America Still Loves Cars, But Some Cities Are Starting to Ditch Them

BY MIKE MACIAG | DECEMBER 5, 2017 in www.governing.com

Bicyclist, joggers and walkers enjoy car-free streets as part of New York City's Summer Streets program. (Shutterstock)

Bicyclist, joggers and walkers enjoy car-free streets as part of New York City's Summer Streets program. (Shutterstock)

For years, many cities have pushed their residents to adopt car-free lifestyles. Doing so can help limit further traffic congestion and pollution, while also saving people money and improving their physical fitness.

By and large, though, the vast majority of Americans aren’t ready to ditch their vehicles. According to the latest Census Bureau estimates, only 8.7 percent of U.S. households reported not having any vehicles available last year. That’s actually down slightly from a year ago and is at about the same level as before the Great Recession.

A stronger economy explains, in part, the small decline in car-free households. Demographics, fuel prices and where people live -- more Americans are migrating from cities to less dense suburbs -- also play a role in whether a household goes car-free.

Still, many individual cities are seeing more of their residents forgo vehicle ownership. Several mid-sized cities recorded notable increases in shares of car-free households when averagesfrom the 2015 and 2016 American Community Surveys are compared with those for 2009 and 2010. Those cities include:

Paterson, N.J.: The city of about 147,000 is one of the most densely populated in the country, making getting around without a car much more practical than other places. Its large immigrant population, which often lacks access to cars, is another possible reason for its lower reliance on automobiles. A third of city households are without vehicles, up from an estimated average of 29.5 percent in 2009-2010.

New Haven, Conn.: About 30 percent of New Haven households are without access to vehicles, an increase from about 27 percent in 2009-2010. Part of the reason so many residents can go car-free stems from the city’s fairly residential downtown and pedestrian-friendly street grid layout. New Haven’s high poverty rate is also a likely contributing factor, with many families unable to afford cars.

Davenport, Iowa: Car-free households are somewhat less prevalent in Davenport than a lot of other cities, but they're growing. The city has one of the smallest population densities of any larger city, so it's not surprising that only about 5 percent of its households were without vehicles in 2009-2010. But that's since ticked up to about 8.5 percent.

Elizabeth, N.J.: Elizabeth is one of the more densely populated U.S. cities, making it easier to go car-free in the city. The share of households without vehicles increased from an average of 24 percent in 2009-2010 to 27 percent in 2015-1016. One possible explanation is that the city’s poverty rate remains slightly higher than it was the first few years of the recession.

Peoria, Ill.: Car-free households have similarly proliferated in Peoria. Census estimates suggest that nearly 16 percent of households there are without vehicles, up from approximately 12 percent in 2009-2010.

Most of the cities where households rely least on vehicles are older Northern cities, particularly those in the New York metropolitan area. The following jurisdictions with populations exceeding 100,000 recorded the highest percentages of households without access to any vehicles last year:

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In other cities, only 1 or 2 percent of the population might forego car ownership. That largely has to do with whether or not it's feasible to get around without an automobile. More suburban settings typically offer few transit options or aren’t conducive to walking.

It’s also a matter of demographics. In some neighborhoods, residents simply can’t afford all the costs that come with vehicle ownership. Poverty rates have a strong negative correlation with numbers of vehicles per household. Younger couples and one-person households are less car-dependent as well.