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Georgetown makes a big shift towards transit

A while ago, I wrote about the car situation in Georgetown and argued that a small amount of residents were having an outsized impact on the supply of cars in the neighborhood.

Photo by karen.j.ybanez on Flickr.

In writing this article, I relied on the census data from 2000. Now that the American Community Survey five-year estimates I can see whether the 200 stats are still holding up.

As many readers know, ACS data has high margins of error at the census tract level. So take these with a little grain of salt.

By the numbers, here's how Georgetown gets around:

Car ownership

When I first looked into this, I found a surprising amount of households in Georgetown without any cars. That number has increased.

Here are the numbers from 2000:

  • Total households without any car: 20%
  • Total households with just one car: 57%
  • Total households with two or more cars: 23%
Here are what the ACS was the average from 2005-2009:
  • Total households without any car: 22%
  • Total households with just one car: 50%
  • Total households with two or more cars: 28%
In one way this is good news, since 2% more household are going without cars, but in another way it's worse since 5% of households have become multi-car households. It's important to remember that there are rather high margins of error on these numbers, so it's tough to say what's changed, if anything, since 2000.

What I see as most important is that the numbers appear to confirm that somewhere around 1 in 5 Georgetown households gets along without a car.

The numbers aren't even from the east to the west side. The east side has way more carless households (26%!) but has a lot more multi-car households, too (32%). The west side's numbers are more balanced (15% no car households and 23% multi-car).

In 2000, Georgetown was estimated to have 4936 cars. The ACS now estimates Georgetown has 4559 cars. That would appear to be an 8% drop in cars. If that's the only true statistic, that would be good enough news.

Commuting mode share

According to the 2000 census, here's how Georgetowners got to work:

  • Drive to work: 46% (38% drive alone, 7% carpool)
  • Transit: 16%
  • Bike: 4%
  • Walk: 25%
  • Other: 9%
Here are the updated numbers:
  • Drive to work: 40% (35% drive alone, 4% carpool)
  • Transit: 22%
  • Bike: 3%
  • Walk: 25%
  • Other: 10% (mostly people who work at home)
If these numbers are accurate, they represent a big shift towards transit. People driving to work fell 13% and transit use increased by 38%(!) The ACS now estimates that fifty percent of Georgetowners get to work by bus, bike or foot.

Perhaps this shift can be attributed to the introduction of the popular Circulator bus, or perhaps it's simply a shift in population. Either way, it demonstrates that the car is not king in Georgetown anymore.

Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.  


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I have to wonder how many of the "car-lesss" households are students.

Not sure if your numbers match the headline. I read it as Georgetowners drive to work more often than other DC residents.

by charlie on Jan 11, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

As Charlie,
I'd be curious to know how many G-town students are included in the figures. Also, are the Georgetown neighborhood boundaries the same for both data-sets?

by Bilsko on Jan 11, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

I excluded GU from the analysis, so any student households would be off campus. I agree they are more likely to be car-free, but the numbers suggest that there are more car-free households on the east side, which has a lot fewer off campus students. The east side is, however, closer to metrorail, and I think that explains the difference.

I also think that Georgetowners do drive too much compared with other neighborhoods. The point is that the neighborhood appears to be shifting. I think that's a great thing.

by Topher Mathews on Jan 11, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

@Bilsko: The data sets are the same: Census tract 1 (east side) and Census tract 2.02 (west side). Census tract 2.01 (GU) was not included.

by Topher Mathews on Jan 11, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

@Topher; does the "east side" include the old folks places on Q?

Given the amount of student ghetto housing on the west side, there must be a lot of students. Of course, most of the foreign students I see at GU HAVE cars -- or perhaps the off-campus types can park on campus?

And really what you data is showing is a decline in carpooling. I doubt the circulator is doing much about that.

by charlie on Jan 11, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport


You're just making another point that the data makes. The author chose to point out that transit use is making big gains in Georgetown, which is also correct...

by MLD on Jan 11, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

As TM says, these data shouldn't be driven too far. (Before I hear objections, this metaphor is driving sheep, not a car.)

But it's perfectly sensible that improved transit would displace carpooling, especially in an affluent place like Georgetown. Driving is usually more flexible than transit, but transit if it runs frequently is more flexible than carpooling. So people who count their dollars but aren't under extreme economic pressure (if they were under extreme economic pressure, they wouldn't be living in Georgetown) are going to switch from carpooling to transit when the transit runs frequently enough to be more convenient.

by Ben Ross on Jan 11, 2011 3:47 pm • linkreport

Then u have hundreds of people driving in from maryland and virginia and tourist from around the country so it doesnt matter in the end, find a parking spot is still impossible

by Mike on Jan 11, 2011 4:00 pm • linkreport

COG's regional travel survey data, as well as some of their other telephone survey data has shown a regional decline in carpooling as well. There's certainly a larger pattern going on here.

