This depressing map shows how the US is still a nation of drivers

Not much has changed. Image: CZmarlin at Wikimedia Commons.

Everyone knows that the car rules in the US. It's an enormous, spread-out country built for drivers, filled with cities flanked by sprawling, unwalkable suburbs. But as Europe begins to turn against cars – Madrid's city centre is banning non-resident vehicles; Hamburg hopes to be car-free in 20 years – is there any comparable trend in the US?

Well, in a word: no. This map shows how people get to work across the US, drawn from the US Census Bureau's 2013 American Community Survey and mapped by FlowingData. The colour represents the most popular mode of transport in each county; the darker the shade, the more popular it is.

Click for a larger image. 

We probably don't need to tell you this, but that mint green colour means that a majority of people in that statistical area said, in not so many words: "I drive alone to work. I don't carpool, I don't do public transport – I just drive my big oil-guzzling machine back and forth to work every day". 

Okay, we're being a little harsh. It isn't actually the entire US - it's just everywhere except the northern bit of Alaska, the areas around New York City, and the good folk of San Juan County, Colorado (population 700).

And if you redraw the map without the "drive alone" option enabled, you can see that the second most popular transport option across the US is reasonably diverse. Carpooling is the next most popular in many counties, but there's a fair sprinkling of walkers and home workers and, around Chicago and Washington DC, public transport users.

Click for a larger image.

But none of this changes the fact that around 80 per cent of Americans drive alone to work. The US has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world:

Source: World Bank.

...and its carbon emissions aren't looking great, either:

Source: World Bank.

Even in the nation's largest cities (with the notable exception of New York), solo driving doesn't lose its top spot. These are the counties containing Chicago and LA:

It does, however, drop off significiantly in Boston, which has a decent public transport system:

So will the States ever cut down on driving? In New York, cars are unpopular because there's good public transport, terrible congestion, and, anyway, everything is relatively close together. That'll be hard to replicate in much of the country.

But self-driving cars might help a little. A new study from the University of Michigan estimates that driverless cars could cut ownership rates in half, since they could carry out multiple journeys for multiple passengers throughout the day, making carpooling far more workable. 

This data raises one other question: why are Alaskans walking so much?

It might be because those counties are so sparsely populated: the smaller an area's population, the more likely it is to be an outlier (you can also see this "law of small numbers" at work in San Jaun County). It may also be that, because of the cold temperatures and snow, people tend to live close to their work - so walking is an option even when roads are unusable. 

 
 
 
 

Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.