Three Paths to a Low-Car City

If you want to live in a city with fewer cars, how do you get there?  What do low-car cities have in common?  Anything?  Or are there in fact different ways to reach low car-dependence, demonstrated by very different cities achieving the same high scores?

All these questions came to mind as I perused Wikipedia’s helpful list of the US cities over 100,000 population with the most zero-car households (thanks to commenter Alon Levy).  I find the list so interesting that I’m just going to copy all of it here, then add some thoughts at the end.   The figure given for each city is the percentage of households that do not own a car.  

1. New York City, New York 55.7%
2. Newark, New Jersey 44.17%
3. Jersey City, New Jersey 40.67%
4. Washington, D.C. 36.93%
5. Hartford, Connecticut 36.14%
6. Baltimore, Maryland 35.89%
7. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 35.74%
8. Boston, Massachusetts 34.91%
9. Buffalo, New York 31.42%
10. New Haven, Connecticut 29.74%
11. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 29.45%
12. Paterson, New Jersey 29.32%
13. Chicago, Illinois 28.85%
14. San Francisco, California 28.56%
15. Cambridge, Massachusetts 27.72%
16. New Orleans, Louisiana 27.32%
17. Yonkers, New York 27.05%
18. Miami, Florida 26.71%
19. Syracuse, New York 26.56%
20. Rochester, New York 25.32%
21. Elizabeth, New Jersey 25.21%
22. St. Louis, Missouri 25.17%
23. Cleveland, Ohio 24.57%
24. Bridgeport, Connecticut 23.77%
25. Atlanta, Georgia 23.58%
26. Cincinnati, Ohio 23.37%
27. Providence, Rhode Island 22.92%
28. Springfield, Massachusetts 22.52%
29. Detroit, Michigan 21.9%
30. Richmond, Virginia 21.63%
31. Milwaukee, Wisconsin 21.36%
32. East Los Angeles, California 21.24%
33. Louisville, Kentucky 20.47%
34. Dayton, Ohio 19.97%
35. Minneapolis, Minnesota 19.7%
36. Oakland, California 19.62%
37. Waterbury, Connecticut 19.46%
38. Gary, Indiana 19.37
39. Honolulu, Hawaii 19.36%
40. Allentown, Pennsylvania 18.84%
41. Erie, Pennsylvania 18.2%
42. Worcester, Massachusetts 18.11%
43. Savannah, Georgia 17.64%
44. Lowell, Massachusetts 17.05%
45. Berkeley, California 17.01%
46. Norfolk, Virginia 17.01%
47. St. Paul, Minnesota 16.83%
48. Birmingham, Alabama 16.77%
49. Los Angeles, California 16.53%
50. Seattle, Washington 16.32%

The list is populated from the excellent Carfree Census Database, which also covers much smaller cities and a range of similar metrics.

An obvious caution: These are incorporated cities, which are things of very unequal size and shape bearing little relation to the organic form of urban regions.  For example, Los Angeles at #49 would score much higher if the vast low-density San Fernando Valley were not part of the incorporated city, and high-density innermost suburbs like East Los Angeles (#39) were included instead.

If I then look across the whole list and try to identify factors that
seem to explain, in different mixtures, each city’s presence on the
list, it seems there are three:  age, poverty, and dominant universities (i.e. universities that are large relative to the size of the city).
We might posit that these are the three most reliable paths
low car ownership at the scale of an American city of 100,000 or more.  Other things matter too — obviously, it helps to be part of a larger urban agglomeration that delivers more transit service and adjacent activity.  But every city’s presence in the top 50 has an obvious explanation in one or more of these three factors.

Most cities on this list display two or more of these factors, but a few are models for just one of them.  San Francisco is on the list because of age — a rare western city largely laid out before the car-dominated era, and thus by far the densest big city in the west.  Berkeley is there because it’s a small city with a big university.  Many cities are there because of relative poverty, including most of the cities that would be on everyone’s list of America’s toughest urban reinvention challenges.

It looks like the most common path to low car ownership is to be an old city.  Many big cities on this list seem to be ranked by the sequence of
urban settlement: northeast first, then midwest and south, then west
coast, with just the oldest cities of each region rising onto the
list.  An American city that reached its present shape by 1940 is going to be similar in form to a lot of European cities of the same age, both in the range of urban ideas expressed in the city’s design and in the transport modes for which it was optimized.  Urban form determines whether owning a car is essential, or just helpful, or a nuisance.  Obviously, urban forms that make car-free life easy are found most reliably in cities built when nobody owned cars.

Age, here, gives us what we would now call “density plus design,” to use Robert Cervero’s term.   Thanks to the New Urbanists and their progeny, we (arguably) know how to design new cities that work like old ones, but we don’t quite know how to make them happen economically.

DSCN1614 So here’s the question:  How long will it take for a city that lacks age, poverty, or dominant universities to achieve the kind of low car ownership that these 50 demonstrate?  How soon, for example, will a city be able to create a combination of density, design, and mixture of uses that yields the same performance as an old city that naturally has those features?

Portland is probably the most promising such city in the US, and it’s not on the list.  Only 14% of households there don’t have a car, so it’s probably well down in the second 50.  Like many cities, Portland has been doing everything it can to build a dense mixed-use urban environment.  It’s the sort of city that convinces the Safeway supermarket chain to rebuild their store with townhouses and residential towers on top.  But while people are moving into the inner city, they don’t seem to be selling their cars when they do, nor do they seem to be going to work by transit.  (I wish I could find the zero-car-household rate of Vancouver, Canada, because I suspect it may be the only new North American city in the league of the US top-50 on this metric, as it’s the only one to have built great masses of urban mixed-use density entirely in the last few decades.)

