America’s Car Ownership Rate Higher Now Than Before the Recession

The share of car-free households in America grew after 2006, but by last year those changes had been wiped out. Graph: Sarah Jo Peterson
The share of car-free households in America grew after 2006, but by last year those changes had been wiped out. Graph: Sarah Jo Peterson

Beginning around 2005, Americans’ driving habits seemed to change in fundamental ways. Everyone was driving less, and younger people were putting off drivers licenses and car purchases longer than their parents’ generation did.

Some of these changes appear to have staying power, but while per capita driving remains well below the 2005 peak, it’s been trending upward since 2014. A rebounding economy and cheap gas have changed the equation.

Writing at Medium, urban planner Sarah Jo Peterson looks at how trends in car ownership rates have changed over this period. Census data on the number of cars per household show that after growing for a few years, the share of car-free households in America has dropped below 2006 levels:

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.

Disentangling the effects of the economy, public policy, and individual preferences on driving and car ownership is a difficult task. But the recent increase in car ownership suggests that as joblessness declines, more people feel that they need a car. This is in line with research from UCLA that attributed much of the decline in driving among young people circa 2009 to rising youth unemployment.

It’s worth noting that in two states Peterson examined — New York and Washington — there are still more car-free households now than in 2006. It’s probably not a coincidence that New York City has the most well-developed transit system in the nation, and Seattle has managed to make significant improvements to its bus and rail systems in recent years.

There’s nothing predetermined about changes in travel behavior. It will take a much stronger public policy commitment to transit, biking, and walking before many Americans feel comfortable opting out of car ownership.

35 thoughts on America’s Car Ownership Rate Higher Now Than Before the Recession

  1. Yes, having a job is a good, even empowering thing: August 30, 2017 – study’s lead author, Marlon Boarnet, a professor of public policy and chair of the department of urban planning and spatial analysis at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

    The researchers found that car commuters in low-income neighborhoods in San Diego have about 30 times greater job accessibility than those who take public transit.

    Scientific American:

    Cars have long been symbols for personal freedom. With the open road before you you can go anywhere—from behind the wheel you really take control of your destiny. In this regard, cars are empowering. Ownership means that you have the means to be independently mobile, that you own not just a vehicle but choice as well.

  2. Those who turned to transit en masse after the recession found transit systems gutted due to rising debt and pension costs and falling tax revenues. Service plunged in place after place.

    People figured out the hard way that in the U.S., getting around other than by car makes you a serf. Even in NYC, where the politicians and union members — even transit workers — generally drive, along with the wealthy.

    In general, elected officials tried to protect services such as education and police, even as their (pension) costs rose. So the cuts were focused on other things. Transit was one of those.

  3. It’s only personal freedom until you hit traffic jams and get stuck with bills for insurance, car payments, repairs, registration, and fuel. Then it becomes a ball-and-chain. Any freedom in mobility from owning a car comes at a steep price. Also, that relative difference in mobility only exists because we’ve subsidized car ownership and starved the alternatives. In a world where the equivalent public and private monies were spent on alternatives you would have just as much mobility without owning a car AND you would be paying less for it.

  4. I was about to say the exact same thing! It’s not that people didn’t try to live car-free. They did, they proved there was demand for public transit. However, in the face of this increased demand our politicians failed to put more money into the systems. End result is people gave up on public transit.

  5. Signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 17, 2009, the ARRA by law helped to protect education and safety in all states which are bound by law to balance their budgets. The ARRA also provided boatloads of money for transit projects which cities from coast to coast took great advantage of.

  6. It provided very little for ongoing repairs and maintenance of existing systems. To me it makes more sense putting money into established systems with proven ridership than to build new systems which may or may not generate projected ridership. The NYC subway for example is losing ridership not because we’ve failed to expand it (although that wouldn’t hurt) but rather because it’s falling apart at the seams. Money for repairs would have gone a long way preventing that.

