For many Americans, there's no escaping the stressful rush hour drive -- but not for everybody. Many choose not to own a car. In fact, according to a recent report, more than 9% of U.S. households did not have a car in 2012, a higher figure than five years ago. In 21 of the nation’s 30 largest cities, households were also less likely to have a vehicle than just five years earlier.
According to a study by Michael Sivak, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the growth in households without a vehicle provides evidence that Americans are less dependent on cars than in the past. Sivak’s research also indicates that, per capita, Americans own fewer vehicles, drive fewer miles, and consume less fuel. While the number of households without a car rose nationwide, from 8.7% in 2007 to 9.2% in 2012, figures by city differ dramatically. In San Jose, just 5.8% of households did not have a car. In New York, 56.5% of households did not have a car.
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According to Sivak’s report, “The proportion of households without a vehicle is likely influenced by a variety of factors,” including public transportation quality, urban layout, weather, and fuel costs.” Adie Tomer, associate fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed that, per capita, Americans have been driving less, and that this is due to “a huge confluence of factors.”
One of the major factors Sivak identified as potentially contributing to peaking motorization is an increase in the use of public transportation. In fact, in large cities where Americans were least likely to have a car, the percentage of workers who commuted via public transportation was especially high, according to 2012 figures published by the U.S. Census Bureau. Residents of New York, Boston, and Washington, where people are least likely to have a car, were all among the most likely Americans to take public transportation to work.
According to Tomer, public transportation often serves as a substitute for driving, especially if the transit system is good. A good public transit system makes a city’s resources more accessible. Residents ask “Can I get to work in 30 minutes if I wanted to move to that part of town? How many grocery stores are within 10 minutes?” Tomer said.
Sivak also noted the role played by good public transportation in his report. “The five cities with the highest proportions of households without a vehicle were all among the top five cities in a recent ranking of the quality of public transportation," citing to a 2012 rank of public transit by Walk Score, a company that measures walkability in cities.
Tomer noted that, in addition to quality transit service, the layout of a city matters as well. Cities where businesses, residences, and people are more tightly-packed lead to congestion on roads, making it harder to get around by car. Based on figures from a Census report, five of the cities where households are least likely to have a car are also located in some of the nation’s 10 most densely populated metro areas.
While a densely populated city can be congested, it can also make the city easier to walk around. According to Sivak’s report, walkability are among the factors that can influence households to avoid buying a vehicle. Walk Score constructed one measure of walkability by considering distance to amenities as well as pedestrian friendliness. Most of the cities where households were least likely to have a vehicle also had among the top 10 walk scores in the nation.
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Based on an analysis of “Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?” from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, 24/7 Wall St. identified the major U.S. cities where the fewest households had a vehicle in 2012. The report relied on figures originally produced by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Also from the survey, we considered household vehicle figures for 2007, as well as commuting data from 2012. We also reviewed Census data on population, using July 2012 figures, as well as population-weighted density, based on a 2010 Census Special Report “Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change: 2000 to 2010.” We used qualitative scores on the quality of walking, public transportation, and biking in cities from Walk Score, and figures from the Brookings Institution on transit coverage by metro area for 2010. Brookings considers anyone living within 3/4ths of a mile from a transit stop to be “served.”
These are the cities where no one wants to drive.
10. Seattle, WA
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 16.6%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 19.7% (21st most)
> Transit score: 57.3 (9th best)
> Population: 621,897 (22nd largest)
While just one in 20 people nationwide used public transit to commute to work in 2012, nearly one in five in Seattle did so, more than in most cities. Last year, contractors began building a 1.7 mile tunnel in Seattle last year to replace the damaged SR 99 highway running through the city. The $1.44 billion project is intended to expand public space along the city’s waterfront. Seattle is also one of a few cities that uses streetcars, and was one of the nation’s top cities for public transit, according to Walk Score. One in five workers used public transportation to get to work in 2012, higher than most U.S. cities.
9. Milwaukee , WI
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 19.9%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 8.6% (75th highest)
> Transit score: 48.8 (18th best)
> Population: 598,916 (30th highest)
While nearly 20% of households in Milwaukee did not have a car as of 2012, many residents still depend on vehicles. That year, 10.8% of residents carpooled to work, higher than the 8.6% who got to work using public transportation. For Milwaukee residents who do elect to use public transportation, the Milwaukee County Transit System provides regular bus service. According to its website, more than 85% of county residents live within walking distance of a bus route. The system also provides a “freeway flyer” bus service that provides transportation from the city’s suburbs to downtown Milwaukee.