As always, this is just one metric.  Very few cities would say publicly that they want to increase the number of no-car households, because the concept still sounds radical to too much of the population.  Usually, when I talk about the benefits of mixed use and density, I say that car ownership can decline, but I usually emphasize households being able to share one car (not counted in the above metric) rather than households embracing a zero-car life.

But zero-car households remain an interesting metric, at least for the idealists out there.

How much are zero-car households constrained by overly abundant residential parking?  It’s still hard to sell a modern tower unit without a parking space included, even though there are many such units in pre-car cities like Manhattan and San Francisco, and many are quite desirable.  What would it take to replicate that desirability in new inner cities like Portland’s?  Couldn’t it be done at least in the name of affordable housing?

Fortunately, that’s an urban development question, and I’m a mere transit planner.

62 Responses to Three Paths to a Low-Car City

  1. jfruh January 20, 2010 at 5:31 am #

    A kind of disheartening aspect of this list is that it seems to indicate that transit ridership is a result of necessity, not necessarily transit quality. I’ve lived in Baltimore and the San Francisco area, and I can tell you that SF’s public transit is leagues ahead of Baltimore’s. But Baltimore has fewer car owners because it’s poorer.
    On the note of the SF area, I do have to dispute Berkeley’s description as a “small city.” It’s a small city taken in isolation, but it doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s part of an unbroken chain of cities in the East Bay, and you’d never know you were passing from one to the other if you didn’t see the same. Administrative history is the reason Berkeley is a separate entry in this list, not urban geography. It’s very different from, say, Dayton or Erie, which are the centers of their own urban areas.

  2. AikeaGuinea January 20, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    “… age, poverty, and dominant universities. We might posit that these are the three most reliable paths (to?) low car ownership at the scale of an American city of 100,000 or more.
    So, big American cities, if you want new or better transit infrastructure, get some more poor people?
    If these really are relevant factors (and they may well be), it’s more likely that increased car-lessness is an effect of these factors rather than a cause of them.

  3. DJB January 20, 2010 at 8:09 am #

    Good piece! It’s interesting when census data is used to examine individual neighborhoods. Most cities have portions that are recently built and portions that are older, portions that are richer, and portions that are poorer.
    In Los Angeles the low-income neighborhood of South LA has a transit commuting rate five percentage points over the city average, and Downtown LA, which is obviously older, functions very differently from the newest suburbs at the fringe of the region. I’m sure other cities have similar stories to tell.

  4. Cap'n Transit January 20, 2010 at 8:16 am #

    “A kind of disheartening aspect of this list is that it seems to indicate that transit ridership is a result of necessity, not necessarily transit quality.”
    It’s not quite necessity, but the quality of transit relative to driving. “Old” cities just can’t make driving much more attractive without turning themselves into wastelands.

  5. Duncan Watson January 20, 2010 at 9:04 am #

    I am from NY originally. In NYC a car-free existence is trivial to manage. It certainly isn’t based on income. Though owning a car in NYC is both a time suck and a money pit. I have also lived car-free in Portland, OR. I found it easy to live in Portland without a car. Easier than most other cities in the US. The difference between Portland and NY, is that it isn’t a PITA to own a car in Portland and in NY it is hard to own a car. Parking, maintenance, even filling your tank is difficult in NYC.

  6. Danny January 20, 2010 at 9:05 am #

    I think the answer to your last question lies with one of your answers to good TOD: Be On The Way.
    I think if you were to take the worldwide list of cities with the lowest car ownership, and poll those who live without cars, you would notice one thing. These people live their entire lives on one transit line. They might venture out of their line every once in a while, but a good 99% of the things they need lie on that transit line.
    The problem with urban planning today is that it inevitably forces inconvenient location of the nonobvious things that people value. It forces you to catch multiple buses to get to where you want to go on a regular basis. And multiple buses means exponentially greater travel time.
    If urban planning were to offer a much more liberal perspective on what can go where, I think the utility of a single line can be maximized to the point that you no longer feel like you need a car.

  7. Steve January 20, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    It’s probably important to at least mention that car ownership doesn’t necessarily equate to regular use. It’s not at all uncommon in San Francisco (which I mention just because it’s the example I’m familiar with) for households to keep cars that they only use for dining out, shopping and weekend trips. Our relative wealth allows that — although parking rates downtown are high enough to serve as a strong disincentive to commuting by car even for fairly affluent households.

  8. EngineerScotty January 20, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    Average cars per household is probably a more interesting metric to look at.

  9. Jonathan January 20, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    I think Steve makes a strong point. It seems likely that, where wealth allows, a car will be retained for the range of capability it provides, even on journeys far outside the scope of the city’s transit planning. This may be true even where it would be cheaper to hire or use taxis for those few journeys.
    If reducing car ownership is a goal (the benefits would seem to be small, though people might self-select for equivalently costed apartment blocks with swimming pools, gyms and laundries in the basement rather than car-parks) then improved hire options, collectively-owned cars and on-demand taxis or ring-and-ride services would seem to be the way forward.

  10. Mike January 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm #

    One of the issues is how do you define an old city vs a new city. By 1940 Portland already had a population of almost 306K people. (more than half its current population).
    Part of the reason that mixed use development seems to have a greater preponderance in Portland than say Los Angeles is that Los Angeles grew faster basically because it was annexing a lot more land for a lot longer period of time. But if you were to compare the parts of LA that were developed in 1940, vs the parts of Portland that were developed in 1940 and then see how those neighborhoods have changed, I suspect that LA probably had more intensification of land use in its mixed used communities and a much lower level of car ownership.