    Here’s the breakdown of ARRA devoted to transportation:

    Total: $48.1 billion,[40] some in the form of Transportation Income Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grants

    $27.5 billion for highway and bridge construction projects

    $8 billion for intercity passenger rail projects and rail congestion grants, with priority for high-speed rail

    $6.9 billion for new equipment for public transportation projects (Federal Transit Administration)

    $1.5 billion for national surface transportation discretionary grants

    $1.3 billion for Amtrak

    $1.1 billion in grants for airport improvements

    $750 million for the construction of new public rail transportation systems and other fixed guideway systems

    $750 million for the maintenance of existing public transportation systems

    $200 million for FAA upgrades to air traffic control centers and towers, facilities, and equipment

    $100 million in grants for improvements to domestic shipyards

  7. “The researchers found that car commuters in low-income neighborhoods in San Diego have about 30 times greater job accessibility than those who take public transit.” Right. That’s because the US permits companies to locate their workplaces far from transit with little thought to how employees will reach them. That $9K the low-income worker has to pay for a car each year is a drag on the household budget.

    “Ownership means that you have the means to be independently mobile” I hate having to use a car and worry about where to put it near my destination. So much nicer to hop on and hop off transit — so liberating. And I have a similar feeling about riding my own bicycle versus bikeshare. So nice to just dock the bike and walk away.

  8. Thanks for the breakdown; well done.

    So over $65 Billion designated for transit. Just WOW.

    As to your point about operating/maintenance funds by local jurisdictions that is best left to politics at the local level. FTA grants do support the purchases of various equipment needs however.

  9. Where are you seeing $65 billion for transit? The grand total for all transportation was $48.1 billion, of which $27.5 billion went for highways.

    The problem in this country is we like to build shiny new things but we don’t want to maintain what we build. End result is we’ve built far more than we can afford to maintain, particularly roads.

  10. That’s because the US permits companies to locate their workplaces [wherever they wish] ?

    Pray tell you’re not suggesting the Nanny State should tell the private sector where to locate are you?? Good Lord.

    BTW, transit often comes long after-the-fact.

  11. Exactly. The (often underpaid) worker is the one who is forced to spend more money even if the employer may have saved by locating far from transit.

  12. Wondering if these numbers relate at all to the older portion of the millennial generation reaching the property ownership/childbearing years. What I see around me is formerly car-free or one-car late 20s/early 30s households being forced to increase car ownership due to 1) being locked out of purchasing super high-priced walkable urban real estate, and therefore buying in more car-dependent locations, and 2) households adding a car when kids arrive to cope with increased logistics. It’s just hard to be a young family in the USA and afford neighborhoods where car-free living is comfortable or possible. Plural of anecdote is not data of course, but I wonder if that’s one part of it.

  13. No need to have laws telling an employer where to locate. Instead, we should just let the employer bear all the costs of locating in the middle of nowhere. That includes the cost of maintaining any roads which go to the premises. It also includes the cost of electrical and other utilities going to the premises. Finally, the employer should have to pay the portion of their employee’s car expenses caused by their commute (or as an alternate provide employee transportation from their home to their workplace). Employers only save by locating in the middle of nowhere at the expense of forcing their employees to own an expensive piece of machinery like a car (and also to be forced to get a driver’s license).

    Come to think of it, what about potential employees who can’t physically drive? Might be time start an ADA lawsuit against employers who locate to places which can’t be reached except by private automobile.

  14. The Nanny State already does this by offering huge tax breaks or other incentives. Follow the Amazon auction? Every company in the US has its hand out for goodies from the Nanny State.

    But gov’t policy by the Nanny State is also to blame. In NY, Gov Cuomo’s new Mario Cuomo bridge (TZ), with its subsidized construction and tolls, was justified to spur businesses to move along the highway on the west side of the river in transit-free locations.

    Trump kept Carrier in Indiana with a bunch of state incentives. So he’s leading the Nanny State now.

  15. Ah hah, I do apologize for my miss-read and stand corrected.

    I would like to add that Denver RTD is mighty grateful for the ~$2 billion in transit funding it received. Being good stewards of taxpayer money they spent less than $58 million per mile for about 100 miles and 6+ light and commuter rail transit lines.

