How Philadelphians Get to Work: An Equity Perspective
Commuting and Public Transit Access in Philadelphia
Emmy Danforth, November 2, 2023
Effective and efficient public transportation is an essential tool for a city to expand economic opportunities for its residents and businesses. Nationally, investment in public transportation generates and supports jobs, raises home values, and increases business sales . Conversely, lack of public transit can exacerbate inequity and prevent residents from easily accessing jobs, health care, and other services. In a 2020 study, 39% of surveyed low-income Philadelphia residents named transportation as the biggest obstacle to finding and sustaining employment .
In this issue of Leading Indicators, we look at how Philadelphians get to work. The most recently available data, the American Community Survey’s 2022 1-year estimates, illustrate significant differences in Philadelphians’ reliance on public transit across racial and ethnic groups and across geographies.
What You Need to Know
Figure 1 illustrates how Philadelphians got to work in 2017 and 2022 by racial or ethnic group. In both reference years, driving alone was the most common form of transportation to work for all groups. In 2017, public transit was uniformly the second most common transportation mode, but in 2022, we see that the reliance on public transit varies significantly across populations.
For the Asian, Hispanic, and white groups, working from home has superseded public transit as the second most common means of getting to work. However, for the Black population, public transit remains the second most common form of commuting. In 2022, 23% of the Black population take public transit to work, while 11-12% of the Asian, Hispanic, and white populations do.
In 2022, Black workers have the lowest rate of working from home and the highest rate of driving alone. White workers have the highest rate of working from home and the lowest rate of driving alone. A higher proportion of Hispanic workers carpool to work than any other group.
Source: ACS 2022 and 2017 1-year estimates
Overall, driving alone is the most common form of commuting for city residents. Note that this analysis is based on a worker’s residence rather than workplace location, so it may include some workers who commute out of the city. Likewise, since this analysis is based on Philadelphia County only, it does not include regional residents who commute into the city.
With 47% of Philadelphia residents driving to work, Philadelphia’s commuting patterns are similar to other peer cities. Driving is also the most common mode of transportation in Chicago and Boston, where 55% and 35% of residents drive to work, respectively.
How the City Gets to Work
Spatially, there appear to be clear patterns around how workers commute. Figure 2 illustrates that census tracts around Center City are the least likely to drive alone to work, while the tracts farthest from the city center are the most likely to drive to work. Conversely, very few census tracts have a significant proportion of the population taking public transit. This aligns with Figure 1 above showing that the city’s predominant mode of travel is driving.
Yet, there is increased usage of public transportation moving towards the primary subway lines. Those areas that have at least 40% of workers using public transit are concentrated along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines.
While not as well-defined as transit usership, there is also a minor spatial trend in the population who work from home. The census tracts where at least 20% of workers stay home are scattered around the vicinity of Center City and have a small concentration in Northwest Philadelphia.
Source: ACS 2021 5-year estimates
In American cities, more affluent white residents tend to live in closer proximity to business centers and have greater access to the city’s resources. Equitably designed public transit can account for the advantage of geographical proximity to focus on increasing access for other groups.
Yet, in Philadelphia, driving is by far the most common means of transportation to work, which reflects how driving provides access to opportunity. Estimates show that in the Philadelphia region, a 45-minute drive offers access to about 1.5 million jobs, while a 45-minute transit ride reaches only 200,000 jobs .
In 2022, the rates of public transit usership, driving, and working from home vary significantly by racial and ethnic group. This suggests an equivalent disparity in the quantity and type of jobs that each group has access to. While public transit may offer the easiest access to jobs in center city, driving extends the range of accessible jobs. The increase in working from home speaks to a meaningful change in labor practices, yet the disparity between groups indicates that not all workers are benefiting from this change.