  11. Christopher January 20, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    I agree with Duncan above. I’m from Nassau County, just east of the NYC line. My Aunt lived in Astoria, Queens for 43 years without a car. My Sister lived in Brooklyn for several years without. If I lived in the city, I’d probably not own a car. Too expensive for the car along with high cost of shelter and taxes. Too much hassle including to get out of town, a major and stressful expedition. I’d take the Metro or NJT out and then rent-a-car.
    Since ’88 I’ve lived in and near Portland; For five years at McCormick Pier and the Essex House in town. Both had parking but neither was near a decent food store nor were the stores accessible by TriMet. I worked in Clark County so I had to have a car.
    Getting out of town is quick and easy because PDX is tiny.
    Why would I forgo a private vehicle? I would if it was stupid expensive and/or too difficult to manage. But, then I’d probably not want to live here.

  12. Ari January 20, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    What might be interesting is what the future of car ownership for each category of these cities is. For instance, cities with high no-car households due to poverty will likely have more cars if poverty is reduced. As long as parking is not a huge burden, car ownership is a status symbol amongst the impoverished, and unless there is a very good transit network, having a car is quite useful as well. So for Hartford, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Bridgeport and others (even Detroit!), I’d guess that, if (and since, with the possible exception of Hartford, they are all “Rust Belt” cities, that’s a big if) their economic situation improves, their car ownership rates will rise. Yes, they are older cities, but parking costs (either in dollars or time) are not particularly high.
    Then there are old cities (and “old” could be a pretty good stand-in for “dense”). These are cities where many of the desirable neighborhoods are dense enough that simply parking a car costs $200 or $300 a month (or more), which is a comparable cost per square foot to housing space (a parking spot is about 100 square feet). These cities generally have useful transit systems, robust car sharing networks, and established urban middle and upper classes which don’t drive everywhere. New York, Boston, Chicago, Philly and San Francisco are the best examples here. As you point out, having a car can be a nuisance, but a lot of people give up mobility to live in robust, urban neighborhoods.
    Then there are the university towns, which seems to be a softer metric than the others you put forth. Is Seattle a university town? Sure, the U-Dub is a major player, but is the city itself dependent on it? Cambridge and Berkeley seem to be the examples here, but they are really extensions of Boston and San Francisco. I’d say Seattle is the first “newer” city to make the list.
    As far as parking … some of the most expensive real estate in the country—the North Side of Chicago, Back Bay and the South End in Boston, much of Manhattan, portions of San Francisco—coincide with parking difficulties and old housing stock without parking. Can you think of any area where parking is expensive and hard to find and is also undesirable to live in? Me neither. New(er) zoning code which requires parking is sorely outdated (often based on code from the 1950s) and needs to be reformed with maxima instead of minima across the board.
    One quick example, a Car Free Condo in Toronto—42 storeys of middle-income condos with parking for nine shared cars, 315 bicycles and no private cars. Downtown and near transit. Supposedly they had to jump through a lot of hoops to get it built, but it could be a model for the future.
    Fear not transit planner—your work is interlinked with this!

  13. gridgoat357 January 20, 2010 at 1:48 pm #

    As someone who is familiar with East Los Angeles, and places similar to this community, I can tell you that not having a car in this region is a contributing factor in perpetuating poverty. Once people are able to get long-term employment, they purchase automobiles, sometimes move to suburbs or fringe areas, and commute. Typical thinking in planning is that Hispanics who ride bikes long distances to work do so out of choice, as if they have some higher sense of environmental awareness. They don’t have a choice! Someday they will buy cars! You should talk to them!

  14. Richard January 20, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    The data is from 2000, ten years ago. It would be interesting to see more recent data. I expect cities like Portland might fair better today.

  15. BeyondDC January 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    >How long will it take for a city that lacks age, poverty, or dominant universities to achieve the kind of low car ownership that these 50 demonstrate?
    Arlington, VA has got to be close. According to the carfree census link, it is at 12.38% If you only looked in the dense parts of town it would be much higher.

  16. Nate Thames January 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    A few years ago I moved from a Kansas City suburb to Cambridge, MA (#15 on the list) and in the process voluntarily became carless.
    What makes owning a car a pain in Cambridge:
    Parking: Most buildings in Cambridge don’t have any parking. No driveways, no alleys, no parking lots for apartment buildings. My office doesn’t have parking either. You can get a street parking permit, but there are way more cars than spaces. Plus street cleaning insures that you WILL at some point have your car towed. This is the number one complaint of all my friends who have gone carless cited as their number 1 reason for doing so.
    Hostile Drivers: In the Midwest drivers were nice. Since moving to Cambridge I’ve discovered that the Masshole moniker is well deserved. Driving here isn’t a pleasant experience, and I say that as a person who loved driving in Kansas.
    Driving is more Expensive: Insurance is much more expensive in MA than in KS. Gas is always more expensive and toll roads and tunnels/bridges abound. Taxes are more. And even though I live down the street from Click and Clack’s auto repair shop, maintenance is noticeably more expensive.
    That being said, if KC had all of these conditions I would still have owned a car. So why am I carless? Cambridge has carrots to go along with the sticks.
    What makes carless living easy in Cambridge:
    Dense mixture of business and residential: My office is a mile away from my apartment. It doesn’t make sense to drive a mile to work, and if you don’t drive to work it’s a lot harder to justify keeping a car.
    Subway access: Boston is only a subway ride away. Plus airport and regional bus connections are easy from the mass transit system. Riding the subway keeps you out of the weather and, for all it’s problems, is usually on time.
    Sidewalks: I can’t think of a street in Cambridge that doesn’t have sidewalks on both sides of the street. In KC, sidewalks were rare. Plus, in the winter Cantabrigians are required to shovel their sidewalk within 12 hours of snowfall. In KC, no one ever shoveled the rarely seen sidewalks.
    Pedestrian Priority at traffic signals: Most traffic lights in Cambridge have a delay between the walk signal lighting up and the corresponding green light for traffic. It sounds simple, but it makes crossing a busy street much safer when you don’t have to worry about turning traffic.
    ZipCar, ZipCar, ZipCar: Each and every carless household I know in Cambridge use ZipCar. In a city with a layout like Cambridge, 98% of your trips can be comfortably completed using mass transit / walking / biking. But that other 2%… Those are the trips that nag at the minds of people deciding whether to go carless. Think: buying in bulk at the grocery, picking up a sick child from school, that restaurant in the suburbs you want to try. In these situations ZipCar is a lifesaver, and a mental security blanket the rest of the time.

