Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday January 20th, 2014, 3:52pm

Report: More Chicagoans Turning To Public Transit, Biking As Driving Declines (UPDATED)

Fewer people in the Chicago "urbanized area" are driving, while more are biking and taking public transportation, a recent report from the Illinois PIRG Education Fund shows.

The national study examined the changing transportation trends in America's 100 largest urbanized areas, which are defined as regions larger than a city but smaller than a metropolitan area.

In the Chicago area, the number of workers commuting by car declined by 2.1 percent between 2000 and the years between 2007 to 2011, according to the report, which reviewed available data from the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Census Bureau. (The “2007 to 2011” time period is in reference to the data collected by the 2011 American Community Survey, a five-year survey covering 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011). Meanwhile, Chicago households without a car increased by 1.1 percent from 2006 to 2011.

The St. Louis, MO-IL urbanized area also saw a 2 percent decrease in workers traveling to work by car from 2000 to 2007-2011, the report showed. The region also experienced a 0.8 percent increase in the number of households without a private vehicle between 2006 to 2011.

Across the nation, driving was down in nearly all 100 urbanized areas during the 2000 to 2007-2011 time period. The report noted that the regions that experienced the largest drops in driving did not have higher instances of poverty and unemployment or larger decreases in median household income compared to regions with smaller driving declines.

“With transit ridership breaking records across the country, rising gas prices, and baby boomers and young people moving back to cities from suburbs, it is no surprise that people want to drive less,” Christopher Ziemann, project manager at Bus Rapid Transit Chicago, said in a statement. “Common sense says that we need to invest in fast, reliable, transformative transit."

Meanwhile, the number of miles traveled on public transit per capita ticked up in the Chicago area by 2.6 percent between 2005 and 2010. Overall, the number of per-capita trips taken on public transit during this time grew by 3.7 percent in the region.

"It's encouraging that more people are able to enjoy the savings and health benefits of biking, walking and transit, but as one of the largest urban areas in the U.S., we should be far less dependent on cars," said Ron Burke, executive director of Active Transportation Alliance. "Our region is still mainly built around driving, and we're saddled with a badly underfunded transit system that isn't convenient for most residents."

Burke is not the only transportation expert who has stressed that Illinois' massive northeastern public transit network, which includes the CTA, Metra and Pace, has a lot of room for improvement.

Public transit capital spending in the Chicago metropolitan area has seen chronic underinvestment over the past two decades, experts have noted. And just a small percentage of the overall region, which is larger than Chicago's "urbanized area", and its jobs are located at least a half mile from public transit.

An interim report issued in October by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, which is making recommendations on how to reform the mass transit system, noted that work trips on public transit have actually declined in the Chicagoland area over the past decades. In 1980, 18 percent of all work trips in the Chicago metro area were on transit, but that figure sank to 13 percent by 2010. Meanwhile, traffic congestion nearly tripled from 1980 to 2010, according to the task force.

The Illinois PIRG Education Fund's report also painted a less-than-sunny public transit picture for the St. Louis area.

The region's per-capita miles traveled on public transit ticked down by 3.2 percent between 2005 and 2010, while the number of transit trips per capita also dropped by 12.4 percent. The St. Louis region did, however, experience a 0.1 percent increase in its bicycle trips to work per capita between the 2000 and 2007-2011 time period, which was the 36th-best ranking.

And even more Chicagoans are riding their bikes to work, the study showed.

During that same time period, Chicago saw a 0.3 percent increase in the number of people traveling to their job by bicycle, the 13th-highest increase.

Those stats, however, do not take into account Divvy, Chicago's massive bike-sharing program, which launched last June. There are 300 Divvy locations stocked with bikes in the city, with 175 more expected to pop up this year, putting Chicago on track to having the most bike-sharing stations in North America. Divvy riders took 600,000 trips, covering more than 1.5 million miles, within the first four months of the program.

“The large, recent increase in Chicago bike commuting shows that a 21st century city must provide transportation choices to be competitive," said Ed Barsotti, executive director of the League of Illinois Bicyclists. "The large, recent decrease in both federal and state grants for local bikeways is a double whammy, at exactly the wrong time.” 

UPDATE 1 (5:52 p.m.): The supplier for the Divvy bike sharing program, Public Bike System Company, has filed for bankruptcy, throwing a potential wrench in plans to expand the system in Chicago. 

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