Americans Aren’t as Dependent on Cars as You Might Think

Americans drive a lot. About 90 percent live in a household with a car. Among adults, 89 percent are licensed to drive. Overwhelmingly, most people get to work by driving alone.

Younger people are more likely to leave the car at home. Photo: Wikipedia
Younger people are more likely to leave the car at home. Photo: Wikipedia

But those statistics obscure some important nuances. A new study by Ralph Buehler and Andrea Hamre in the journal Transportation looks at Americans who are “multi-modal” — people who get around not only by driving but also by walking, biking, or taking transit.

A majority of Americans don’t use a car for every trip: According to National Household Travel Survey data from 2001 and 2009, 65 percent of Americans report taking at least one walking, biking, or transit trip each week, in addition to driving. Of these, a wide majority — 80 percent — reported that walking was their only other mode of travel.

Meanwhile, 28 percent of Americans typically never make any trips outside of a car — they’re “mono-modal.” And about 7 percent don’t drive at all in a typical week.

Rather than classifying drivers, transit riders, or cyclists as distinct groups, the authors suggest thinking about people’s travel behavior along a continuum, from those who drive exclusively to those who never drive, with many gradations in between.

Buehler and Hamre found several relationships between demographics and the “multi-modality” of American households, some more obvious than others. There’s no definitive explanation for some of these correlations, but they’re interesting food for thought. Here’s a look.

1. Age

People age 16 to 24 are 50 percent more likely than people over 65 to take at least one non-driving trip per week and are 3.4 times more likely to be completely car-free during a typical week.

2. Income and education

Surprisingly, respondents in the lowest quarter of the income spectrum are about 9 percent less likely to take a single non-driving trip during a typical week, compared to people in the two middle quartiles. At the same time, the poorest 25 percent of Americans are also 7 percent more likely to be totally car free during a typical week than middle-income Americans.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest quartile are 19 percent more likely to be multi-modal and 22 percent more likely to be car-free in a given week than middle-income people. The researchers hypothesize that more affluent people might be better able to afford to live in walkable communities that provide options other than driving.

People with less education are also more likely to drive for all their trips. People with some education beyond high school are 39 percent more likely to take at least a single non-driving trip per week and 35 percent more likely to be completely car free than people who have no education beyond high school.

3. Employment status

People with jobs are 16 percent less likely to have taken at least one walking, biking, or transit trip over the past week, and 54 percent less likely to make every trip without driving, than people without jobs.

4. Gender

Men are about 12 percent more likely than women to have taken a non-car trip in the last week and 40 percent more likely to go without driving at all. This could be explained by the fact that men are more likely to bike for transportation. Another factor could be women’s typically larger role in childcare duties, which tend to demand more driving.

5. Parenthood

Households with children are 22 percent less likely to refrain from driving than couples without children.

6. Neighborhood

People who live in neighborhoods with a population density above 10,000 per square mile (a threshold resembling the densest parts of Detroit and Cleveland) are 17 percent more likely than residents of more spread-out areas to take one non-driving trip per week and 3.5 times more likely to be completely car free.

“Dense areas typically have higher levels of traffic congestion along with car parking that is more expensive and in shorter supply, all of which make car use less attractive,” the authors reasoned.

People who live in metro areas with rail were also less car-dependent that those who live in areas without rail. They were 6 percent more likely to take one non-driving trip per week and 72 percent more likely to be totally car-free during a typical week.

  • eric

    ““Dense areas typically have higher levels of traffic congestion along with car parking that is more expensive and in shorter supply, all of which make car use less attractive,” the authors reasoned.”

    This puts a negative spin on it. I’d say that dense areas typically have more walkable streets with more easily walked-to amenities, which make walking (or biking) more attractive.

  • 42apples

    I’d hardly call going for a walk a couple of times a week multimodal.

  • lop

    People who walk or bike could be broken into three categories.