  17. SpyOne January 20, 2010 at 6:02 pm #

    I don’t think that zero-car households is a good barometer for what we really want to achieve. There are things that a car is useful for where transit really is not, and not ever going to be. It in no way threatens a good transit-centric city if the people who live there want to own cars.
    It is much more about how much people USE cars, not how much they OWN them.
    It is, in fact, a victory when someone decides to keep a car in a garage out at the edge of the city for a weekly trip into the surrounding rural area to visit a relative, but to use transit to get to and from their car as well as to and from work, shopping, and entertainment.
    Although it is also a victory when someone realizes that the amount they are paying in insurance, maintenance, and taxes makes no sense given how infrequently they actually use their car.

  18. Jarrett at January 20, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

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    SpyOne.  I agree that several metrics matter.  Zero-car households are interesting because there are a lot of zero-car idealists, and also because we are unlikely to see the economics of driving change so profoundly that it becomres cost-effective to own a car and not drive it much.  Residential parking requirements are also a major barrier to affordable high-density development.

  19. Ericorozco January 20, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    The Southeastern cities that make this list (and don’t) seems especially compelling to think about for me.
    Relative to other nearby cities, Savannah and Richmond don’t necessarily have a disproportionate concentration of poverty, which tells you part of the reason their gently compact urbanism may be successfully pulling them into the top fifty is their walkable and porous blocks. This brings middle-class and wealthy folks into the percentage of the sans car crowd.
    Charleston’s walkable core, in contrast, is isolated geographically, so it is dominated by sprawl-type car dependency all around its historic peninsula. Savannah and Richmond spread out more evenly with more tightly-linked consistency. Their cores are also highly accessible all around. Interestingly, Savannah’s low-income communities are within easy access to the core (in relative contrast with Charleston)…could diversity at the core be a factor? Only the very wealthy can benefit from Charleston’s urbanism. Savannah, Norfolk, Richmond…These are cities where a greater proportion of the otherwise car-happy middle class benefits from walkable streets.

  20. rhywun January 20, 2010 at 7:57 pm #

    I think the “poverty” factor is more complicated than it would seem. In some perverse way I think poverty can lead to higher car-ownership, because in a lot of these rust-belt cities (I grew up in two of them, Rochester and Buffalo), the movement of jobs and shopping to the suburbs means that the remaining city residents have to have a car in order to be able to do much of anything, even if paying for it is a tremendous hardship. I know it was when I was growing up, but there was simply no choice. I’m frankly quite astounded that the “no-car” percentage is as high as it is in those two cities, because that tells me that the grinding poverty is even worse than I remember (i haven’t lived there in close to 20 years).

    I don’t think that zero-car households is a good barometer for what we really want to achieve.

    I kind of agree, but I personally find it an interesting statistic if only because that’s my chosen lifestyle.

  21. CroMagnon January 20, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    This study backs up an earlier (Abell Foundation, I think) that showed Baltimore had an extremely high transit dependency. True, many don’t have cars because they are poor. But if and when those people DO start driving, traffic congestion will become unimaginable.
    Again, all the more reason for Baltimore to build more heavy rail instead of light rail.

  22. rhywun January 20, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

    Good grief, a car-free building at Dundas and University is controversial?? Though to be fair, even in Manhattan it’s rare to see a new tower go up without an ugly entrance to the underground parking right in front.

  23. Pantheon January 20, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    This list is a strange brew. America’s wealthiest cities coexist alongside the poorest and most downtrodden. It reminds me of an obervation Paul Fussell made in his book “Class: A Guide Through The American Status System”. The upper and lower classes are more similar to each other than either of them are to the middle. And the rich and poor are immune to the consumerist impulse which plagues the middle class, the fixation on maintaining the outward appearance of wealth through capitalist consumption. It is solely those in the middle who succumb to this illusion because they alone suffer class anxiety.
    So here we have the Hispanics in East Los Angeles biking to work alongside the professors in Cambridge. If you bought a house in the suburbs to show how upwardly mobile you are, you must be middle class. If you dream of such things, then yours are middle class dreams.
    I wonder what would happen if carfree living became the new status symbol. If it were manufactured in the assembly-lines, bottled and marketed, like Marilyn Monroe and negative-amortization mortgages. Would we still want it? Or are we a bunch of sour elitists who would rather snipe at the banality of American life from its fringes?

  24. Alon Levy January 20, 2010 at 8:55 pm #

    In principle you could have good transit and high car ownership, but in practice one obviates the other. The large transit-oriented cities in Europe and East Asia have car ownership levels comparable to New York City’s, and even their suburbs don’t have so many cars.
    For examples: Tokyo proper has 250 vehicles per 1,000 people, a little more than New York City proper, while Greater Tokyo has 350, compared with about 600 for Greater New York. Berlin, supposedly an example of a city where people own cars but ride transit, has 350 cars per 1,000 people. London has 400, Greater Barcelona 350, Greater Paris 450, and Greater Copenhagen 225. The East Asian Tiger cities range from 73 in Hong Kong to 250 in Seoul.
    Once you build an extensive transit system, people no longer need to own cars.

