Greater Greater Washington


Rural Virginia leads eastern US in cars per household

This map shows US counties, colored according to the average number of cars owned per household.

Map by Vizual Statistix on Tumblr.

Several broad trends are visible, most of them not surprising to anyone. But it is surprising that so many counties in Virginia stand out, with higher rates than otherwise comparable counties in nearby eastern states. What's different about the Old Dominion, versus West Virginia or North Carolina?

The map is from Tumblr blog Vizual Statistix, which has a lot of interesting data visualizations. It's worth a read.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 


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Such variation nearby is surprising. I wonder how much is affected by more elderly populations in some of the East Coast and Florida that dont drive as much. Then obviously there is poverty at work in some places like rural Mississippi/WV

by BTA on Dec 2, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport

Curious if the data differentiates vehicles primarily for farm use. My own extended family experience is that it is not uncommon to have various beaters and old pickups hanging around. Newer trucks are usually too pretty and pampered to ever see any actual work.

by spookiness on Dec 2, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

What's different about the Old Dominion, versus West Virginia or North Carolina?

I would guess higher incomes in Virginia.

by Fitz on Dec 2, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

@spookiness: It does not. Here is the question from the 2011 ACS. The author doesn't say which years of the ACS he used, but the question does not appear to have changed since before the 2000 Census.

9. How many automobiles, vans, and trucks of one-ton capacity or less are kept at home for use by members of this household?
[ ] None
[ ] 1
[ ] 2
[ ] 3
[ ] 4
[ ] 5
[ ] 6 or more

by Gray on Dec 2, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

Farm use surely explains why the interior west is so high, but how are farms in Virginia different from farms in North Carolina?

by BeyondDC on Dec 2, 2013 1:26 pm • linkreport

If you will look closely at the dark counties in Virginia you will notice little tiny dots in them that are much brighter (less vehicles per household). This is because there are a ton of municipalities in VA that are separated from the county surrounds them (like St Louis, Baltimore, and Carson City).

As a result the tiny little urban area, with a larger population and less vehicles per person isn't there to outweigh the rural county surrounding it like it would be elsewhere, lets say in Charleston WV or Durham NC.

by h_lina_k on Dec 2, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

I wonder how big a role household size plays in these stats. Families with lots of driving-age young adults at home would tend to have more cars than households with only one or two drivers.

by cminus on Dec 2, 2013 1:30 pm • linkreport

@BeyondDC: The farms would not need to be different in VA vs NC if farms represent a different proportion of households in those two locations.

by Gray on Dec 2, 2013 1:31 pm • linkreport

That would make sense, but I don't think it's the explanation. If you zoom in you can see there are some cities, but most of the darkest-red counties do not have them. VA has no fewer than 5 counties in the darkest-red categories that do *not* have independent cities. Besides Calvert County MD and what look like some suburban counties around Atlanta, there aren't any others on the east coast.

So whatever is causing those 5 VA counties to be red is probably also what's causing Calvert MD to be red, given their proximity.

Maybe tobacco farms specifically use more vehicles? But NC has a lot of tobacco farms too.

by BeyondDC on Dec 2, 2013 1:36 pm • linkreport

A ha! @h_lina_k brings up the major underlying issue. It's often problematic to compare county-level statistics across states, but particularly when one of the states is VA. Unlike most states, where cities are nested within counties, in VA a large number of cities and small towns are independent of the counties that surround them. Counting the towns and cities as counties of their own makes it hard to compare the statistics with other states like NC.

by Gray on Dec 2, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

My previous response was directed at h_lina_k's hypothesis.

by BeyondDC on Dec 2, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

Interesting, but not sure if this tells the whole story, since household size presumably varies from county to county. A more telling statistic might be the number of vehicles per adult.

by Ed Fendley on Dec 2, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport


I think the city/county issue does go to make VA as a state really stand out since a lot of the counties would be duller in color, but you are right there are a few like Bath County that are just really dark too.