    1: Looking to save money. Walking or biking is cheaper than driving or transit for most trips, though a twenty mile bike ride might require require more food than you can buy with a subway or bus fare.

    2. Looking to be active. Walking or biking to a store is a common way for people to incorporate activity in their day, even for people who already own cars and can afford to use them on the same trip.

    3. Walking or biking is the most convenient and quickest mode.

    Group 1 is pretty universal, generally only those with lower incomes who receive minimal attention from transportation planners. The main exception is in some downtown areas where parking is very expensive, or over a heavily tolled bridge, increasing the income of a typical person who would avoid driving to save money.

    Group 2 receives more attention from planners, but usually only where it doesn’t take much if anything away from drivers. Some cities throw up bike lanes or sidewalks to accommodate them safely, but little is done with the intent to speed their trips markedly.

    Group 3 is rare, because autocentric designs slow down and inconvenience other modes. Where walking and cycling are the fastest and most convenient options it tends to be an accident, such as when traffic and limited availability of cheap or free parking makes driving slow and inconvenient. Or if you are going 500 feet left on an arterial with a sidewalk but can only turn right, so driving requires you to make two uturns, probably waiting before each for a dedicated turn phase while walking is direct, if uncomfortable next to the road. Few places design to accommodate active transport users first.

    Where those modes are most convenient due to a failure in the accommodations for motor vehicles a negative spin doesn’t seem inappropriate.

  • eric

    “Where those modes are most convenient due to a failure in the accommodations for motor vehicles a negative spin doesn’t seem inappropriate.”

    Wow–that’s a weird way to put it. In my neighborhood (I live near Boston), and in my mom’s (a near suburb of Boston) and my dad’s (he lives in Boston), and in other places I’ve lived (Madison, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Madrid), the relative convenience and pleasure of walking or cycling to do your daily business is part of what makes the place desirable, and I would see the relative inconvenience of driving a car as a side effect of the things that make living and walking and biking so pleasant, rather than the other way around. Certainly I don’t see my neighborhood as showing “a failure in the accomodations for motor vehicles.” I own a car, and I use it when appropriate (longer trips, carrying big loads, etc.), but if I need to go out and get some food for dinner it’s much nicer to walk. And there’s no reason more places can’t be like my neighborhood. So I still think a positive spin is preferable.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    In the parts of Los Angeles I lived in, walking was by far the most convenient way to do trips under half a mile, and biking was the fastest and most convenient way to do trips under about 2.5 miles that didn’t involve carrying heavy objects. It’s only beyond that range (and probably a bit farther out) at which the higher travel speed of a car made up for all the extra time spent searching for parking.

  • That was my thought. There’s a difference between a recreational activity and a serious transportation option. It depends on how the survey is worded I’m sure, but there are plenty of cyclists who drive somewhere to go biking.

  • al

    There are also people who walk their kids to school, go to the local store or visit friends.

  • Vinnie

    Note on income — the vast majority of our high quality transit systems (and cities with largely walkable land-use patterns) also have higher incomes and higher costs of living. It’s not that “rich people can afford walkable neighborhoods”, but that most people higher-cost metros make more money than in lower-cost metros, and one of the things that makes metros higher-cost is better transit and higher densities.

    A similar situation is the case with education (jobs in higher cost metros require more of it than in lower-cost metros).

  • neroden

    “Surprisingly, respondents in the lowest quarter of the income spectrum
    are about 9 percent less likely to take a single non-driving trip during
    a typical week, compared to people in the two middle quartiles.”
    This is probably the “rural poor” effect. The rural areas have gotten extremely, disproportionately poor (there’s hardly any middle class people there and basically no rich people) — and of course the rural areas are extremely car-dependent.

    “At the same time, the poorest 25 percent of Americans are also 7 percent more
    likely to be totally car free during a typical week than middle-income
    Americans.”
    And that’s the urban poor.

  • abcrane

    group 4: we do not own cars because we actually care about the environment. we make up the “other 1 percent”

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