  25. Alon Levy January 20, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

    By the way, if you want info for Vancouver, you can find them here. Vancouver proper has 550 cars per 1,000 people, Greater Vancouver 650.

  26. CroMagnon January 20, 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    ^Alon, if these numbers are true, there’s no way the Berkeley study that Watson cites can be correct (105 million parking spaces in US), b/c every car must be parked somewhere, and very few are parked on just dirt.

  27. Alon Levy January 20, 2010 at 9:47 pm #

    There’s on-street parking, which is generally part of the streetscape.
    FYI, the US has 820 vehicles per 1,000 people. This includes buses and motorcycles. Excluding, it’s more like 750. (P.S. including motorcycles, Taipei has a lot of private vehicle ownership. It has 257 cars and 368 motorcycles per 1,000 people.)

  28. Jase January 21, 2010 at 1:49 am #

    These numbers are amazing. I doubt a single city in Australia has zero-car households above five percent. Even in the snobbishly inner-city bits of the inner city, every house has at least one car…
    Perhaps that’s partly because the poverty is not so bad here (unemployment at 5%, nearly-adequate unemployment benefits), thus keeping up the car-ownership at the bottom end of the curve…
    I would like to see car-ownership by location and income. Is it really the case that the rich and the poor don’t have cars? Or is non car ownership a transitory life-state, i.e. a characteristic of people without kids and people in their dotage.
    I suspect that raw wealth or income might not be such a factor as life-stage. Manhattan might have a lot of people living in it that haven’t yet had to get a house that can accommodate a brood…

  29. Jarrett at January 21, 2010 at 2:21 am #

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    Well, Australia doesn't have the same kind of large "city" as a legal and demographic unit.  So the ABS census can drill down to suburbs, which are what Americans would call a neighbourhood or zipcode.  I bet you'd find some pretty high zero-car household rates in Australia's densest individual suburbs (e.g. Potts Point), though you'd find higher still if you drilled into Manhattan at that scale. 
    I would be surprised if the whole Sydney council area wasn't pretty high in zero-car households.  The decisive feature is a pre-car housing stock (terraces and old apartment blocks in Syd's case) that just don't have parking and are never going to.
    By the way, I live in Redfern, and don't own a car.

  30. Alon Levy January 21, 2010 at 3:22 am #

    Jase: in any given area, the rich own cars more than the poor. For example, the Upper East Side has a higher car ownership rate than the rest of Manhattan (though still much lower than the rest of the US) – very rich people can afford to keep their car parked in garages.
    The American Community Survey has statistics about median incomes in each region for both car owners and non-owners, and, at least in New York, owners consistently make about twice as much money as non-owners.
    Jarrett: in Sydney Statistical District, there are 665 vehicles per 1,000 people (but only 559 privately owned), and about 13% of households did not own a car as of 2001. Despite this, public transit use is relatively high, at 24% for work trips, and trending slightly up. The 24% share is a wash with Toronto’s, and may be the highest in the English-speaking world outside New York and London.

  31. John January 21, 2010 at 5:22 am #

    This is a fascinating analysis of how a city’s age, poverty, and universities relate to car-free households. I think that for the future planning, could you could look at the factors that support a person being able to choose and support a car-free lifestyle? Those factors perhaps could be nurtured in cities where a more diverse and dense urban environment is the goal.
    I’ve been car-free for over 20 years now and the factors that have supported my choice are: proximity to frequent destinations, transit networks at different scales, and an “old city” urban grid (formed before car dominance).
    In brief, I’ve been very careful to choose my home to be in a location where my regular destinations (school, work, groceries, recreation, library, bank, cafes) are within about 2.5 km. That is, I expect to go through many weeks in which I wouldn’t even have to take a bus if I did not want to. This is my *proximity* factor.
    The transit networks I do use (county bus system) is very much centered on the dense, center city area where I live, so that taking a bus out to the big box stores or strip malls in the burbs is no problem (although my use of those is declining as I order most things online now and enjoy home delivery). I also use intrastate bus service, centered at a station about 2.5 km away and can catch regional commuter buses or an Amtrak train at that same station. In other words, transit networks at different scales that inter-connect is key for me.
    Third, I feel fortunate to have found a place to live in the city built before car dominance. The streets are grids. The buildings go, for the most part, right to the sidewalk so that there is not any weird, massive asphalt or grass fields (lawns) that increase the distances between features. The walking is experience is reasonable. Now, for cities that do not have this kind of grid, perhaps it could be retrofitted to car-dominant areas. Moreover, the massive fields of asphalt and grass in the burbs could be filled in with useful things like housing, stores, etc., to achieve that proximity I mentioned earlier and overlaid with a variety of transit networks.
    The idea being that an analysis of personally supportive factors of a car-free life could very well inform urban planners. There are other things that could be done (enforcing traffic laws, etc., ) that can improve the pedestrian experience, but I think the factors that support the car-free lifestyle should be identified and nurtured.

  32. Jennifer January 21, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    I don’t think we want to encourage people to take the St. Louis route to a high rate of zero car ownership. Yes, St. Louis is an old city build before there were cars, and famous for its fabulous streetcar network. But in the incorporated City of St. Louis, poverty is the only reason for the carlessness.
    We have a transit system, yes, but it isn’t big enough or frequent enough to be a “choice” system yet, outside of the lucky few who live along one of the light rail lines and use it to commute to downtown. And even then, you couldn’t really be carfree in most places because of the lack of amenities, as another commenter pointed out.
    I agree that it’s not so much “carfree” that we should be going for, but rather increasing the number of “choice” transit users.

  33. Jennifer January 21, 2010 at 11:40 am #

    I should correct myself; it’s not that you cannot be carfree; it’s that it is still far too inconvenient for any but the most dedicated urbanists to make that choice. (Not just a transit problem, but also problems with sidewalk connections, crime concerns, hostile drivers, cultural issues, etc.)

