With the improving economy, commuters have reverted to their old ways: They are driving to work alone.

According to recent data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, more than 76 percent of people in the United States who are 16 or older and work outside the home get to their jobs by car. That's just below the all-time high of 77 percent in 2005, before the economy went bust. The number of solo drivers dipped slightly after that, while carpooling and mass transit use saw a modest uptick.

The trend didn't stick.

Here in progressive Minnesota, 78 percent of commuters travel solo, according to the survey. Only 4 percent used mass transit and 8 percent car- or van-pooled in 2012, the survey said.

"It's an easy habit to automatically get in the car and go places," said Jessica Treat, executive director of St. Paul Smart Trips, an organization whose mission is to improve sustainable transportation options for those who travel in the city. "That is what people are accustomed to doing."

The Twin Cities and some of its suburbs have made major investments over the past decade in the form of light rail, bus rapid transit, a proliferation of bike paths and lanes, and new car- and bike-sharing programs. The challenge is to get people to use them.

On Wednesday, Metro Transit and the region's Transportation Management Organizations (TMOs) honored five corporations, building owners, government entities, employers and organizations, along with one individual, with 2013 Commuter Choice Awards for trying to to promote alternatives to driving to work alone. Six longtime van-pool organizers also received awards.

KARE-TV meteorologist Sven Sungaard, who emceed the event at the St. Anthony Main Event Centre, called them "commuter champions" and said that their efforts are "something we can all get behind."

Getting more people to use mass transit, carpools or van pools, or to bike or walk to work may be the key to combatting congestion here as the area's population grows and roads reach capacity. In the past decade, the average commute by car "is taking longer than ever," and has increased by three minutes — for an average of 25.5 minutes, according to the third installment of "Commuting in America" series by the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council.

Some cities, such as New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have seen a decline in the number of solo drivers and increases in numbers of those who ride buses or trains and carpool. Treat says using mass transit is a mindset, and increasing its use comes down to educating the public.

"There are a lot of options that they [the public] may not know about. It's about increasing the awareness that they exist," she said. "And then it's showing how these options fit into their lives."

In the coming year, the new light-rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul will begin running. Down the road, Minneapolis might have streetcars, and more bus rapid transit lines like the one on Cedar Avenue might appear.

But will they get us out of our cars?

"It's not an all-or-nothing solution," Treat said. "Even [riding the bus or biking] one or two times a week can have a lot of impact on congestion."

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.