The American Cities With the Most Growth in Car-Free Households

Source data: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

Have we reached peak car in America? Research from the University of Michigan suggests the answer is “yes.”

The highest rate of vehicle ownership in America occurred in 2007, when the average household owned 2.07 vehicles, according to research by Michael Sivak for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute [PDF]. Recently, the average number of cars per household dipped below 2 — at the end of 2012, it was 1.98.

That’s in part because a growing number of American households — especially in big cities — don’t own a car at all anymore. In 2012 — the latest year in which data was available — 9.2 percent of American households lacked a motor vehicle. That’s compared to 8.7 percent in 2007, according to Sivak’s review of Census data.

The share of car-free households varies considerably among the 30 largest American cities, from 56.5 percent in New York to 5.8 percent in San Jose. But between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of car-free households grew in 21 of those 30 cities. The change was especially pronounced in cities where a lot of people were already getting by without cars. The 13 cities with the highest proportion of car-free households in 2007 all saw an increase between then and 2012, reports Sivak.

Not all cities are seeing an increase in car-free households. Denver, Dallas, El Paso, Austin, San Antonio and Columbus all bucked the trend, registering slight increases. Houston registered no change.

Growth in car-free households reflects a number of local factors, including the quality of transit, walkability, and income levels, among other factors, according to Sivak. But he says wider social trends are at work as well.

This study is the latest in a series examining trends in driving behavior for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute — which is funded in part by auto companies. Sivak’s previous research has shown that in addition to owning fewer cars, Americans are driving less miles and consuming less fuel.

Sivak points out that all of these trends predate the recent economic crisis, suggesting they are the result of wider cultural influences, such as the rise in telecommuting, increasing urbanization and changing preferences of young people.

35 thoughts on The American Cities With the Most Growth in Car-Free Households

  1. All the folks who freak out about parking should be pleased as punch. But they are probably disgusted by all these non-car-owning people.

  2. I’m not sure I’d celebrate this without taking a harder look at the cause of the increase. Many of those second tier cities were hit hard by the recession and mortgage crisis in those 5 years. It’s a safe assumption that going car free was an act of economic necessity and not a sudden increase in investments in alternative modes for places like Detroit.

  3. NYC most of the new housing is ridiculously expensive and in parts of the city where owning a car is more hassle than value

  4. “Sivak’s previous research has shown that in addition to owning fewer cars, Americans are driving less miles and consuming less fuel.Sivak points out that all of these trends predate the recent economic crisis, suggesting they are the result of wider cultural influences, such as the rise in telecommuting, increasing urbanization and changing preferences of young people.”

  5. I don’t yet live in a country with a car-free consensus. But that might be something to look forward to in my old age, because I do live in a country that’s moving in the right direction.

  6. Right. Those are all factors from a larger perspective, and may in fact be large contributors in NYC, DC and Chicago, but probably not as much in Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Detroit. Those cities are making progress in transit and bike/ped infrastructure, but to wholly attribute decreases in car ownership based on those small steps would be foolish.

  7. Good discussion between you two, really appreciate it. I’m cautiously optimistic this is a trend that continues, but have the same “recession = less cars” concerns.

    Is there any other data/studies in the same vein that accounts for the state of the economy? Is that even possible?

  8. i remember in NYC there was a blizzard around 2001 or 2002. city was shut down for a week and people ran out to buy SUV’s to drive to work.

    today we had a conference call at work. skeleton staff in the office tomorrow and everyone else can work from home. after sandy i worked at home for a week. a lot of other people where i work telecommute. some do so daily from hundreds or thousands of miles away

    almost everyone i know in NYC has cars, but most of them don’t drive except the weekends

  9. I figure the decision to drive is most highly dependent on the costs related to driving with gas being the most obvious cost. So I checked gas prices to see where they were over the last few years. Based on the graph (see link at end), it looks like gas prices rose dramatically near the end of 2007/beginning of 2008 which seems to coincide with the dropoff in car ownership. Then the economy tanked soon after so even though gas dipped back down for a while, car ownership remained low and now gas has risen again. It will be interesting to see what happens to car ownership if gas dips back down significantly

  10. The cities are such a small factor compared to the larger region in which they reside. How can one extrapolate for this data and even suggest “peak car”. The peak oil whacks have be preaching the end of oils since before I was born and that hasn’t happened. These data are either a blip in a bigger trend or not a realistic sample or both.

  11. What it reflects is our impoverishment through government and monetary policy that enriches the 0.01%.

    Car ownership also dropped because government had a lot of cars destroyed in cash for clunkers. The used car market still hasn’t fully recovered from that program out of the fascist (read: corporatist) economic library. Furthermore regulations and monetary inflation have driven the prices of new cars up while wages in real terms continue to decline.