  34. D January 21, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    Interesting post and great discussion. A further note on the west: a lot of people move to cities like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver (throw Denver and Calgary in there, too) for ‘lifestyle’ reasons involving either real or imagined frequent outdoor activity. If a big part of your weekend involves going to a remote trailhead or recreational spot (or being prepared to do so), then regardless of your Monday-Friday lifestyle (during which time you may take transit, commute by bike, walk to the store, etc) you’ll want to have a car at the ready. Preferably with four wheel drive.
    Given that even fairly concentrated and well-used recreational destinations (I’m thinking Lake Louise, Whistler, among others) aren’t connected to their ‘home cities’ (Calgary, Vancouver) by convenient and appealing transit, it becomes tricky to not have a car on hand – even if it’s not a big deal at home, though of course it’s easy to slide into car use if it’s right there… Like multiple commenters have suggested, what matters is usage, more so than ownership – particularly in the west.

  35. AlexB January 21, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    I hate hearing about Portland being this public transit mecca. Just because they’ve built a few train lines over the last 25 years that that have been moderately successful doesn’t mean they’ve accomplished all that much. Dallas will soon have almost the same amount of track miles and no one will ever call it a public transit city. Portland has one train line through downtown and it’s at grade. I know they are building another, but even two is pretty minimal. Most of the city is not walkable to a train station. That 86% of the city owns cars should make it obvious: even public transit loving vegan hippies drive everywhere if you only build a handful of lines.

  36. EngineerScotty January 21, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    One big problem is that cars depreciate as much or more with time, than with mileage. This may seem absurd at first–a car which is driven wears more than one which sits in the garage, and IRS and other taxing authorities generally base depreciation on mileage–but the realities of the used car market are that the calendar matters just as much as the odometer.
    The effect of this is–if you HAVE a car, unless it’s already fully depreciated–the marginal cost of driving it is far less than the marginal cost of automobile ownership for someone who doesn’t have it. And for the poor (many of whom still own autos), used cars are frequently “expensed”–depreciation is practically zero.

  37. Tom January 21, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    Sorry to deflate some readers balloons but the majority of the cities on this list have low car ownership rates because of poverty. Buffalo, Patterson, New Orleans, Rochester, Syracuse, St Louis … and yes the grinding poverty is much worse in Buffalo and Rochester then it was 20 years ago when I was growing up in suburban Rochester. I find nothing reassuring in this data. Its just depressing and I can’t image waiting for a bus in Buffalo during one of its notorious lake effect snow storms.

  38. anonymouse January 22, 2010 at 12:12 am #

    D: you don’t necessarily need a car for outdoor activities. Consider the Breakneck Ridge and Appalachian Trail stations on Metro North, or the MBTA Ski Train to Wachusett Mountain, or any number of other things. And it’s really only when you can do things like that without a car that a carfree lifestyle becomes attractive to many.

  39. Placemaking Institute January 22, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    As I’ve said (again and again), it took several generations for the “car+sprawl” myth to be insinuated into the American fabric and it will take several to desinuate it…And it appears that this generation, which is the first to do worse than their parents’ generation, may be, according to market analysts, the tipping point.
    Martin Mittelstaedt: “Americans’ infatuation with their cars has endured through booms and busts, but last year something rare happened in the United States: The size of the U.S. car fleet dropped by a hefty four million vehicles to 246 million, the only large decline since the U.S. Department of Transportation began modern recordkeeping in 1960…And the overall drop in car ownership has prompted speculation that the long American love affair with the car is fading. Analysts cite such diverse factors as high gas prices, the expansion of many municipal transit systems, and the popularity of networking websites among teenagers replacing cars as a way of socializing…The institute is issuing an analysis Wednesday that contends the drop in 2009 isn’t a one-time fluke caused by the recession, and that U.S. car ownership is likely to be entering a longer-term decline that will see the fleet drop by another 25 million by 2020.”
    Jenn Abelson: “For many young Americans, the automobile is less a love affair than a way to get there. Even before the recession, the younger generation of motorists had lost their lust for the latest and greatest cars on the market. Some analysts say automakers dropped the ball years ago on designing affordable and swanky cars for young motorists to flash their style. Between 2005 and 2008, sales of new vehicles declined consistently, and consumers between the ages of 20 and 34 accounted for the largest drop, about 30 percent, according to Maritz, a market research firm.”
    “Sustained Long-Term US Gasoline Demand Growth Unlikely”:

  40. anonymouse January 22, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    Looks like the love affair with the automobile has become an abusive relationship…

  41. Placemaking Institute January 22, 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    Has become? It has always, always been an abusive relationship. And each individual/generation has only experienced the previous individual/generation being abused/abusive and has acted in kind, etcetera and so forth throughout the years, exacerbating the problem geometrically until one individual/generation decides to (or must) stop replicating their collective parents’ abusive relationships and start striving for a more, I don’t know, I hate to use the word but “holistic” relationship with their cultural context.
    When Henry Ford (a political supporter of Hitler) invented, for all intents and purposes, the automobile assembly line? A new sociological term was created for the experiment: “Mechanized Death.”

  42. CroMagnon January 22, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    ^You are overstating your case. Ford’s political interests of Europe are irrelevant. The bottom line of the automobile is that what was once a luxury is now a necessity.

  43. Watson January 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    The institute is issuing an analysis Wednesday that contends the drop in 2009 isn’t a one-time fluke caused by the recession, and that U.S. car ownership is likely to be entering a longer-term decline that will see the fleet drop by another 25 million by 2020.

