Living Car-Free and Car-Lite in the United States: An Update with 2016 Data

It’s over. The boom in car-free and car-lite living that led urbanists and the media to speculate that Americans were letting go of automobiles is over. The boom isn’t just over: all traces of it have been erased. The United States is arguably more car-oriented today than it was in 2006.

We knew this was coming. Vehicle-miles traveled are up. Transit ridership is down. Automobile sales ballooned in 2015 and 2016. But for the boom to be completely wiped out in just two years? Even the little skeptic that sits on my shoulder whispering words of doubt in my ear didn’t see negative numbers of this magnitude coming. Are any states bucking this national trend?

This essay is an update to a series of essays published earlier in 2016 on Transportation Lifestyle Trends in the United States: 2006–2015, which include data for the states, the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas, and their core cities.

According to American Community Survey data released in September by the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States lost 200,000 car-free households and 350,000 families with only one car in 2016. These losses are on top of losses of 100,000 car-free households and 125,000 car-one families in 2015.

The number of households, including singles, with at least two cars? Back-to-back increases in those living car-two+ by about 1,000,000 households per year. All of these losses and gains in 2015 and 2016 are much larger than their respective margins of error. (Family is defined here as a household with two or more persons. A single is a household with one person.)

The boom did happen. The green and blue lines on the above chart for the United States show the dramatic growth in car-free living and families with only one car since 2006, but their numbers peaked in 2012–2013. By 2016, the total growth in car-free households (the green dot) and car-one families (the blue triangle) had sunk below household growth overall (the black square).

The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t provide many pre-packaged tables of its vehicle availability data, but it does look at car-free households by age of the householder and by home ownership versus renting. Between 2015 and 2016, the only category with an increase in car-free living above the margin of error is householders age 65 or older who rent. Around 55,000 households led by young adults (ages 15 to 34) abandoned car-free living, about twice the margin of error.

What about at the state level? This analysis uses the American Community Survey’s one-year estimates, which can show strangely wild year-over-year swings in the vehicle availability data for smaller states (and metros and cities). With this caveat, no state has increase in the number of families living car-one above the margin of error in 2016. There is also no state with a decrease in households living car-two+ larger than the margin of error. For car-free living, there may be increases worth noting in Illinois, Nevada, and Washington.

For ten-year trends, this essay looks at California, New York, Florida, and Texas — the four largest states in terms of households and which together are home to over 30 percent of American households. I’ve also thrown in the state of Washington because the city of Seattle has been a top performer in promoting car-free and car-lite living.

I measure “car orientation” as the percentage of all households that are either living car-two+ or singles living car-one. This measure is admittedly a bit crude in its simplicity, but it gets the point across. For most trips, if you have a car, it is economically rational to use it. Moreover, if you have a car, it is economically rational to have a strong preference for destinations that pay for all or most of the cost of parking. Or, for what is colloquially known as “free parking.”

The chart below breaks down the four transportation lifestyle types by percentages of households in 2016 for these five states and the United States as a whole. Although Texas and California are often assumed to be on opposite ends of the spectrum politically and culturally, they do have at least one thing in common: America’s two largest states are more car-oriented than the county as a whole. Even Florida is less car-oriented than California. Despite all the recent changes in Seattle and environs, Washington is still more car-oriented than Texas.

If you are feeling a bit shocked that car-free living is down to only 8.7 percent of American households in 2016, car-free living is even lower in terms of population. Sixty percent of car-free households are people who live alone. It’s a good bet that more than 95 percent of Americans live in a household with at least one car.

California

California leads the national trend, with car-free households peaking in 2011 and families with only one car in 2012. By 2016, household growth among those living car-two+ had blown past household growth overall. California’s one seeming bright spot — from the perspective of people letting go of cars — appears to be singles with one car. This, however, is more likely a reflection of a different national trend that California is bucking. Nationally, households with one person grew by 9.0 percent between 2006 and 2016. Californian’s living alone, however, grew by only 3.3 percent, while California’s total number of households grew by 6.5 percent.