An example, comparing 1994 data to 2007-08:

by Alex B. on Jan 11, 2011 4:00 pm • linkreport

I'm a former GU student (class of '02). Topher excluded on-campus students, and there should be very little off-campus undergrads in the data pool. First off, with the completion of the Southwest project, only about 10% of undergrads live off-campus. Second, the census data cited here is by household, not by person. Off-campus students tend to have 3-7 adults in a household, while the typical Georgetown family only has 1-2 adults in a household. So comparatively few undergrads should show up in this data.

by tom veil on Jan 11, 2011 4:21 pm • linkreport

@MLD; a decline in car-pooling is far from "cars are not kings".

Can car-pooling be double counted? I mean it involves 2 or more people. Often husband and wife; one drops off, the other has parking at work. However, that only works if they both work in the District; if one partner works in Tysons that really doesn't work.

Living in places like Georgetown requires two incomes for most families.

by charlie on Jan 11, 2011 4:27 pm • linkreport

Tom; 10% of Georgetown undergrads is still around 750-1000 people, which is a large number relative to georgetown as a whole. (about 8000) But yes, good point on the Southwest Quads. However, there are a lot of grad students floating around as well, although places like the law school obviously don't count.

by charlie on Jan 11, 2011 4:52 pm • linkreport


If you limit the definition to "traditional" undergrads - that is, those who are not getting a second bachelor's in nursing, those who are older and are getting a bachelor's in liberal studies through the school of continuing studies, and those who are non-degree students like those just taking EFL courses - the average number of undergrads per semester is 6,016. It's fair to exclude the groups I mentioned because very few of them live in or near Georgetown.

There are grad students as well, of course, though many of them (and off-campus undergrads as well) live in Burleith, Glover Park, and Foxhall, rather than Georgetown. Grad students are also much more likely to have cars, in my experience.

by Dizzy on Jan 11, 2011 5:23 pm • linkreport

Since when have we started defining a drop in car ownership as 'good'? That was always a basic measure of a country's economic health. For example, China had very few cars per capita before, now has it has far more ... as a result of its increasing properity. If car ownership percentages have dropped in Georgetown, I wouldn't take this as a sign that people are 'wanting' to avail themselves more or mass transit, but rather that the ideal of car ownership is further out of reach for many ... for many reasons ... including housing prices which have escalated much faster than salaries. This is troubling news. Not good news.

by Lance on Jan 11, 2011 5:47 pm • linkreport

Lance: that hearkens back to the days when it was said "what's good for General Motors is good for the country". We're not exactly at that point anymore. The younger generation in particular has lower car ownership rates BY CHOICE, not by necessity as you suggest.

by Froggie on Jan 11, 2011 5:54 pm • linkreport

Lance, don't you think that in Georgetown a substantial number of those with one or no cars have made a choice not to have more cars (or any car)? Perhaps this is less true for students, but I suspect that for the non-student population this is a conscious choice much more often than not in Georgetown.

I hardly know a soul in Georgetown but I certainly know some young professionals in this area who don't have cars as a matter of choice!

by DavidDuck on Jan 11, 2011 10:52 pm • linkreport

@Froggie BY CHOICE, not by necessity as you suggest.

It would be interesting to know what part the relatively higher costs of living in an urban environment plays in that. For example, I love the urban environment and do a lot of walking when I'm home. BUT that doesn't mean I'd consider giving up my ability to easily traverse the entire metro area be it for work, play, shopping, whatever. I.e., my enjoying the urban life and walking (or riding my bike) while there doesn't negate my desire to also have a car at my disposal for the greater reach it allows in letting me better participate in our entire metro area ... and beyond. But, I've been in this urban area long enough that I am less affected by the very high housing costs here. Not here long enough to not be affected like some really long time residents, but definitely long enough, and along enough in the career path, to not have to make a trade off between owning a car and being able to live in the city as I suspect is the case for many younger folks.