    2013 is also the record year for average gasoline price measured in numerical dollars. But in proportion to other commodities, like silver, gasoline is still about where it was in the 1960s and that’s including the modern taxes on it. Even with CPI gasoline isn’t particularly expensive, but our wages aren’t keeping up. (and a lot of people just don’t have the sort of jobs they used to) And let’s not forget the feeding of the insurance cartel, ever increasing fines both in cost and in number…. Oh speaking of insurance cartel, not just the auto insurance, but the medical.

    And let us not forget the credit issues right after the time frame this so called peak happened. Now of course they are back to automobile subprime loans so who knows what that will bring.

    The private passenger automobile is slowly being turned back into a rich man’s toy.

    Of course we need messages about how good it is not to have a car so we accept and love our impoverishment.

  12. “the oil will run out soon” has been preached since the 1890s at least.

    Current reserves are the largest they have ever been measured both as volume and in years remaining at present consumption.

  13. I think this has a lot to do with the reduction in size of the US labor force, which is at an historic low. In 2007, 66 percent of Americans had a job. Today, that number is 62.7 percent, the lowest since 1978, according to the WaPo.

  14. I’m not as pessimistic as oooBooo, but I’d like to at least see the labor participation in these cities in the same chart. I could see some households dropping the car if only one partner was employed. In at least four of those cities a car could be a useful tool. We should still point to this whenever our local and state governments want to waste our money on more highways and bridges to nowhere. State DOTs always project cars per square foot reaching ten million in the next ten years, comparing reality to those projections can deflate their rhetoric a bit.

    PS I think there very well may be a trend here, when I talk to my younger colleagues at work they are much less interested in cars than my generation.

  15. I saw my very-rightist (climate denying, gays-can-be-cured, suspicious of vaccination, evangelical) cousin share a link about the statistics regarding Millenials just not getting driver’s licences … and to her it plays as “yet another sign” that nobody is taking on adult responsibilities and growing up to be strong Christian Americans.

    I had to blink several times. It’s just so different from how I’m used to seeing the data … Not that I agree with her, but I see how that narrative could be wrapped around it, if you’re already invested in thinking that today’s society is full of immature moochers who never grow up and never want to make the Hard Decisions.

  16. Economic necessity forces someone to figure out how to go without a car. Then when their economic situation improves, they have the skill and are presented a choice they previously never considered – get a car or keep the money.

  17. I have seen a number of stories lately that make some rather grand claims on some rather thin data. This is one of them.

  18. Have been people been missing the story about baby boomers retiring en masse? Of course the workforce is shrinking and people have been talking about the problems it poses for at least a decade. It’s a problem all over the developed world.

  19. VMT decline, a declining rate of young drivers picking up licenses and a decline in car sales aren’t news. This is a +7 year trend and a global one at that.

  20. peak oil isn’t about oil “running out” it’s about the price of oil. The oil in the Bakken and the tar sands has always been there. It’s not like someone oil company just discovered it. It’s only now being exploited because at ~$100/bbl it’s finally profitable to recover. Sure, there’s a lot more where that came from but it won’t be profitable until $150/bbl or $200 or $300. That’s not a very good strategy to hang your hat on.

  21. Spot on. When the economy recovers demand will go up and fuel prices will go right back up with it . . . and don’t discount the level of drag that rising fuel costs will have on the economy.

  22. Their data is for cities and not regions. Washington Biz Journal picked up story with the headline: 1/3 on households in DC are are car-less. That is completely wrong. This research was crap and reporters have no idea how to do reporting.

  23. Gasoline is cheap right now. Dollars don’t buy much any more.

    I filled up the tank of my daily driver for 22.8 cents a gallon this week. Cheap. Except those cents are measured in the kind of change americans used prior to 1965.

    (90% silver quarter is worth $3.6223, gasoline where I filled up was $3.299/gal )

    What has advanced has technology. The natural way productive and creative people make things cheaper and cheaper year over year when they aren’t artificially impaired from doing so.

    Products made from it are still cheap. Problem is the dollar. Monetary and political policy for the 0.01%(probably less). But keep believing in the things that enrich that tiny group.

  24. Nope. Crude prices are just above their 1979 peak at inflation adjusted prices not seen since production began in the 1860s – when the technology was still being figured out. In other words, oil is near historic highs in real dollars. More importantly, the modern US economy, built around interstates and long distance trucking, was organized around fuel costs 50-80% less than what they are now. Furthermore, local costs have little to do with a weak dollar as the rapid rise in prices preceded the tanking dollar. Oil prices have risen globally – in part due to rising demand and in part due to the fact that the easy to find and easy to pump oil is going the way of the dinosaur.

  25. CPI has not included energy for ages. CPI is a political measure. Even in CPI terms gasoline is something like 50 cents a gallon in 1960s money.

    1970s saw the inflation that resulted from the money creation for the vietnam war and the great society programs. Nixon broke the remaining link to gold.

    Inflation in prices does not occur evenly as money is created. Monetary inflation does not bring about even price inflation.

    I should also add that oil is sold in dollars with little exception. The big exceptions being the former government of Lybia, the former government of Iraq, and Iran. Note two of those are former governments and the third under heavy sanctions.