  16. And Denver probably needed new lines more than money to maintain existing lines. For cities with large, established systems though large amounts of money for maintenance would have paid large economic dividends. We should have had a few tens of billions for maintenance, not a paltry $750 million.

  17. Sorry for the confusion. Nanny State means Federal to me. What individual states do is decided by 50 different states (obviously).

  18. I wouldn’t disagree; it sounds like some state’s politicians were asleep when this was crafted. Still, given all that was accomplished in about 30 days – compared to the current administration….

  19. Whatever people’s complaints about Obama, at least he got a few important things done. By comparison, the current administration looks like a bunch of amateurs. Corker’s comment about the White House being an adult day care center hits the mark.

  20. We should aim for similar car dependency we had in 1970. Note, in 1970; the suburban life was a generation in existence.

    In 1970:

    25% of households owned 2+ cars
    50% owned 1 car
    25% no car.

    If we can create a landscape in which 75% of the households have the “FREEDOM” to choose being car lite or car free We will have achieved much.

  21. Increase the price of gas through taxation.
    This will support road funding by the users.
    This will reduce the number of cars.
    This will reduce the number of cars purchased and gas consumed.
    This will never happen in political system powered by ‘donations’.

  22. Sure it is. Other studies show millenials, who eschewed suburbia are now flocking to suburbia just like their parents did, and for the same reason. The same old pattern repeats itself, and will continue to do so as long as fundamental conditions also remain the same.

  23. I call it the “Golden Spike syndrome”. The last spike (or track clip) is pounded in, the first train comes through, and like the original Golden Spike ceremony, the word “done” is transmitted, back then by telegraph, nowadays on the internet. But mechanical things wear out, and when budgets get tight, the bean-counters try to cut from the maintenance funds, and hope that things get better before the equipment starts to fall apart faster than the shop forces can fix it. In the US culture, maintenance “don’t get no respect”. Compare this with Japan, where keeping everything in top shape is honorable work.

  24. That’s an interesting chart–though I don’t think it gives us the answer, since it doesn’t show us the trend between 2000 and 2015. For example, young people in 2015 could be buying way fewer cars than the same age cohort did in 2000, but young people in 2015 may be buying more cars than the same age cohort did in 2012. Per article above, we’re talking about a possible trend of decreasing car-free/one-car living that seems to have happened from about 2012-present. Would be very happy if millennials really are still trending toward lower car ownership rates, but can’t really tell if it’s true from the chart.

  25. All I know is my Millenial children and their peers treat driving as a punishment and arrange their lives as much as possible to live car free or at most car lite.

    It’s also important to distinguish between 2 types of suburbs. Inner Ring suburbs have vastly different appeal than exurban suburbs.

    I do believe it’s true that inner ring suburbs appeal to certain millennials, but not the exurbs. The proof for me is Southern Californian home values. Inner Ring housing is increasing in value. Exurb housing stagnates.

  26. Completely. I just moved out of a transit rich city where I had no hope of ever buying to a middle of the road city where I am going to aim for mostly bus/bike/walk but realistically will buy a car at some point.

  27. like the recent tax bill? Think bigger Aubrey – it has nothing to do with majorities; It’s all about money and power.

  28. This is an interesting chart. But it doesn’t tell us about vehicles on the road for a couple of reasons. One is that people typically keep vehicles for many years. So number of purchases doesn’t equate to number of vehicles. The other is that the size of the generations has changed, in particular the number of 16-34 year olds has grown. So even though they’re buying fewer cars, there are a lot of them. But hey, I know 21 year olds who grew up in the Bay Area who don’t have a license, let alone a car, so maybe there’s hope.

    Your idea below of aiming to return to 1970 auto ownership patterns is also interesting. The big difference now is that there are so many more two worker households. So getting back to a one car pattern would mean that commuting without a car–mostly by transit–has to be viable for at least one worker. That requires changes in both transit and land use, both of which would be a good idea.

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