Road Worrier Blog

Commuter surveys spell out the Triangle’s particular tastes

Can we change our driving habits? Raleigh’s car love soon will be sorely tested. By early September, the entire #BeltlineJam work zone will be clamped into three lanes of Interstate 40 traffic each way.
Can we change our driving habits? Raleigh’s car love soon will be sorely tested. By early September, the entire #BeltlineJam work zone will be clamped into three lanes of Interstate 40 traffic each way.

A new Census Bureau survey of commuters provides an update on big differences between the Triangle and the rest of the United States in how folks travel to work each day – including some differences you might not expect.

Compared with the average American commuter, Triangle folks are more or less likely to drive alone to work. More or less, that is, depending on which end of the Triangle we’re talking about.

In the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area, only 73.7 percent of commuters are solo drivers, well below the national average of 76.4 percent, according to newly released numbers from the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. But the picture is quite different in the Raleigh metro area, where a whopping 80.4 percent drive alone to work.

In the Raleigh area, only 2.6 percent of commuters ditched the car in 2013 to catch a bus, ride a bike or walk to work – compared to a healthy 9.1 percent in Durham-Chapel Hill, close to the national average.

Can we change our habits? Raleigh’s car love soon will be sorely tested.

The state Department of Transportation has entered the severe-squeeze phase of its three-year project to rebuild every inch of the Beltline across South Raleigh. The impact will slow rush-hour traffic on major roads around the city.

By early September, the entire #BeltlineJam work zone will be clamped into three lanes of Interstate 40 traffic each way – on a freeway that normally needs up to five lanes one way. Beltline congestion slowed some rush-hour trips by more than 20 minutes last week, according to DOT statistics. Drivers can expect much worse after Labor Day, when workday traffic picks up after the summer lull.

There are many new express bus options now for Raleigh workers who drive in from outlying towns, and we’ll find out this fall how many commuters are ready to leave their cars behind in those park-and-ride lots.

Raleigh could learn a lot from Durham and Chapel Hill, the most transit-friendly cities in North Carolina. Their two municipal bus agencies saw combined ridership grow from 10.3 million in 2006 to 13.5 million in 2013.

Given these regional differences, you can see why Durham and Orange counties aren’t waiting for Wake to make up its mind about public transportation priorities. The two western Triangle counties are charting their own course in a transit plan with buses that will complement a light rail line linking UNC-Chapel Hill to Duke University and downtown Durham.

Millennials drive less

Even with our stubborn fondness for driving alone, the new Census Bureau numbers offer two reasons to expect more of a shift away from reliance on the automobile here. For one thing, Triangle downtowns are filling up with thousands of new condos and apartments, appealing especially to young Millennials who are more into other modes of travel.

Urban workers ages 25 to 29 showed the biggest drop in car-commuting between 2006 and 2013 nationwide – and the biggest increase in public transit use.

“If you’re young and you’re over in graduate school at Duke, you can use transit,” said Andy Henry, who works with the Durham-Chapel Hill area’s transportation planning agency. “You can walk to the restaurants in downtown Durham or Chapel Hill. And some of these start-ups that are locating downtown, they have mostly younger workers who are walking and biking and taking transit.”

And both ends of the Triangle are running well ahead of the nation in the growing popularity of another alternative to driving to work: Working at home.

Teleworking trails transit use nationally but far exceeds it among Triangle commuters, around 6 percent in both the Raleigh and Durham-Chapel Hill markets.

Its popularity here can be pegged to the growth of technology employers that are comfortable with workers spread out over their networks – but this is not another one of those Millennial things. Census numbers show that teleworking is more popular with workers in their 50s.

The journey to work, 2013 vs. 2006

The Triangle still lags behind the national average in commuters who use public transportation each day. But local workers are well ahead of the United States in the accelerating shift to teleworking – working at home.

Drive alone to work

US 76.4 percent in 2013 (up from 76 percent in 2006)

Durham-Chapel Hill metro area 73.7 (up from 72.8)

Raleigh metro area 80.4 (down from 80.8)

Use public transit

US 5.2 percent in 2013 (up from 4.8 percent in 2006)

Durham-Chapel Hill 4.5 (up from 4)

Raleigh 1 (unchanged)

Work at home

US 4.4 percent in 2013 (up from 3.9 percent in 2006)

Durham-Chapel Hill 5.8 (up from 4.3)

Raleigh 6.2 (up from 4.9)

Source: American Community Surveys for 2006 and 2013. Based on 2013 estimates of 595,000 workers in what the Census Bureau defines as the Raleigh metropolitan area, and 253,000 workers in the Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan area. Triangle data for 2013 is online at