In not so many words, I'm trying to say I wonder if it's really a 'choice' or a necessity for the 'younger generation' if keeping a car on hand would mean not being able to afford to live in the urban area. I hear a lot on hear about 'with the money you save by not having a car'. Personally, that's not a consideration for me ... Over the scheme of things my car expenses are really pretty small. Not something I worry about. No, it wasn't always that way. And frankly, I can remember how hard it was to pay for a car and rent when I was part of that 'younger generation' and rents were relatively far less than they are now. I don't think I could have done both back then had housing costs been then what they are now. In short, I don't think it's a choice. I think it's more the Chinese experience in reverse. And that's very troubling ... because this is just the start. Will the next generation tell us they'd prefer wearing warm coats to having central heating by CHOICE ... because it's 'good for the earth'? I guess sometimes it's just easier to rationalize doing something over which you don't really have control over anyways.

by Lance on Jan 11, 2011 10:56 pm • linkreport

Not to be a nitpicker, but when you say that "2% more household are going without cars," and "5% of households have become multi-car households," I believe you mean percentage points. As there was a 2 percentage point change in no-car homes from 20% to 22%, there was in fact a 10% increase in no-car homes from 2000. Similarly, the amount of multi-car homes increased by about 22%.

by BG on Jan 11, 2011 10:58 pm • linkreport

"I hear a lot on hear about 'with the money you save by not having a car'. Personally, that's not a consideration for me ... Over the scheme of things my car expenses are really pretty small. Not something I worry about."

Just because you can afford something doesn't mean you should buy it. I can afford the $500 or so a month it would cost to own a car. I'd rather stick half of that into a retirement or investment account and the other half into entertainment/travel. Hm, gas, insurance and maintenance....or trip to puerto rico. Tough choice that one.

Dumping money into a depreciating asset isn't smart when you could live just as well without it.

Also, wonderful comparison with the coat and car thing. Really. The problem with your arguments Lance, is that you go just too far into the ridiculous to be taken seriously.

And in case your curious, I also don't waste 90$ a month on cable. Again, I easily could....but why? My antenna brings in all the free TV I need. Might as well give that 90 to charity.

by JJJJJ on Jan 12, 2011 12:00 am • linkreport

Interesting post. Recent work that we have done suggests that a large proportion of people have multiple travel patterns, and multiple modes within patterns. The census forces us to record the 'main mode' on the day of the census and doesn't capture the lesser part of a commute, nor the alternative that is used on other days. So the salt cellar needed to be taken with the data is huge. Especially so since there is some anecdotal evidence that multi-modalism is on the rise.

by Paul on Jan 12, 2011 7:34 am • linkreport

Long commentary string ... this article appears to have struck a chord.

Just thought I add two comments: one a few not very well-known facts and the other a vision for transit in Georgetown.

1) Historically, before wide-spread car use, fixed passenger rail (check in out on Google Earth) served Georgetown (a) to the Palisades northwest along MacArthur near the Inn at Glen Echo, (b) in post-pattern layout (a 10-mile right-of-way) to the current Konterra project (ICC and I95) both owned by developer Kingdom Gould, and (c) streetcar to downtown DC until the wife of a politician driving the new Henry Ford status symbol was severely injured in a collision with the electric car.

2) Bringing these intermodal rail services back into the future would complement other transit projects being planned like the Purple line and enhance Smarth Growth and Transit Oriented Development (not to mention reduce the carbon footprint). Would it be better to have one or two lanes dedicated to rail along current congested roads?

In answering this question, first consider if a road has a level of service that functions more like a parking lot after a Redskins game, when does the road cease to be a road?

If you agree, send your support to Mike Madden of MD MTA.

by Joseph Consoli on Jan 12, 2011 7:38 am • linkreport


Perhaps you have a much higher tolerance for such things, but one thing that strikes me about car ownership (having owned one in a city for 15 of the last 20--and 10 of the last 10--years) is just what a damned pain in the ass it is. Yes it's nice to be able to get out to the mountains on the weekends, and I keep it because the perks, generally, for me outweigh the benefits. But it seems I'm always taking the damned thing to get washed or serviced, or coming out to find someone's rifled through the glove compartment, or ran into it, etc.., etc...

It's just a notch above owning a boat on the PITA Scale.

by oboe on Jan 12, 2011 9:31 am • linkreport

So the salt cellar needed to be taken with the data is huge.

Just to get my RDA of pedantry today: one says, "take it with a grain of salt" because a grain of salt is the smallest serving of salt possible. This implies that whatever you're taking it with is so small and insignificant as to require no more.

When folks say, "take it with a big ol' bag of salt" they're implying the exact opposite of what they intend. (i.e. that your point is so weighty and substantial that it requires a 5 lb bag of seasoning.)

