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Why Hawaiians Carpool So Much

Three of the nation's top metros for carpooling are in the Aloha State.

Shoppers line a popular street in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.
Shoppers line a popular street in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.
FlickrCC/Matt McGee
Throughout the country, carpooling is a relative rarity, with just 9.7 percent of adult workers traveling with at least one other companion in the automobile.

But it turns out that, in some parts of the country, huge numbers of residents commute via carpool. And, interestingly, some of the biggest concentration of carpoolers are in Hawaii.

Of all areas with at least 50,000 commuters, three of the top 11 with the highest carpooling rates are found in the Aloha State, a review of Census estimates shows.

In the Honolulu metro area, more than 14.7 percent of adult workers carpool to their jobs. In both the Hilo and Kahului-Wailuku areas, on the Big Island, more than 14 percent of residents carpool to work.

Why, exactly is that the case? It has to do with money and culture.

In some places, a high prevalence of carpooling is likely due to high poverty rates. Indeed, by different metrics, Bakersfield, Calif.; Albany, Ga.; and Laredo, Texas; have at various times been ranked among the poorest places in the United States. Given the financial struggles of residents, it's no surprise that when they're pressed for resources, sharing driving costs might could be an effective way to save money.

But Honolulu has a median household income of more than $70,000, which is high. Kahului-Wailuku's is relatively high too -- at $61,383 -- and Hilo's median income of nearly $49,000 is only slightly below the U.S. average of $51,771.

Brian Gibson, executive director of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, of which Honolulu is a part, says there's two things going on.

Oahu is dominated by jobs that serve the tourism industry, like retail, restaurants and hotels, which aren't high-paying. But the cost of living in Oahu is very high -- about 50 percent more than most mainland U.S. cities, Gibson says.

So while the median income seems high, it really isn't. That "relative poverty" causes many families to make concessions. Often, Gibson says, adult children can't afford to move out of their parents' homes, resulting in a high percentage of multi-generational housing units compared to the rest of the country. And those families often drive together.

"It’s not uncommon to see a household include aunts, uncles, cousins, and even close un-related family friends," Gibson wrote in an email. "Many individuals and, to a lesser extent, entire families forgo auto ownership because a high percentage of their income must pay the rent or the mortgage. Or, alternatively, a multi-generational household may have only one vehicle because that is all they can afford."

The other reason for the high number of Hawaiian carpoolers, Gibson speculates, is the culture on the islands. Many Hawaiians have lived here their entire life, and the result is a close-knit social structure, Gibson says. "These close social structures and deep respect for familial relationships effectively eliminates the 'stranger danger' concerns that can limit the success of carpooling efforts on the mainland," Gibson writes.

Those close ties also make it easier to figure out the logistics of carpooling. People on the mainland might be interested in carpooling, but they just don't know who lives and works nearby. In Hawaii, Gibson says, you're more likely to know those details about your friends and neighbors.

The following table lists metro and micropolitan areas where those who carpool account for the highest share of all commuters:

Area % Carpool all workers % Carpool all auto commuters % Carpool (3 or more) of all auto commuters Estimated carpool commuters
Bakersfield-Delano, CA Metro Area 15.4 16.9 6.2 47,239
Laredo, TX Metro Area 15.3 16.5 3.9 14,342
Lake Havasu City-Kingman, AZ Metro Area 15.0 16.3 4.3 10,009
Hanford-Corcoran, CA Metro Area 14.8 16.1 6.4 7,950
Honolulu, HI Metro Area 14.7 18.6 4.7 70,200
Stockton, CA Metro Area 14.5 15.9 4.9 37,303
Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, CA Metro Area 14.3 17.7 5.0 27,197
Hilo, HI Micro Area 14.1 16.5 3.4 11,033
Albany, GA Metro Area 14.1 15.1 3.8 8,230
New Bern, NC Micro Area 14.0 15.4 4.7 7,586
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010-2012 American Community Survey estimates
Governing reached out to other communities to find out why they had so many carpoolers. Often it came down to high housing prices and long commutes.

The Santa Barbara region, ranked seventh in terms of carpooling rate, has high housing costs due to its coastal location.

"We have a situation where it's not affordable to buy (homes) along the coast in Santa Barbara, and that's where a lot of jobs are, so they commute from Ventura and more inland," says Kent Epperson, director of Traffic Solutions, a division of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments.

In the Stockton, Calif. metro area, huge numbers of commuters travel to the San Francisco area, about 80 miles away, and Sacramento, about 50 miles away.

As housing prices soared before the recession, Bay Area residents relocated to Stockton in an effort to find cheaper homes. After the recession, residents of Stockton began searching further and further away for jobs, says Kari McKnickle, a regional planner with the San Joaquin Council of Governments. Both those factors conspired to make long commutes for Stockton residents.

When workers travel long distances, carpooling can become more attractive, Epperson says.

Indeed, Michele Walker, transit mobility manager with the Western Arizona Council of Governments, cited the huge distance between Like Havasu City and Kingman, the two largest cities in Mohave County.

The Lake Havasu City-Kingman, Arizona, metro area ranked third in terms of carpooling rates. That's because of the big distance -- 60 miles -- between the two cities. Walker says the agency's own employees carpool between the cities to save money on gas and wear-and-tear on their vehicles.

In other cases, carpooling may be closely related to the type of jobs in a region. Low incomes have driven carpooling in the Bakersfield, Calif. area. But so too has van-pooling to remote work sites at places like wind farms, farms, prisons, and military facilities, says , says Robert Ball, planning division director with the Kern Council of Governments.

In the Hanford-Corcoran metro area, located in King County about 50 miles south of Fresno, 14.8 percent of workers carpool.

Ronald Hughes, executive director of the California Vanpool Authority, says the high numbers in Kings County are the result of a vanpool project started by the Kings County Public Transit Agency in 2002. Today, that program is incorporated into the much larger CalVans, which serves more than 5,400 vanpool riders using 460 vans in 17 counties. 

Carpooling Map

The following map shows metro areas where those who carpool to work account for higher shares of commuters. (Open interactive map in new window)


Communications manager for the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute and former Governing staff writer
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