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Are Car-Free and Car-Lite Lifestyles on the Rebound?


The annual update of transportation lifestyles in the United States reveals sobering — and surprising — findings.

The numbers of households living car-free and car-lite increased in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). If the goal is to promote car-free living, the state of Washington may have something to celebrate, and the state of New York’s unique superpower is regaining its strength. In addition, families with multiple workers and only one car may be becoming more of a thing.

However, in a year with robust household formation — over 1.4 million new households — car-free and car-lite lifestyles still lost ground overall. With only 8.5 percent of households, car-free living set another record low for share of American households.

This essay is the annual update of a series launched in 2016 that uses ACS data on the availability of personal vehicles to track trends in transportation lifestyles. I began the series during what turned out to be only a temporary boomlet in car-free and car-lite living during the aftermath of the Great Recession. My original intent was to show how ACS data can be an easy, but powerful tool to start building an understanding of the transportation lifestyles of the nation or a state, metropolitan area, city, or neighborhood.

The innovation was simple. Although the car-free household — those with no vehicle available — is a standard ACS category, car-lite requires a little arithmetic. Because such a large proportion of Americans live alone (28% of all households in 2018), analyzing lifestyles using average number of vehicles per household can sow confusion. Instead, households with only one vehicle need to be split into “singles” and “families”, defined as one-person households and households with two-or-more persons, respectively. (Members of a family, under this definition, do not need to be related.)

The car-lite lifestyle is defined as a family with only one vehicle. Car-two+ is for all households with two-or-more vehicles. Car-two+ households include the surprisingly large number of singles with more than one personal vehicle: 16% of singles and 4.5% of all households in 2018. Car-oriented lifestyles include all households living car-two+ and singles with one vehicle. The ACS defines a household vehicle as a car, van, or small truck available at home for personal use.

For the United States as a whole, car-lite living (families with one car) also set another record low, sinking to 14.2% of American households, from a peak of 15.8% set in 2011. Car-oriented households, which hit a recession low of 74.9% in 2011, rose to 77.2% of American households in 2018.

Of the five states I’ve been closely tracking, Washington and New York deviated — in part — from the national trend. California led the way in continued losses of car-free and car-lite lifestyles. Since the decline began in 2011, the Golden State has lost over 250,000 households living car-free and car-lite, even as it gained over 600,000 households. Car-free and car-lite living stabilized in Texas, although households living car-two+ continued to outpace household growth over all. Florida appears to have firmly joined the national trend, becoming more car-oriented in 2018.

Washington and New York — the state home to over one in five of the nation’s car-free households — both set new records (since 2006) for numbers of households living car-free. However, they both also set new records for numbers of households living car-two+.

Because of the strength of their growth in car-free living, Washington and New York are less car-oriented than they were in 2006. Their increase in car-two+ living, however, makes both states more car-oriented than they were during their lowest points during the Great Recession. New York’s car-oriented households hit a low of 51.5% of all households in 2012 as compared to 2018’s 52.1%. Washington’s low in car-oriented households was in 2013, at 79.1%, as compared to 2018’s 80.5%.

The Seattle Times recently ran article celebrating the city of Seattle’s growth in car-free living. Looking at trends on the state level, however, introduces the possibility that what is really going on is sorting. People who want to live car-free may now be choosing Seattle. People who want to live car-two+ may be looking outside the city. From a transportation choices perspective, the diversification of transportation lifestyles in the Puget Sound region is important. But despite Washington’s growth in car-free living, the state as a whole is still more car-oriented than Texas and California. Washington, moreover, still belongs in the category of states where singles living car-two+ outnumber singles living car-free.

And yet … is there a way to use ACS data to get additional insights? To make at least a tentative judgment about what these trends mean, especially for the state of Washington?

The U.S. Census Bureau also produces an ACS data table that reports numbers of workers in households by numbers of vehicles available. It is tricky to track trends with this data because so much can be going on. Acquiring and shedding vehicles; gaining, losing, and retiring from jobs; and people coming and going can all affect household status. In addition, the table doesn’t allow analyzing one-person households separately. A household made up solely of a single who works is presented the same as larger family with only one worker. Finally, the ACS is better at revealing trends that change steadily in the same direction, and both job status and vehicle availability can change quickly and then quickly reverse. This concern can be especially problematic when using the ACS’s one-year estimates.

Caveats aside, two categories may provide insights: car-free households with workers and one-car households with two-or-more workers. Nationally in 2018, only 43.3% of car-free households had workers, and only 5.0% of all worker-households lived car-free. Another 5.0% of worker-households belonged to the category of one-car households with two-or-more workers.

To look at trends, I took a base year of 2011. In this year, only 72.5% of all households had workers, a post-recession low, as compared to 2018’s 73.5%.

Nationally, between 2011 and 2018 car-free worker-households lost ground compared to all worker-households. In California, Texas, and Florida, they declined in terms of total numbers too.

In Washington and New York, among worker-households, car-free households not only increased between 2011–2018, but they increased at a faster rate than worker-household growth overall. One way to look at this: in most of the nation people living car-free got cars when they got jobs, but in Washington and New York, there was a path for people to get jobs and continue to live car-free.

But the really interesting lifestyle is the sub-category of car-lite living that is families with two-or-more workers and only one car. Although car-lite living declined dramatically between 2011 and 2018, car-lite living among households with two-or-more workers not only grew in absolute numbers, but in relative terms as well. This is the case not only in Washington and New York, but also in California, the poster child for the abandonment of car-free and car-lite living. Nationally, between 2011 and 2018, the United States lost 860,000 car-lite households overall, at the same time it gained 530,000 households with two+ workers and only one car.

The percent increases among worker-households for car-free and one-car/two+workers households for the nation, Washington, New York, and California are on the left. I wouldn’t get too caught up in the magnitude of the percent increases because, especially for Washington, they are built on a base of small numbers. I recommend thinking of it like this: “Are these transportation lifestyles becoming more of a thing?”

Curious about this counter-intuitive finding, I looked at trends in car-lite living with two-or-more workers in the other 45 states too. Since 2011, car-lite living with workers has become more of a thing in 26 states including Florida, but not Texas. A list of states participating in this trend is at the end of this essay.

Big picture: are the decreases, in absolute and relative terms, of car-free and car-lite living really such a bad thing? Let’s face it, in much of the United States living car-free is either the transportation equivalent of an extreme sport or a path to social and economic isolation. The personal vehicle remains profoundly important. Confronting this reality must be part of the responses to the twin crises of climate change and transportation safety. A society built on the widespread availability of personal vehicles is not easily disrupted.

Please note: the graphs for household vehicle availability in California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Washington are not all on the same scale.

“More of thing” is defined as a growth rate between 2011 and 2018 that is more than one percentage point greater than the growth rate for worker-households overall. The 26 states that meet this definition for one-car households with two-or-more workers — aka car-lite with workers — are Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.

Sarah Jo Peterson is founding principal at 23 Urban Strategies, LLC.

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