Car-Free Living in the United States: What the Data Says

Over the past decade, car-free living has gotten an amazing amount of attention in urbanist circles and popular media in the United States. Can growth in car-free living actually be detected in national-level and state-level data? In which metros and cities is car-free living becoming more common? The data hold some surprises.

The U.S. Census Bureau just released American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates for 2011–2015, for the first time allowing comparisons with an earlier set of five-year estimates, covering 2006–2010. These two five-year time periods are particularly useful for transportation analysis because the 2006–2010 period captures record-high gasoline prices and the crash of the economy, while the 2011–2015 period covers the crash of gasoline prices and the rebuilding of the economy.

The recent ACS data release also includes comparative tables, which make quick work of analyzing changes between the 2010 and 2015 five-year estimates. The comparative tables also indicate which changes are statistically significant at the 90 percent confidence level. All of the data below is drawn from the survey’s CP04 Comparative Housing Characteristics, 2015 five-year estimates. “No change” means that changes in car-free living did not meet the test for statistical significance.

At the national level, the answer is yes: car-free living is becoming more common. Between 2010 and 2015, households without a vehicle grew 0.2 percentage points from 8.9 percent to 9.1 percent of households in the United States. If this 9.1 percent in 2015 seems surprisingly low, it helps to remember that the vast majority of Americans do not live in urban cities. A recent report published by the Urban Land Institute pegs the number of Americans living in urban settings to be about 15 percent all households.

Living car-free isn’t the only multi-modal or “car-lite” lifestyle, of course. Moreover, car-free living is the transportation equivalent of an extreme sport in much of the United States. One wouldn’t expect those 0.2 percentage points of new car-free households to be spread evenly throughout the country. At the state level, car-free living is becoming more common in 24 states and less common in two states.

If one had to guess, one would probably hypothesize that the fast-growing, urban states — especially states with legacy transit systems or significant new investments in mass transit — would show the greatest gains in car-free living. Table 1 reveals that if you made that guess, you would be only partly right.

New York’s number one ranking, an increase of 0.9 percentage points, seems promising. It is, after all, the state with highest percentage of car-free households, 29.4 percent in 2015.

Nevada and Indiana at numbers two and three? This came as a surprise to me, especially since their percentages of car-free households in 2015 are in the middle of the pack at 7.9 percent and 7 percent respectively. Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, Utah, Minnesota, and California — the states often held up in urban planning circles for transportation innovation — did make the list of states where car-free living is becoming more common. Noteworthy in their absence, however, are Colorado, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, states that would seem to meet the hypothesis’s criteria.

The high ranking of unexpected states — Hello Maine and Vermont! — also shows why looking at state-level data is valuable. Indeed, the high showing of states with stable or declining numbers of households, many with large rural populations, indicates that car-free living isn’t just an urban hipster trend. Changes — or the absence of changes — in car-free living have implications for state governments, as well as municipal governments.

In transportation and land use planning, too often we — because I’m guilty of this too — focus on cities, even the central core of cities, and lose sight of the bigger picture. State-level data also provides a quick way to assess the impact and momentum of sorting: whether people who want to live car-free are moving into places that better support this lifestyle.

Switching the scale to metropolitan areas, the hypothesis would be that large, fast-growing metropolitan areas with (relatively) robust mass transit systems would be out-pacing their states in car-free living. Table 2 shows that, for the most part, this is indeed the case: in 24 of the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas, car-free living is becoming more common. Of these 24, only the Jacksonville, Miami, and Portland (OR) metros are being out-paced by their states. (Note: Los Angeles County is substituted here because the comparative table for the Los Angeles metropolitan statistical area is not available.)

On the other hand, five metros are out-pacing their states in the opposite direction: Philadelphia, Austin, Houston, Denver, and San Antonio are leading the way towards car-free living becoming less common. And the metros headed by Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Memphis, Minneapolis, Nashville, San Diego, and San Jose are not the places to look for an explanation why car-free living is becoming more common in Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Tennessee, and California.

The situation becomes even more perplexing — or dire — when comparing the core cities to their metro regions. If people who wanted to live car-free were indeed sorting themselves into the core city of their metro region — the place most likely to have the density, walkability, and mass transit to support high quality car-free living — the list of core cities where car-free living is becoming more common should be longer than the 24 metros in Table 2.

Instead, as Table 3 shows, the list is much shorter! The core cities of only 14 of the 50 largest metros have a strong enough trend to indicate that car-free living is becoming more common. Two of those — Detroit and Cleveland — have lost households in the past five years. Their number one and two ranking may well indicate that people without cars are being left behind.

Just as perplexing is the surprisingly long list of core cities that are helping to make living car-free less common in their metro region and in their state. The Texas cities of San Antonio, Austin, and Houston aren’t balancing suburban and rural trends away from car-free living: they are leading the way! For probably very different reasons, so are the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. And what’s up with Denver?

Of the 50 largest metro regions, only the core cities of Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Tampa, Sacramento, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Jacksonville, New York, Phoenix, and Los Angeles are out-pacing their metro areas in helping make car-free living more common.

The growth of car-free living is real, but small. The revolution is not yet at hand. A boom in car-free lifestyles in the downtowns of big cities, moreover, is only one type of car-free living. We need to add new narratives about people living car-free in suburbs and small towns and to pay more attention to what makes for successful car-free lifestyles.

Car-free lifestyles themselves are one subset of many types of multi-modal or car-lite lifestyles. We’re in danger of losing sight of the forest by continuously adulating some beautiful, but relatively uncommon trees.

Sarah Jo Peterson is the founding principal of 23 Urban Strategies, which works at the intersection of transportation, land use, and sustainability. She can be reached at sjpeterson [at] 23urbanstrategies.com.