    In this edit I will also add that all major currencies are practicing monetary inflation right now.

    It’s a dollar problem.

  26. In 1965 oil was ~$2/bbl. In 2010 dollars that’s ~$12/bbl. Today it’s around $97/bbl in 2010 dollars. In 1965 a gallon of gas was ~$0.30. In todays money that’s ~$1.80. Where I live gas is around $3.30 a gallon in todays money. In other words the price of gas is historically high even compared with the crises of the 1970s. Oil prices have risen globally regardless of the relative strength of local currencies. In the last decade alone global demand has gone up ~22% while production has only gone up ~15%. You can google this stuff yourself (or you can just look on

  27. A 1964 quarter is worth more for its metal than a gallon of gas sells for right now. That’s commodity to commodity.

    As I have noted, CPI does not include energy. Also monetary inflation does not cause even price price inflation.

    Oil is not a rare commodity. Hydrocarbons are seemingly quite common in the solar system and universe. Oil can even be manufactured now. A gallon of gasoline is cheaper than many other retail items. Some of which used to be cheaper than a gallon of gas. A gallon of gasoline is something that is priced with tax, which is odd, because the tax is nominally for the roads and the government general fund and accounts for a large percentage of the price. The taxes are not corrected for when people do CPI calculations.

    But anyway….

    Says $3.30 was $0.44 in 1964. Actually less than what I wrote off the top of my head.
    Oh, And $0.30 in 1965 is $2.22 now.

    That’s official US gubbermint CPI.

    You should stop getting your numbers from people with political agendas and do the calculations yourself. That’s the beauty of the modern internet world, so much we can check and do for ourselves.

  28. Money is worth whatever people agree that it’s worth. So take your 1964 quarter into a gas station, toss it on the counter and bid the clerk a good day. Then you can explain to the police how the metal in your quarter is worth more than a gallon of gas. Now if only we all had 350 million of those quarters we could all buy gas for $0.25 per gallon – for one whole day.

    No one said that oil is rare. What they are saying is that it’s increasingly difficult to get to and that demand is rising faster than production, has been for over a decade and is forecast to increase dramatically over the next 30 years. Pursuing the status quo because some kid on the internet says “there’s plenty of oil” is not a good energy policy.

    The price of a gallon of gas has doubled in a decade. In the last 16 years it’s tripled. That’s rapidly outpacing inflation by any measure. More importantly, no one is walking into a gas station and paying for the gas in gold or bauxite or bushels of wheat – it’s cash or credit. When the price of gas doubled between 2000 and 2007 while wages were stagnant – and people went from paying $160 month to $320 month in fuel costs no one started trading furniture or head of cattle for gas – that money came out of their discretionary budget and went straight overseas.

    You can theorize all you want about the historic value of commodities and write off data gathered from commercial and government entities the world over as just one, impossibly large conspiracy but the real world we live in is a cash economy and the fact is that oil is a lot more expensive than it used to be.

  29. Actually a number of businesses have taken it that way. Or I could just go to a pawn or coin shop and exchange it for FRNs and then buy gasoline.

    More difficult to get? That’s a measure of technology. Ever advancing technology and productivity. The price of a barrel of oil is driven by traders and speculators who often have access to the money creation tap. The closer the access to the newly created money generally speaking the faster the price inflation. Note how stocks have become detached from actual earnings, revenues, etc. Why? The Fed’s money spigot is just gushing onto wall street.

    Energy policy? You mean where some small group of politically and/or economically powerful people decide things. I don’t believe in top down policies, five year communist plans, utopia building and other such nonsense. And it’s not some kid on the internet. Go read the oil company annual reports yourself.

    I’ll offer you the same challenge I’ve offered many. If oil is anything close to what peak oilers say, then start putting big oil CEOs in prison. Because that means they are committing fraud in their annual reports.

    I don’t understand why you and others here are so in lock step with what the 0.01% want you to believe. The way you serve the status quo power structure is quite amazing.

  30. re: Moocher/adult responsibility narrative. That’s silly. Owning a car isn’t an “adult decision” or a “Hard Decision”. Most folks I know got a car + license at 16 or 17 and never looked back. They made that decision as children, because it’s what their mommy and daddy and everybody else did. The car-free folks I know went car free in their late 20s, while gainfully employed and civically active.

    People love to criticize others who do things differently. Nothing new there.

    Car owners should love this news: less traffic for y’all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Has America Already Hit “Peak Car”?

In 1901, there were 10,000 motor vehicles in the United States. It took five years to multiply that number by 10. The next 10-fold increase took seven years, reaching one million vehicles by 1913. Just eight years later, it was 10 million. From there, it took 47 years to get to the next milestone: America became […]

Arizonans Driving Like It’s 1994

Here’s more evidence that there’s a shift underway in how Americans get around: The Arizona Public Interest Research Group has released a new report [PDF] showing that residents of this sprawling Sun Belt state are driving less and taking transit more. Between 2005 and 2012, the average number of miles driven by each Arizona resident […]