by h_lina_k on Dec 2, 2013 1:50 pm • linkreport

could it be legal requirements.
VA has property tax on cars, which would discourage people from having unused expensive cars, but what about cheaper, older vehicles that can be kept around. I know in MD, even for a far the regulations can be time consuming and expensive, although many people ignore them. (others ditch they extra vehicles)

by Richard on Dec 2, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

Cars per capita would be a very interesting statistics, but hard to ascertain I guess.

by BTA on Dec 2, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

BTA - not really - this is a survey - just ask people how many people are in their household.

by TomA on Dec 2, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

They do ask that - on factfinder you can get the data broken down by household size. I assume that is how they created the "more vehicles than people" map.

by MLD on Dec 2, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

Sorry yeah I didnt mean that it would be hard to survey just a hard figure to determine if those numbers werent readily available. I guess the census probably has the raw numbers to do so though. I appreciate why household is used, but it always struck me as a bit of an odd benchmark being that a household could be 1 or 10 people.

by BTA on Dec 2, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

My original theory upon viewing this map was:

- Since Virginia is the wealthiest Southern state in terms of median income, it would have higher ownership rates than NC, GA, TN, etc.

- Because Virginia is relatively sparsely populated and the the vast majority of the state has poor access to transit, it would have higher car ownership rates than densely populated states in the Northeast (NJ, DE, MD, MA, etc)

The problem with these is that the high car ownership spills over into relatively dense Northern Virginia as well as the much poorer far-out reaches of the state. The theory also doesn't account for the huge drop-off in ownership across state borders. Borders (land borders anyway) are nothing but imaginary political lines, so logically the darker counties in VA should have similar numbers to neighboring counties in North Carolina and West Virginia.

Therefore the only logical conclusion is there must be a variance is how data was collected for each state, or at least specifically for Virginia.

by King Terrapin on Dec 2, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

If this map were broken down by census tract for the whole country maybe we could figure out the pattern. I like your explanation, Dan, but I still think the city-county breakup has something to do with it. It doesn't make sense to me that just Virginia (and not just the wealthiest counties) stands out so much.

by MLD on Dec 2, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

Southern Maryland also has very high car ownership rates it appears.

by Greenbelt on Dec 2, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

I would just point out that it's hard to see but Montgomery PG and Arlington/Alexandria are all on the lower car side of the scale. It doesn't end up on the higher end until Fairfax and Frederick etc.

by BTA on Dec 2, 2013 3:13 pm • linkreport

> land borders are nothing but imaginary political lines, so logically the darker counties in VA should have similar numbers to neighboring counties in North Carolina and West Virginia.

That looks like it's present to me. Not so much on the WV border, but on the MD & NC borders definitely. Calvert, Charles, & St Mary's MD, and Stokes, Caswell, Person, Franklin, Gates, & Currituck NC.

by BeyondDC on Dec 2, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

Borders (land borders anyway) are nothing but imaginary political lines, so logically the darker counties in VA should have similar numbers to neighboring counties in North Carolina and West Virginia.

Therefore the only logical conclusion is there must be a variance is how data was collected for each state, or at least specifically for Virginia.

Or there might be some legal incentive to own cars in VA that is not present in other states nearby. I think we need to look at the regulatory requirements for owning, registering, and maintaining a car in each state to understand what might be going on here.

by Richard on Dec 2, 2013 4:17 pm • linkreport

King Terrapin, umm Maryland is not a Northeast stare, it's part of the south....

by Rick on Dec 2, 2013 7:30 pm • linkreport

How is the transportation in Virginia local city/county public transit and interstate public transit compared to other cities/counties in neighboring states ?

I have family that lives in Amelia, Appomattox & Prince Edward County and it is horrible to get to those counties. The only transit in you see there is Greyhound and a very tiny bus system in towns such as Farmville. No matter what you do you will end up in a car driving to your destination.