New York

The state of New York is in a class by itself when it comes to supporting car-free and car-lite living. Although the state is less car-oriented than it was in 2006, during the last two years the state has struggled. Not only did it post losses of car-free households greater than the margins of error in both 2015 and 2016, the total number of households in the state also declined in each of these years.

Please note: the charts of trends in Florida, Texas, and Washington use a different scale on the y-axis than the previous charts.

Florida

Car-free living in Florida peaked in 2012, but didn’t experience dramatic declines in 2015 or 2016. The changes in these two years are within the margins of error. Florida’s relatively large share of families with only one car grew larger between 2006 and 2016, with a peak in 2015. The change in 2016 is within the margin of error of 2015. All in all, Florida is a tiny bit less car-oriented in 2016 than in 2006, although households living car-two+ are catching up quickly.

Texas

That Texas in 2016 is more car oriented than Texas in 2006 is not much of a surprise. What is a bit surprising — and distinctive — is that at no point in the last 10 years did increases in car-free living or families living car-one catch up with household growth over all. (The green and blue lines never cross above the black line.) Despite the state’s tremendous growth, the number of car-free households in 2016 is within the margin of error of the number in 2006! The specific figure for car-free living in 2016 is about 3,000 fewer households than in 2006.

Washington

Are the changes in Seattle and environs enough to alter the orientation towards cars in the state as a whole? Tentatively, yes. Washington is less car-oriented in 2016 than in 2006 by about 0.5 percentage points. This is mostly due to increases in car-free living, and although car-free living peaked in 2014, the 2016 figure is within the margin of error of 2014. (Car-free living in 2015 is an example of the strangely wild swings in the one-year estimates mentioned above.) Extrapolating recent trends, however, indicates a situation could be developing where both living car-free and living car-two+ outpace total household growth.

Conclusion

During the boom in car-free and car-lite living in the United States, no one seriously thought it applied to all of America. It’s cities that are most likely to support the multi-modal transportation options that make it possible for people to let go of cars. (Duh! … Although rural states experienced shifts away from cars too … Hmm.) For governmental policies and environmental strategies, however, it does matter that whatever may or may not be happening with transportation lifestyles in cities isn’t keeping pace with household growth overall.

For better or worse, transportation policy in the United States is still by-and-large a partnership between the federal government and state governments. From the perspective of most state governments, the American love affair with cars is as strong as ever. Even though transit ridership is down, walking and bicycling trips may be holding their own or even increasing. Although a grim way to look for trends, the numbers of people killed while walking or bicycling on U.S. roadways in 2016 reached heights not seen since the early 1990s. The engineering and cultural challenges to creating safe streets remain.

From the environmental perspective, the wind is no longer filling the sails of those who argued that American transportation behavior was (miraculously) aligning with the “green cities” thesis. During the boom, we debated whether what we were seeing was truly a change in American culture or just the bad economy combined with high gas prices. We now have our answer. Moreover, to address greenhouse gas emissions, we must tackle all of surface transportation, not just the little bit that happens in America’s highly urban places.

For researchers, Americans created an unplanned and, it turns out, short-lived transportation experiment during the Great Recession. While the American Community Survey’s one-year estimates are of limited use, the ACS’s five-year estimates can be mapped down to the level of neighborhoods (census tracts). The five-year estimates (probably 2009–2013 or 2010–2014) capture the peak disruption in vehicle availability in specific places. What was the mix of household economics, neighborhood culture, the built environment, and transportation services that led Americans in specific neighborhoods or districts to let go of cars? Did letting go of cars have a positive impact or did it increase suffering? For whom? Even if these changes to transportation lifestyles didn’t stick, were people engaging a smart, short-term economic strategy?Are there places where changes in transportation lifestyles become permanent?

This essay is part of a larger project that uses transportation lifestyles to improve the coordination of transportation and land development. Contact me at sjpeterson [at] 23UrbanStrategies [.] com for more information.

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