Expanding mass-transit systems is a pillar of green and “new urbanist” thinking, but with few exceptions, the idea of ever-larger numbers of people commuting into an urban core ignores a major shift in the labor economy: more people are working from home.
True, in a handful of large metropolitan regions—what we might call “legacy cities”—trains and buses remain essential. This is particularly true of New York, which accounts for a remarkable 43 percent of the nation’s mass-transit commuters, and of other venerable cities, such as San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Together, these metros account for 56 percent of all mass-transit commuting. But for most of the rest of the country, transit use—despite often-massive infrastructure investment—has either stagnated or declined. Among the 21 metropolitan areas that have opened substantially new urban-rail systems since 1970, mass transit’s share of work trips has declined, on average, from 5.3 percent to 5 percent. During the same period, the drive-alone share of work trips, notes demographer Wendell Cox, has risen from 71.9 percent to 76.1 percent.
Meantime, the proportion of the labor force working from home continues to grow. In 1980, 2.3 percent of workers performed their duties primarily at home; by 2015, this figure had doubled to 4.6 percent, only slightly behind the proportion of people who commute via mass transit. In legacy core–metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the number of people working from home is nearly half that of those commuting by transit. In the 47 MSAs without legacy cores, according to the American Community Survey, the number of people working from home was nearly 250 percent higher than people going to work on trains or buses.
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