Other parts of the state are just like these counties in that there is really no public transit so you are forcing people to drive for everything.

by kk on Dec 3, 2013 1:48 am • linkreport

@Rick: yup, part of that liberal democratic voting block, for sure. Maryland was part of the south 150 years ago. Nowadays I think the south starts around Fredericksburg.

by Mike on Dec 3, 2013 8:00 am • linkreport

How is the transportation in Virginia local city/county public transit and interstate public transit compared to other cities/counties in neighboring states ?

Sure, those places you mentioned have bad transit, but it isn't any worse than other places in the south. Populated places in Virginia likely have better transit than the equivalent places in North or South Carolina.

I can't see a compelling argument for why so many Virginia counties should have rates of vehicle ownership as high as rural plains states/mountain west states, so I have to assume it has to do with how the data is broken up or collected.

by MLD on Dec 3, 2013 9:29 am • linkreport

"Nowadays I think the south starts around Fredericksburg."

I'd agree with that, but Maryland is physically located in the south. I wouldn't call Miami a southern city either, but it's in the south. If you're south of 39°50′ N, you're in the south. All of Maryland meets this requirement. Maryland cannot be a densely populated northeastern state because it's not physically in the northeast.

by Another Nick on Dec 3, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

Maryland is a northeastern state. There is no physical boundary clearly separating the northeast from the southeast except maybe the Potomac (which would make Maryland a northeastern state), so the division is a cultural one, and culturally Maryland is a northeastern state. That this was not the case 200 or even 100 years ago is not important now.

by cminus on Dec 3, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

@cminus-MD is culturally a southern state. At the time of the civil war MD was a slave state. that is the most important cultural/historic indicator. In addition its economic history is more agrarian in comparison to northeast states with a more industrial history; people from MD have southern accents, albeit MD southern accents but southern accents nonetheless. There are other cultural/historic reasons placing MD in the south, and of course the Mason-Dixon line...

by Tina on Dec 3, 2013 10:53 am • linkreport

@Another Nick: physically, I'd say it's in the mid-atlantic

@Tina: all that was true 150 years ago. These days you'll find a southern accent in some places but it's extremely rare per capita. You also won't find much agrarian culture left in central Maryland. You might not have noticed, but that's mostly suburbs these days. This ongoing transition is the source of a lot of the political tensions in the state, just as in northern Virginia.

by Mike on Dec 3, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

Maryland is definitely not a Southern state, although some parts of Maryland (and Delaware) may be considered Southern in nature (lower Delmarva peninsula). The Mason-Dixon Line (another imaginary political line) does not make Maryland "southern." There is no fixed boundary between North and South, but a gradual transition.

Maryland is a very liberal, wealthy, majority Catholic, densely-populated, knowledge-economy-intensive state, which puts it at odds with pretty much every Southern state.

If you've been to Baltimore for any prolonged length of time you'd realize that it was without question a Northern city. Baltimore's history as a major economic hub going back to the early 1800's, it's very large blue collar population, it's large population of European Immigrants (Greek, Italian, Polish, Irish, etc), and its unique accent (almost identical to Philly's), make it very different from every Southern city.

DC isn't Southern either, but for entirely different reasons. The true North/South line (if there is one) is somewhere in Northern VA in Prince William County, possibly stretching across the river into Southern MD.

by King Terrapin on Dec 3, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport

So maryland has traits of both north and south which is what you'd typically expect in a border state.

by drumz on Dec 3, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

The other thing that stands out to me is the low rate of car ownership along the Mississippi. Any thought on why?

by bajin on Dec 3, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport


I prefer the term "Mid-Atlantic" as well, but these days it's become ambiguous. On rare occasions I've heard people include states as far south as North Carolina. More realistically the Mid-Atlantic (as an economic and cultural region) includes DC, MD, DE, PA, and NJ (the core states) and also Northern VA, Downstate NY, WV Panhandle (the periphery).