I've given up on the klutzy, near-universal misuse of "begs the question", but we'll make this our Thermopylae.

by oboe on Jan 12, 2011 9:36 am • linkreport

Lance, I bet you're right that a drop in car ownership sometimes means that people simply can't afford it. Do you really think that's what's at work in *Georgetown*? It's not the wealthiest neighborhood in DC, but the average home price is over a million dollars. I think it's pretty safe to say the drop in car ownership in Georgetown is primarily driven by changing preferences rather than economic necessity.

by KPE on Jan 12, 2011 10:43 am • linkreport

Lance, I owned my car outright, own a home (not in Georgetown, but still in DC), and make a comfortable living, and I just sold my car because it was more hassle than it was worth (29 years old, the target demographic of people who we are talking about here who are non-car-owners by choice). I used to plan down to the hour, if not minute, when I would go to the grocery store so that I could find a parking spot when I got home. I had to leave keys with neighbors when going on extended trips, and hope they would check to make sure that no emergency no parking signs went up. I once left my car on a snow emergency route when no snow was called for and...lo and behold we had a snowstorm while I was 800 miles away (thankfully my neighbor was home and awake and could move it). The list of stories of how inconvenient owning a car in the city was go on and on.

There was also a financial component to the decision, but not because owning a car was an unaffordable luxury. Owning a car ran me about $2000 a year in gas, maintenance, and insurance. That's a rather small percentage of my income, certainly less than what I spend on alcohol or vacations or probably other discretionary budget items in a year. However, the money I spent on owning a car was money wasted. The amount I got for the car will pay for about 7 years of Zipcar and rentals for weekends away, and the amount I save each year in gas, insurance, and maintenance would pay for my annual Zipcar and rentals twice over (in other words, between the money I got for the car and the money I save not owning a car, I could spend an additional $1700 each year for the next 10 years and break even). I was only driving about 2000 miles a year - some of those unnecessary because, hey, there's a car there, might as well use it - so owning a car was more of an inconvenience, financially and practically, than I was willing to deal with anymore. Now, if I want to go somewhere, I walk 5 blocks to the Metro, where I either get on the Metro or snag a Zipcar, or I carpool with someone else, or I rent a car and take the Metro to Union Station or Reagan to pick it up. I'm certainly not limited in how far I can go, and it's really liberating to just drop off a rental car and take the Metro the rest of the way home and know I don't have to worry about getting back from the weekend at 10 PM on a Sunday and having to park 6 blocks from home.

People have also bee cancelling their cable, en masse (including yours truly). Does that also bode poorly for the economy, or do you believe the surveys that show people are fed up with cable companies and can get most of the content they want free or cheaper over the internet and air?

by Ms. D on Jan 12, 2011 11:46 am • linkreport

Should have read your other comment, Lance, before finalizing my thoughts. I prefer to wear sweatshirts and use blankets and keep my heat at 65 (cooler at night) than to turn my heat up any higher because (a) it's good for the planet (as you rightly point out); (b) it's good for my lungs/eyes/skin; and (c) it's good for my electric bill. I have run the heat at 70 before, it's just not worth it. My eyes hurt from the dry air and I always woke up sweating, and my electric bill was roughly twice what it is now. 5 degrees are just not that valuable to me. You sound like the old man yelling "get off my lawn" because you don't like the way us youngin's are living these days.

Calm one is going to take your car. And we ARE spending that money we don't spend on cars and cable and heating, just on other things. Boo autoworker is out of a job because of my choices, but there's a waiter and a stylist and a pilot who are being supported by those funds.

by Ms. D on Jan 12, 2011 11:55 am • linkreport

As you seem pretty close to pointing out, aren't all these shifts well within the ACS's margin of error? Isn't the most likely explanation for the "change" just noise in the data?

by JAZ on Jan 12, 2011 3:59 pm • linkreport

Lance, obsession with car ownership is something you have when basically your social class is such that you need to "prove" how well off you are. If you're at the point where your ego is not tied up in such things, then you can make more rational economic decisions about the issue.

I miss the days when my car was basically a "toy" that I kept parked on the street and used to get out of town or take on road trips. Now it's a necessity and daily expense I use to get to work which carries regular costs (every trip is an expense. The money I paid for it could have been invested elsewhere).

Culturally and economically, at least in a place like Georgetown, we've really moved past the point where a car is some kind of sign of prosperity. It's a tool, nothing more. I don't own a bandsaw, either. Is that a sign that I'm poor?

by JustMe on Jan 13, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

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