    Do you have a link to this analysis?
    The recession is the most obvious explanation for the decline in auto sales last year. There are more registered automobiles than licensed drivers in the U.S., so the decline in autos per capita may just represent the elimination of surplus vehicles in response to a tougher economic environment. Car travel measured in VMT (vehicle miles travelled) actually increased in 2009 compared to 2008.

  44. Mike January 22, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    How would the numbers change if we include people who drive only once or twice a week, and one-car households?
    Traffic would be cut in half if every family went down to one car like in the 50s, even if the car was used every day.

  45. Jarrett January 22, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    Remember, you can play with your own scenarios, including 1-car vs 0-car and smaller cities, using the Carfree Census Database link in the post.
    Re one-car households, remember that (a) the price structure of motoring, especially insurance, makes it a bad deal to not drive your car once you’ve bought it, and (b) residential parking requirements are a major barrier to affordable high-density residential development.

  46. Placemaking Institute January 23, 2010 at 8:02 am #

    Initially I intended upon answering Jarrett’s question “How soon, for example, will a city be able to create a combination of density, design, and mixture of uses that yields the same performance as an old city that naturally has those features?” but immediately digressed…For many reasons but, to be brief, strictly from an individual structural point of view, it is going to take a very, very long time. The recent real estate bubble was not only the culmination of an absurd travesty in regards to lending practices and locational choices but was also an absurd travesty in regards to general construction contracting practices. Structures today are comprised of shoddy material and, instead of the focus being a good job, labor is now a cost that has been extremely minimized and, as a result, so has the ROI on that cost. Furthermore, they are still generally being built only to last as long as the mortgage; so after thirty years or so they are considered a diminishing asset. The resulting structures reflect all of that. And they will not decay gracefully.
    Most “successful” old cities do not have residential parking requirements.
    Watson: It seems the trend began in 2005 and not with the recessionary blip…Link where links to the data analysis can be found:
    (Run roughshod; you can be sure I will not in any way be getting into an Alon-esque exchange with you)

  47. Alon Levy January 23, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    Jarrett: the answer to the insurance issue may be mileage-based insurance. NOW has been demanding it for years, on the grounds that men drive more than women and therefore fixed rates discriminate against women.
    In Israel there are plans that are based on driving time, with differential rates for different drivers. The idea is that a teenager driving the family car should pay a different rate from the parents driving the same car. Under such a plan, the teenager would send “start” and “stop” text messages, be billed for the time spent driving, and be insured only in between. Even if this system is not viable in the US, mileage-based insurance for cars rather than drivers is still workable.

  48. EngineerScotty January 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    Speaking of auto insurance: Many policies have a clause on that indicating “driver lives within ten miles of work” or such. Do insurance companies ever attempt to enforce these–either when a policy is purchased (motorist must demonstrate that workplace and residence are indeed within a certain distance), or when a claim is filed (motorist runs red light and crashes into someone’s Ferrari, totalling it; adjuster investigates and discovers work is further than 10 miles; denies claim)? The insurance companies do charge different rates based on driving record, age and gender, vehicle type, and (controversially) credit rating, but this is the closest I’ve seen to usage-based insurance for private motorists in the US, and it appears to be not taken seriously.

  49. Watson January 23, 2010 at 6:47 pm #


    It seems the trend began in 2005 and not with the recessionary blip…Link where links to the data analysis can be found: …

    I’m not sure what trend you’re referring to here. The data cited in your link indicates that 2009 was the first year that scrappage exceeded new registrations (i.e., the first year in which the total number of registered vehicles declined). A single-year change is not a trend. It might be the start of a trend of a declining number of registered vehicles, but we don’t know that. It might instead be just a short-term pause, because of the recession. Or it might mean that the rate of growth in the number of registered vehicles is slowing. The chart in your citation indicates that the number of registered vehicles has been growing faster than the number of licensed drivers more or less continuously since at least 1960. That obviously cannot continue indefinitely.

  50. Placemaking Institute January 24, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Oops; a little miscommunication between us in need of rectification: what I was initially interested in was the bigger picture generational shift, ie how between 2005 and 2008, consumers between the ages of 20 and 34 accounted for the largest drop, about 30 percent (according to Maritz, a market research firm)…for what you may be looking for? I believe this link would work best:
    It seems the number of passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. could very well be construed as decreasing at a gradual yet continuous rate all the way back to…1999.

  51. Watson January 24, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    It seems the number of passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. could very well be construed as decreasing at a gradual yet continuous rate all the way back to…1999.

    New passenger vehicle registrations and sales have declined, but so have scrappages. Vehicles are lasting longer, so people don’t need to replace them as often. Your own citation shows that the number of vehicles in use increased every year between 1992 and 2008. 2009 was the first year in which the number of vehicles in use declined. As I said, a one-year change is a blip, not a trend. It may be that the surplus of vehicles over drivers, which according to your citation has been growing since at least 1960 and now stands at about 1.25 vehicles per driver (5 registered vehicles for every 4 licensed drivers) is simply leveling off.

  52. Placemaking Institute January 25, 2010 at 8:05 am #


  53. Mr. Kim Gyr January 29, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    I am a designer who has lived in Europe for 31 of the last 33 years, with the following questions:
    1. Assume that the world will have no more oil within the next 60 years, and that global climate change will install itself, inundating coastlines. Where does that leave energy supply, food production, jobs, cities and homes, etc.?
    2. The current global paradigm assumes that people have to meet each other to do business/generate a gross national product. Is that still true within the infrastructure that we have inherited? What are the alternatives? Can a far greater use of Internet and communication technologies enable us to plan a vastly better paradigm in terms of FOOD AND ENERGY PRODUCTION WITHOUT OIL. The End of Oil will transform our expectations and abilities to do almost everything – had we not best begin to engineer for that reality immediately?
    3. If you would like to see my own realizable musings, please view them on my website at They are the result of 29 years of consideration that was sparked by a car accident that caused my heart to stop for 10 minutes, depriving me of all the abilities that we learn as infants, including those for walking, speaking and remembering. I recovered by staggering, walking and jogging more than 330 miles to regain 95% of those abilities, and was gifted with these designs along the way. I very much hope that they can be used inspire you to make the world’s first 100% sustainable paradigm! Thank you!

