller an area’s population, the more likely it is to be an outlier (you can also see this “law of small numbers” at work in San Jaun County). It may also be that, because of the cold temperatures and snow, people tend to live close to their work – so walking is an option even when roads are unusable. 

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