Solo drivers still dominate Sacramento commute hour

A decade ago, the region’s smartest planners launched ambitious efforts to change the way Sacramentans get to work. They laid miles of new carpool lanes, extended light rail to the suburbs, and pushed for denser, mixed-use neighborhoods close to jobs, where people could walk and bike to work.

New data, however, suggest that investment has yet to pay off.

Three out of four commuters in the six-county region still get to work each day the same way they did in 2000, alone in their cars, according to an analysis by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

At the same time, despite a major state Transportation Department carpool-lane construction program, the percentage of commuters in carpools shrank noticeably. Public transit agencies ended the decade carrying about the same percentage of commuters as before. The percentage of people walking to work is slightly lower than in 2000. Only bicycling, among “alternative” transportation types, showed an increase. Bike numbers are small, though, just 1.7 percent of the region’s workforce.

Mike McKeever, executive director of SACOG, the regional planning agency pushing for a bike, walk and transit-friendly region, said he is not pleased, but not surprised by the numbers. They cover a decade in which regional planning and building were thrown topsy-turvy by a major recession.

“These are big changes” leaders are trying to make, McKeever said, “but they are evolutionary changes, not revolutionary changes. These numbers change very slowly.”

While the region has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in alternative transportation modes in the last decade, it also has spent hundreds of millions of dollars adding and widening roads to make it easier to commute in cars.

McKeever and others say they are concerned in particular about the decreasing percentage of carpools. SACOG plans to launch a review to try to find out what caused it. The carpooling drop-off, officials say, may be part of a national trend.

The new numbers, based on federal, state and local data, show some positives. After years of growing commute lengths and increased congestion, Sacramento held steady in the 2000s. The average commute time remained 26 minutes. Overall, congestion dropped slightly.

Notably, the number of people who work at home grew over the last few years, and now represents 5.5 percent of the region’s workforce. Some of them may be people who once commuted to jobs, lost during the recession, who now cobble together a living working from home.

The local effort to change commute patterns can be traced to 2004, when most of the region’s cities and counties agreed, in a statement called the Blueprint, to build more neighborhoods near jobs or transit. The goal, planners said, was to reduce pollution, increase travel options, shorten commute distances and keep congestion in check. Proponents also hoped to slow the outward push of new subdivisions into farmland and grassland.

Sacramento’s Blueprint won national recognition as a groundbreaking effort to build what are called “sustainable communities,” but its impact was almost immediately stymied by an event of greater magnitude: the crushing recession of 2007 that brought construction to a standstill and forced development plans to the shelf.

“Construction went from historic highs to unprecedented lows,” said Sacramento County Planning Director Leighann Moffitt.

The housing market now is making a slow comeback, and with it, planners say, the possibility of building more commute-friendly communities. In Rancho Cordova, a city that has emerged as a regional leader in suburban renewal, officials have cleared land to build urban-style housing, neighborhood stores and a community college center directly across Folsom Boulevard from the Mather/Mills light-rail station. West Sacramento is moving forward with once-stalled plans for a live-work riverfront community near Raley Field, where residents can use streetcars to get to downtown Sacramento jobs.

North State Building Industry Association President Mike Strech cautioned that Sacramento won’t suddenly find itself refashioned into a car-free urban community.

“The customer drives the demand,” he said. “There will be folks who want to live in lofts in West Sac and walk to the ballfield, and others who want to live in the suburbs with a little bit of land around them.”

Sacramento leaders say the recession also is partly to blame for what appears to have been a lost opportunity in recent years to bolster transit and carpooling in the region.

Sacramento transit agencies historically have struggled to provide more than skeletal services, partly because housing and offices here were built in a suburban, spread-out style, unlike San Francisco and New York where dense development makes transit service efficient and convenient.

Just before the recession, however, with gas prices rising, Sacramento-area transit agencies reported solid upticks in riders. Placer transit officials found some prime downtown express buses so full that they had to leave people standing on the sidewalk to await the next bus. Sacramento’s Regional Transit opened a light-rail line to Folsom and immediately had standing-room-only crowds on several morning trains.

But the recession hit transit budgets hard, prompting RT and other agencies to raise fares and cut service. Commuters with a choice gave up and headed back to their cars. RT cut its night service after 9 p.m., and discovered that swing shift workers stopped riding the system in mid-afternoon because there was no bus to get home.

“The timing was absolutely horrible,” RT general manager Mike Wiley said. “People were looking to save money and seek out alternatives more than in the past, and here we were cutting service. There was no option.”

Officials at RT and other transit agencies say budgets are improving and there is talk again of increasing service. In El Dorado County, transit officials hope to add more park-and-ride spaces along Highway 50. But the route to viability will be slow. RT re-instituted night service. But RT’s Wiley said his agency doesn’t expect to get back to 2009 service levels until 2017.

Carpooling appears to have been negatively affected by the recession as well. Marilyn Bryant, who oversees an online effort to link commuters in carpools, said she saw carpools break up during the recession when one pool member lost a job.

“There’s also been a lot of people taking retirement, especially downtown state workers who were carpoolers,” said Bryant, head of the Sacramento Transportation Management Association, which organizes alternative transportation for employees of many downtown-based businesses and state agencies.

The new data may increase debate over the efficacy of carpool lanes. Environmentalists contend the lanes, which serve as regular lanes for solo drivers during non-commute hours, encourage more far-flung housing developments, longer commutes and more driving in general.

Caltrans local district director Jody Jones said her agency has no plans to cut back on its program to build carpool lanes. She points out that the lanes are also used by transit agencies as express lanes during commute hours. Jones said her agency likely will take a closer look at the numbers, though.

“We need to delve into this a little,” she said.

SACOG head McKeever said he believes the region is heading in the right direction in trying to reduce commuting, and has done a decent job of setting the table for changes in the coming years.

“Now that we are getting bit of an economy, we’ll have to see going forward whether some of that positive movement starts to show up,” he said.