8. Detroit, MI
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 26.2%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 9.4% (69th most)
> Transit score: n/a
> Population: 706,201 (18th largest)
Just 21.2% of Detroit households did not have a vehicle in 2007. By 2012, that figure jumped to more than 26%. Residents' especially low incomes may be one reason for the high percentage of households without a car; the city’s median household income was just $23,600, or well less than half the U.S. median of over $51,000. Detroit had, by far, the lowest walk score of any city where so few households had a car. According to a 2011 analysis by the Brookings Institution, just 59.7% of working-age residents in the Detroit metro area were served by transit systems, lower than more than half of the metro areas reviewed. One public transportation system, the Detroit People Mover, is little-used and extremely expensive to maintain.
7. Chicago, IL
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 27.9%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 26.3% (11th most)
> Transit score: 65.3 (6th best)
> Population: 2,705,248 (3rd largest)
Overall, more than 40% of Chicago residents did not use their own vehicle to commute in 2012, more than in most U.S. cities. To get to work, more than one in four residents used public transportation, more than in all but a few cities. Many others chose to walk to work -- city residents were more likely to walk than Americans nationwide. According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, public transportation is essential to the economic development of the city. In a speech last year, the mayor cited numerous renovations and projects aimed at strengthening the public transportation infrastructure.
6. Baltimore, MD
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 31.2%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 19.2% (23rd most)
> Transit score: 56.9 (10th best)
> Population: 620,216 (26th largest)
The percentage of Baltimore households without a car rose from 29.3% in 2007 to 31.2% in 2012. One reason may be the quality of walking routes and public transportation in the city; Baltimore received some of the top marks in the nation for both walking and public transportation. The Maryland Transit Administration operates a number of services, including commuter buses and trains, as well as a more-than 15 mile-long subway. In 2012, more than 19% of commuters took public transportation to work, one of the higher percentages in the nation. There are also plans to build a new light-rail system, called the Red Line.
5. San Francisco, CA
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 31.4%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 33.1% (6th most)
> Transit score: 80.5 (2nd best)
> Population: 814,233 (14th largest)
San Francisco’s transit system was rated higher than all but one other city by Walk Score. The city also scored higher than nearly all other urban areas for its biking and for its walkability. City residents were taking advantage of these opportunities as of 2012, with over 55% choosing not to commuting to work by car, more than all but a handful of U.S. cities. San Francisco, which is well within commuting distance of Silicon Valley, also pioneered a controversial program permitting companies such as Google and Apple to use public bus stops for their private shuttles.
4. Philadelphia, PA
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 32.6%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 26.0% (12th most)
> Transit score: 67.0 (5th best)
> Population: 1,538,567 (5th largest)
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) maintains rail, trolley, and bus routes throughout the Philadelphia region, including more than 100 bus stations. There are four public transit systems in addition to SEPTA connecting residents to their destinations in the Philadelphia metro area. The city was among the top six urban areas for its walkability, overall transit quality, and bikeability.
3. Boston, MA
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 36.9%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 34.6% (5th most)
> Transit score: 74.8 (3rd best)
> Population: 628,335 (21st largest)
Boston commuters were more likely to walk to work than those in any other major city. More than 15% did so in 2012. The city’s public transportation also offers excellent alternatives to driving, according to Walk Score, which rated Boston’s transportation infrastructure third best in the country. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), also known as the T, recently announced the completion of train arrival information systems at all 53 of its heavy rail stations in the city, one of the first cities in the country to do so.
2. Washington, D.C.
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 37.9%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 38.6% (4th most)
> Transit score: 70.4 (4th best)
> Population: 619,020 (24th largest)
Nearly 38% of households in Washington, D.C. did not have a car in 2012, one of the highest percentages in the U.S. Additionally, more than 60% of working residents chose not to drive to work, one of the highest rates in the nation. The city received some of the highest marks from Walk Score for walkability, public transit, and biking in the area. As of 2010, 82.5% of the Washington, D.C. metro area’s population was served by a transit system. This figure may rise once the first section of the Washington Metro’s Silver Line opens, scheduled for later this year.
1. New York, N.Y.
> Pct. of households without a vehicle: 56.5%
> Pct. commuting to work via public transportation: 55.9% (the most)
> Transit score: 81.2 (the best)
> Population: 8,336,697 (the largest)
Nearly 90% of New York metro area residents were served by public transportation, more than all but a handful of other places in the U.S. More than 56% of New York City households did not own a car, the most of any city in the nation. This figure was up from 2007, when 54% of New York households did not have a car. In all, New Yorkers were more likely than residents of any other city to take public transportation to work, and no city received higher scores for walkability or transit. The city continues to invest in public transportation, including extensions to the city’s subway system, a new subway transit hub in downtown Manhattan, and improving accessibility for Long Island Rail Road commuters.