  54. Greg January 30, 2010 at 9:57 am #

    This is moving in the right direction, but the connection with university towns should be a big clue. A large university consists of high density student dormitory style housing within walking distance of food, sports and education. It is just missing workplaces for the population to make it fairly complete. So the message is, if you really want people to leave their cars behind, the “mix” needs to include work, leisure, food and supplies, and education, all within an easy walk. That means that the balance of businesses, housing, and support infrastructure needs to be just that, balanced and compact enough to walk to anything you need within 10 to 15 minutes for the entire population of that area. It is not enough just to put a Safeway under some apartments if the other things the residents need are ten miles away. I’m not aware of any American cities that have been planed this way, but they will need to be if we are to survive inevitable oil resource decline. Though this will take time, simple changes in city zoning and building codes is the place to start.

  55. Placemaking Institute January 30, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    “How soon, for example, will a city be able to create a combination of density, design, and mixture of uses that yields the same performance as an old city that naturally has those features?”

  56. Ted King February 1, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

    FYI – San Francisco is also a college city. Most of the city’s main campuses are on or near rail lines. Only one main campus, USF (approx. 5K students), is out in a rail-less pocket (5 / 31 / 43). UCSF in particular has considerable influence due to the biomedical cluster in the Mission Bay neighborhood. CCSF, a two year school, is listed due to its having a student body (30K-40K) larger than SFState (20K-25K).
    CCSF Main Campus – K-Ingleside, Balboa Park BART
    CCSF Mission Campus – 24th St. BART
    CCSF Downtown Campus – Powell St. Stn.(MSS)
    Hastings Coll. of Law – Civic Center Stn.(MSS)
    Golden Gate Univ. – Montgomery St. Stn.(MSS)
    SFState Main Campus – M-Ocean View
    SFState Downtown Campus – Powell St. Stn.(MSS)
    UCSF Parnassus – N-Judah
    UCSF Mission Bay – T-Third
    MSS = Market Street Subway – SFMuni + BART

  57. Sell Your Car In NYC March 8, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    It’s great to see NYC up there on top of the list. Of course, most of the reason is surely the availability of public transportation, along with the close proximity of most destinations. We’ve been studying and writing about the effect of living car-free on NYC and the benefits of cycling and walking as means of alternative transportation. Of course, when you sell your car in NYC, that benefits us but the benefit to the environment is greater. Much credit is also due to organizations like, who raise and maintain consciousness in NYC.

  58. Paul March 20, 2010 at 9:45 am #

    Unfortunately Stats Canada doesn’t figure out what percentage of house holds own a car or not. So I can’t get that data for Vancouver.
    But based on Alon Levy’s data of 550 / 1000. I get about 1.16 vehicles per dwelling in Vancouver.
    Of course as mentioned before a better stat is what percentage of people who commute for work and school that actually use a vehicle or take transit or walk/bike. For people who live in Vancouver who go to work. Which I assume does not include going to school. 55% Drive, 6% are a passenger, 25% take transit and 16% walk or bike the rest use some other mode. Also not sure if that takes into account someone who might bike and take transit. And I’d say that if you include going to school the walk/bike/transit share significantly increases.
    Some factors over time that contributed to those numbers. The decision to not build freeway after freeway back in the early 70’s. The implementation of the ALR (Agriculture Land Reserve) or green belt back in the early 70’s. Also the regional plan to try and slow down suburn sprawl.
    This led to a higher than average density for Vancouver compared to the North American standard. As density increases there is less space for each person to put a car. So over time less people will end up not owning a car. Or if there is a car more people will share that car.
    Another factor is the cost of housing. More money is spent on the mortgage so people have less money to spend on a car.

  59. Brandon June 7, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    Quality of transit is still important. To me, a huge part of the difference between San Francisco’s 28% and New York’s 55% is the fact that transit in San Francisco is so poor that no one with the means to drive would do otherwise unless they are ideologically motivated. Traffic and parking are still bad in San Francisco. However, after gleefully taking my parents around on the subway in the former, im renting a car when they come to town in the latter.

  60. Nathanael August 3, 2010 at 12:40 am #

    Nate Thames covers the key factors, though not in the order I’d cover them in.
    Priority number one: SIDEWALKS. If there are no sidewalks, and the roads have speed limits of 30 mph or more, you need a damn car just to walk down the road safely.
    Priority number two: CROSSWALKS. If there are no crosswalks with decent markings and pedestrian-friendly light cycles, you practically need a car to cross the road safely.
    Priority number three: worry about that afterwards. The first two are absolutely crucial.

  61. Alex From Downtown Berkeley July 3, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    I’M shocked that berkeley is so low on the list. Perhaps the Berkeley hills are the reason why those rich people all drive because the 65 and 67 buses are notoriously slow and infrequent and confusing. But Berkeley itself and i’ve found this typical of the immediate bayside communities like Berkeley, San leandro, Oakland, Hayward the further down you go from berkeley the more and more people drive. Many people in Berkeley dont even own a drivers license or car (Including myself) and as long as i live in Downtown i have no intention or plan to get a car or drivers license. BART and AC transit take care of me and they are more frequent and reliable than my mother and her camero. Id much rather take public transit for the rest of my life than deal with the cost, stress, and hassle of having a Car.