@ Tina
Actually whether or not you decided to commit an act of treason and betray the Union and send your citizens to die for the Confederacy, then suffer 50 years of Reconstruction as a penalty, is a much stronger indicator. Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware were all slave states at the time of the Civil War, but all joined the Union (and were termed "("border" states) and are no longer considered Southern by most.

Also, while MD and DE were technically "slave states" at the time of the War they weren't taking it as seriously (or nearly as willing to fight for it) as most of the South. Just over 50% of blacks in MD and 90% of blacks in DE were free at the time. If you look at VA and NC during the same time frame it was a totally different story.

Southern accents??? Don't mistake accents in rural areas for being "southern."

According to linguist Robert Delaney, the local Maryland dialect is "North Midland." The map is a little inaccurate though, since residents of Baltimore and Philadelphia speak with a very different accent, and any native accent (besides ones that are ethnicity-specific) inside the Beltway disappeared a long time ago.

by King Terrapin on Dec 3, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

@bajin, not so much along the entire Mississippi as it is the Mississippi Delta (the area between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers), and to a lesser extent a stretch of the Mississippi valley between far southern Illinois and northern Louisiana. Those areas tend to have a relatively large proportion of African-American residents, so income levels might play a role.

by cminus on Dec 3, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

The other thing that stands out to me is the low rate of car ownership along the Mississippi. Any thought on why?

That stripe along the river lines up almost perfectly if you look at a map of poverty rates.

by MLD on Dec 3, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport

Southern Maryland looks pretty darned dark red or "many cars per household" on that map, because it has little public transportation. I see that central Massachusetts (where I'm from) also is slightly darker than other parts of the state, which is no surprise to me, as I need to drive to visit my relatives up there.

It would be interesting to correlate these maps with population density, transit usage and household income.

by Greenbelt Gal on Dec 3, 2013 3:49 pm • linkreport

King Terrapin, You are entitled to your opinion but it will not ever take away from the FACT that Maryland is a Southern State......

by Tom on Dec 3, 2013 10:20 pm • linkreport

Maryland by definition is part of the North; there was a war fought over this. Duh. At the very least, it's not part of the South.

by dcforever on Dec 4, 2013 9:46 am • linkreport

Wow! Fascinating how this discussion turned from the number of cars per household, to defining what is "North" and what is "South."

Probably most of y'all know this, but there's a quote (attributed to Kennedy or someone in his administration?) that goes something like, "Washington has all the charm of a northern city, and the efficiency of a southern town."


Kudos if anyone can enlighten me to the actual quote or who said it. :-)

by Rich 'n Alexandria on Dec 4, 2013 10:31 am • linkreport

@drumz, So maryland has traits of both north and south which is what you'd typically expect in a border state.

Exactly. And as someone from the north, the distinctly southern attributes are very noticeable to me.

by Tina on Dec 4, 2013 11:00 am • linkreport

@King Terrapin, Southern accents??? Don't mistake accents in rural areas for being "southern."

Yes, Southern. The southern Md accent is local MD accent yes but also Southern.

by Tina on Dec 4, 2013 11:04 am • linkreport

You're right, it's my opinion, and it's one I share with the vast majority of residents of this state (according to UNC's "Center for the South").

However, just because you offer your own opinion and attach the word "fact" spelled out in all caps doesn't magically make it indisputably true anywhere except in your own mind.
It's not even a black and white issue. Some parts of the state do have some Southern traits, such as the lower Eastern Shore; most regions of the state do not.

But don't take my word for it. Do your own research and look up some actual facts about MD such as: population density, voter registration, transit usage, religion, median income, laws (death penalty, gun laws, gay marriage, etc), which side it took in the Civil War, and even the history of Baltimore to see if MD is more similar to New Jersey and Connecticut or Virginia and North Carolina.

by King Terrapin on Dec 4, 2013 11:27 am • linkreport


I didn't realize that the 3 counties in Southern MD (which do not have a typical Southern accent) represent the entire state.

