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The American cities with the most growth in car-free households

The Washington metropolitan area is tied with New York for the 3rd-largest increase in car-free households over 5 years. Angie Schmitt summarizes a new analysis:

Data from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

The highest rate of vehicle ownership in America occurred in 2007, when the average household owned 2.07 vehicles, according to research by Michael Sivak for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Recently, the average number of cars per household dipped below 2—at the end of 2012, it was 1.98.

That's in part because a growing number of American households—especially in big cities—don't own a car at all anymore. In 2012—the latest year in which data was available—9.2 percent of American households lacked a motor vehicle. That's compared to 8.7 percent in 2007, according to Sivak's review of Census data.

The share of car-free households varies considerably among the 30 largest American cities, from 56.5 percent in New York to 5.8 percent in San Jose. But between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of car-free households grew in 21 of those 30 cities. The change was especially pronounced in cities where a lot of people were already getting by without cars. The 13 cities with the highest proportion of car-free households in 2007 all saw an increase between then and 2012, reports Sivak.

Not all cities are seeing an increase in car-free households. Denver, Dallas, El Paso, Austin, San Antonio, and Columbus all bucked the trend, registering slight increases. Dallas registered no change.

Growth in car-free households reflects a number of local factors, including the quality of transit, walkability, and income levels, among other factors, according to Sivak. But he says wider social trends are at work as well.

This study is the latest in a series examining trends in driving behavior for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute—which is funded in part by auto companies. Sivak's previous research has shown that in addition to owning fewer cars, Americans are driving less miles and consuming less fuel.

Sivak points out that all of these trends predate the recent economic crisis, suggesting they are the result of wider cultural influences, such as the rise in telecommuting, increasing urbanization, and changing preferences of young people.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog DC.

Angie Schmitt is a Cleveland-based writer and activist who specializes in transportatin planning and Midwestern cities. She manages the national sustainable transportation advocacy blog, Angie is a former newspaper reporter with a masters degree in urban planning, design and development. 


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Let's all strive to be like detroit!

Everyone who is wealthy(and owns a car), get in your car and flee the city!

by Chipz on Jan 21, 2014 3:55 pm • linkreport

Don't you think the biggest reason for Detroit's increase in car-free households it is mostly due to falling incomes, not a cultural influences?

by Reuben on Jan 21, 2014 3:58 pm • linkreport

Picking up on Reuben's comment, it would be interesting to see the change controlling for changes in income. Although income in Detroit went down (I assume), it went up in DC (not sure about Indianapolis or New York City). So likely there's a mix of economic and cultural influences at play depending on the city.

by Brett on Jan 21, 2014 4:25 pm • linkreport

No doubt the Detroit statistic is a negative economic indicator. But car dependency has always been an unfunded mandate for many households. Unless driving is truly a choice, it is a burden that is sometimes ruinous.

by Robert Lohman on Jan 21, 2014 4:44 pm • linkreport

I don't doubt that in places like New York, Chicago, DC, etc. that people choose not to have cars. I have a harder time believing that is the case in places like Jacksonville where there is limited transit, especially during the weekends.

by Reuben on Jan 21, 2014 4:50 pm • linkreport

It seems a bit odd to show the changes in percentage points moved, instead of proportional changes. Those 2.4 percentage points of change for DC represents a much larger proportional increase than for NYC. In other words, DC is changing faster than NYC. Similar adjustments for the proportional changes could be made to all of the other data shown.

by Cilla on Jan 21, 2014 4:53 pm • linkreport

In the case of DC, NYC & Baltimore I wonder if the growth is from new residents moving into those cities and don't have cars or are they the children of present older residents that don't have cars and the kids are now adults (turned 18) and they don't have cars either.

Why is there no info on car free with income/disability to determine if the car free are that way by choice or because they can not afford a car or are disabled and can not drive.

by kk on Jan 21, 2014 5:04 pm • linkreport

@Cilla. The change in share is a perfectly reasonable to compare cities, since it represents the fraction of a city's population that changed behavior. You seem to prefer to emphasize the percentage change in the percentage of people living without a car, which would imply that going from 1% to 1.2% (20% gain) is more impressive than going from 35.5 to 37.79%. And you also get into arguments about whether NYC's 5.4% proportional decline in people relying on a car is far more impressive than DC. 3.7% decline.

Aside from wealth, some accounting for family size shifts might be relevant in some cases where cities are becoming older or younger.

by JimT on Jan 21, 2014 6:17 pm • linkreport

Hey, Mr. Lohman, lay off Detroit. Them people is going through Mad Max times.

by BO on Jan 21, 2014 6:19 pm • linkreport

Cilla - DC is "changing faster" than NYC? umm no this is a measure of household. Actually if you look at the total number of households... 2.4 percent in NYC is many times more ppl than 2.4 in DC.

by Andre on Jan 21, 2014 6:50 pm • linkreport

BO- I meant no disrespect to folks in Detroit. I don't respect the automobile culture, and I realize Detroit & automobiles are almost synonymous.I'd love to see buses and rail cars made by union workers in Detroit.

by Robert Lohman on Jan 21, 2014 8:51 pm • linkreport

The change in Indianapolis is most striking. In the home of the Indy 500, almost everyone owned a car. A jump from 7.6% to 10.3% is a massive seachange in the population. And Indianapolis has really bad public transportation. And it isn't economically collapsing like Detroit, either.