What about those living in the more rural dairy farm regions along the northern border who speak exactly like people living in south central PA/WV Panhandle? Or, the residents of the Baltimore, whose accent is almost identical to Philadelphia's (as I and others have mentioned earlier)?

by King Terrapin on Dec 4, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

@King Terrapin, see my comment @11:00

by Tina on Dec 4, 2013 11:46 am • linkreport

A few more material culture data points, re: Maryland.

In terms of vernacular architecture, rural Maryland leans toward Virginia and the Tidewater. The archetypal farmhouse is the I house. The urban areas are different. The small-lot rowhouse with stoop, fronting directly on the street, is distinct to Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Foodways. Maryland is scrapple country.

Industry came to Maryland later than New England, but also earlier than to the rural South. Textile mills in Maryland are built like ones in Southern New England and New Jersey, and they date to maybe the 1870s. The mills farther south, in the Piedmont, are closer to the turn of the century, and they're built differently.

by David R. on Dec 4, 2013 12:25 pm • linkreport

Well this conversation has taken an interesting turn...

The entire DC Area north of Fredericksburg is clearly Northern. DC is the southern end of the Northeast Transportation and Economic Corridor. And unless they've been asleep for the last 150 years, I don't see how anyone can seriously consider super liberal, densely populated, Union Maryland to be even remotely Southern in the same breadth as places like Tennessee, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

Historically? Maybe. Now? Lol.

by K Street on Dec 4, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

I think it's mostly because rural Virginia is wealthier than other rural parts of the south. Even without seeing this map, I could have guessed that just based on what limited driving around I've done in the rural south. Down in the gulf states it seems you see vast swaths of abject poverty which are less common in VA. Why? One reason is just the overall economic health of VA, and how much there is there to "trickle down"...from the federal government, mostly, but also from the state's excellent higher education system, or from the equestrian culture of NW Virginia. I know a woman from SW of Charlottesville who is proudly southern, Virginia born & bred, but also considers Virginia a cut above any other southern state.

I grew up in DC and have family living in and extended family from both north and south of the Mason Dixon. This is all about the difference between de facto and de jure. Sure, MD is de facto a northern state these days. It is a de jure southern state, or at least border state, and I bet a survey of PhD-level American historians would agree with that at least 10 to 1. My brother's in-laws in NYC, for example, consider Maryland to be the South. The culture of the eastern shore and southern Maryland is almost entirely southern, even to this day, and that's over 1/3 the area of the state. I like what writer Mac Griswold said in her history of American gardens: Maryland is the first southern state, and Baltimore is the last northern city.

by Davester on Dec 6, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

BTW that's part of a history that works its way down the east coast; of course Maryland isn't chronologically the "first" southern state.

by Davester on Dec 6, 2013 12:43 pm • linkreport

That bit from Mac Griswold is pretty clever . . . and seems pretty spot on. It reminds me of what you hear about New Orleans: its not a southern US town so much as the most northern Caribbean city. Goes to show that "North" and "South" are very relative terms.

by Rich 'n Alexandria on Dec 6, 2013 5:31 pm • linkreport

Davester, Thats fine that you think that way but it still does not remove the FACT than Maryland is a Southern State...

by Tom on Dec 8, 2013 2:49 pm • linkreport

K Street, the only reason why people from the deep south don't want t accept Maryland as a Southern state is due to the 150 bitterness of the Confederates losing the Civil War and they secretly Blame Maryland for the Confederates losing the war...

by Tom on Dec 8, 2013 2:54 pm • linkreport

Haha right, because "Tom" says it's so it must be FACT...

You keep on living in your little Dixie "bubble" in your little corner of MD stuck in 1801, if you actually live in the state...which I doubt, while the rest of the state moves on in the 21st century...

by K Street on Dec 8, 2013 6:49 pm • linkreport

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