They must be walking or bicycling.

by Nathanael on Jan 22, 2014 1:08 am • linkreport

As a Detroiter most of my life until 2010, I can tell you, without ANY doubt that the ONLY reason for those numbers has everything to do with the economy and households forced to pare down from 3 cars to 2, or 2 cars to 1, or 1 car and pray for the bus.
Detroit public transportation, within the city and without, is a major disaster, strictly relying on questionable bus service (with some cities, like Livonia, rather gleefully opting out) that is divided between Suburban bus service SMART and the Detroit bus service, DOT. And for 50 years, nearly all efforts to merge them have been derailed by either selfish self-interests in either the 'burbs or the city, for a variety of reasons. Only recently has there been approval of a regional authority, but only for light rail going up a couple miles along Woodward Ave and BRT systems in various parts, non of which has been built.
With the exception of the recently built Dequindre cut, biking too is effectively non-existent, especially on suburban routes which is primarily designed for speed (regular speeds from 40-50 Mph through busy neighborhoods and business areas, and nearly non-existant sidewalks make these places drivable and not for walking nor biking).
I canot speak to the dynamics of other cities on this list, but I can tell you from driving 25 years on Detroit roads, those numbers have everything to do with the economy and population drop and not because people are giving up their cars for other modes of movement.

by Ray Bottorff on Jan 22, 2014 5:54 am • linkreport

@Robert Lohman, we Detroiters do appreciate the idea of more union jobs in making rail cars and trains and the like, but if you do not respect us and our culture, I am certain I speak for them in saying, "same back at ya buddy."

by Ray Bottorff on Jan 22, 2014 5:57 am • linkreport

Can we appreciate the irony of this? Because 500 hundred years from now when historians (assuming the planet isn't baked by climate change) write about the history of the U.S., there will be a paragraph in some tome somewhere that points out that the great Ford Motor Co., was created just outside of Detroit, the later home of the auto industry. And in just 110 years from Ford's founding Detroit, because of desperate economic conditions, would be on the path to leading the nation in car-free living.

by kob on Jan 22, 2014 9:10 am • linkreport

I agree that gloating at the demise of Detroit--and you have to visit it to really appreciate what has heppened--is unseemly.

The travails of Detroit also represent the end of a promise of a path to the middle class through good-paying jobs in manufacturing.

by Crickey7 on Jan 22, 2014 9:49 am • linkreport

Backing up Cilla here: The column should be labelled "percentage points," not "percent." DC is actually a 6.8 percent increase (compared to the original rate), while NYC is a 4.4 percent increase. As it is, the table is very misleading.

by Gavin on Jan 22, 2014 10:28 am • linkreport

The column should be labelled "percentage points," not "percent." is.

by MLD on Jan 22, 2014 10:34 am • linkreport

If nothing else it certainly is ironic.

by BTA on Jan 22, 2014 10:38 am • linkreport

I will point out that this is wrong:

The Washington metropolitan area is tied with New York

The numbers listed don't look at metro areas, they look at the central cities only.

by MLD on Jan 22, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

For sure it is the cities only. There is no way even 30% of the New York Metro area (Long Island, Westchester, Northern NJ etc) is car free. I doubt 15% of the dc metro area would be car free.

by BTA on Jan 22, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

@MLD, I see that the table is labelled "percentage points." But the actual figures in the column are labelled "%" (for "percent") -- not "ppt" (for "percentage point").

by Gavin on Jan 22, 2014 11:41 am • linkreport

@BTA Why not? The bus/rail system extends about 30-50 miles outside of NY to the point that it is feasible not to have a car. You're also forgetting just how big the city and the immediate suburbs are. Hoboken, NJ, across the river for example, has a huge parking problem ... but there are 60,000 people in a city that is 1 mi^2. One. You can't get 20,000 cars in the city even if you wanted to, and you have a college in the city adding another 1-2,000 students with no cars.

In fact, if there's anything that is telling about this study, it's that DC is reporting to be 38% car-free but yet only 25-30% of the population uses WMATA. Pretty sad that they can't even capture more than 2/3 of the willing market.

by Mike D. on Feb 4, 2014 6:58 pm • linkreport

I figure the decision to drive is most highly dependent on the costs related to driving with gas being the most obvious cost. So I checked gas prices to see where they were over the last few years. Based on the graph (see link at end), it looks like gas prices rose dramatically near the end of 2007/beginning of 2008 which seems to coincide with the drop-off in car ownership. Then the economy tanked soon after so even though gas dipped back down for a while, car ownership remained low and now gas has risen again.Thanks for sharing this post.

by Suzan Hall on Mar 12, 2014 7:19 am • linkreport

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