How Can We Foster Zero-Car Households?

Today on the Streetsblog Network, a fascinating look at the top 50 "low-car cities" in the United States — that is, cities in which a high proportion of households do not own a car at all. Human Transit‘s Jarrett Walker digs into a list (from Wikipedia) of the US cities with populations over 100,000 with the highest percentage of zero-car households.

New York City, unsurprisingly, ranks first, with 55.7 percent. Seattle is number 50, with 16.32. Looking at the entire list, Walker comes to the conclusion that each municipality on it has at least one of three factors in play: age (older cities were in great part designed before automobiles came into use); poverty; and/or the presence of a large university.

Walker poses an important question: for those of us who see a "low-car" future as something to strive for, what conditions need to come into play in communities without those big three factors? He writes:

2178862040_80d55b6f38.jpgLeading the way in the zero-car game. (Photo: mikeleeorg via Flickr)

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 percent 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 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. 

More from around the network: Transportation for America turns on the TV and finds Oprah talking about distracted driving. Bike Portland wonders if Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative could boost Safe Routes to Schools. And Chicago Bicycle Advocate has a great video showing motorists rolling through a stop sign. Wait, I thought only people on bikes did that.

  • This is why car ownership is so popular

    People don’t really want to share personal space with strangers and would choose cars if at all possible.

    Most people live in NYC for the job. If the could find an ideallic suburb that had a short pleasant commute to their job they would move in a second.

    Do you have poll data to back up all your statements about what “people” want?

  • by its nature its less convient then private transportation

    I don’t think so.

    I have the good fortune to have a big-box development with an Old Navy and a Super Stop and Shop about seven blocks away. Yesterday I was walking back from there with a couple of shirts and some groceries, and there was a woman in front of me pushing a “granny cart.” At one point the woman greeted another woman who responded, “If you had told me you were going shopping I would have given you a ride.” She proceeded on to her SUV.

    I realized that the SUV would not have been much more convenient for the woman. She would have had to wait for her neighbor, get driven to the parking lot on the roof of the supermarket, go to the elevator, shop, put her stuff in a cart, wait for the neighbor to finish her shopping (or else keep the neighbor waiting), put the cart in the elevator, unload the cart into the SUV, get driven back home, unload the groceries into her granny cart (or make several trips up to her apartment) and then put the groceries away.

    Instead, she pushed the granny cart seven blocks. Big deal, she didn’t look that weak. She wasn’t going much slower than me. Cars are way overrated.

  • Nathanael

    1. Sidewalks. Or woonerfs.

    If roads allow speed limits higher than about 15 mph, you *need* sidewalks and walkways.

    Otherwise, you need to make it clear to cars that pedestrians own the road and they are guests — with very low speed limits and car-unfriendly layouts.

    2. Crosswalks. With decent light timing (if you make the pedestrian cycle too short, you’re doing it wrong).

    3. Well, honestly, living someplace without sidewalks or decent crosswalks, I’m not worrying about #3 yet — you need those as *prerequisites* to getting anything else done. If you can’t comfortably walk out of your house, you’re going to get a car.

  • Pete

    Not much ‘proof” of personal space is needed for most normal individuals – its something almost all people feel. And its pretty clear that feeling is violated on subways in NYC.

    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1919910,00.html

    But there is an article if you want to know the science behind it.

    But broadly speaking the worldwise massive success of the automobile is a good clue. Most people don’t know that even in Europe car use has risen while public transportation use has been relatively flat.

    The NYC way of life isn’t something people aspire too. I don’t know people who love waiting for subway cars in 100+ degree stations with 110db noise to be pleasant. But that’s the reality of “public transportation.” And yes its gets that hot and that noisy – even on 95 degree days because they don’t have AC.

    I suppose you want “proof” of that as well right? The problem with cars isn’t cars themselves but traffic. People essentially want everyone but themselves to take public transportation, IMHO.

    BTW do you think “big box’ retailers would exist without the car culture? I doubt it.

  • Pete, Time is about two leagues below accurate science reporting. If it’s not in a peer-reviewed journal, chances are it’s wrong; even Scientific American sometimes fails to get basic facts right.

    So what you’re left with is, “I personally don’t like taking the subway, so it must be normal.”

  • The NYC way of life isn’t something people aspire too.

    Are you really that unaware of all the people who want to live in New York? You’re not really making a good case for yourself as an astute observer of human desires.

  • Hm, Streetsblog’s software didn’t like my link. Hopefully this will work.

    Of course big box retailers wouldn’t exist without car culture. But then I would be even more likely have a decent place to buy shirts within walking distance.

  • David Wiley

    The NYC way of life isn’t something people aspire too. I don’t know people who love waiting for subway cars in 100+ degree stations with 110db noise to be pleasant. But that’s the reality of “public transportation.” And yes its gets that hot and that noisy – even on 95 degree days because they don’t have AC.

    I think these comments are wandering rather far afield. The article is talking about how to foster car-free households. There is an urban model that works, but that is not the only one. I live a car-free suburban life. Subways and taxis are not an option. The largest impediment I see towards more people going car free is education. People simply don’t know what it is like thus have no basis for comparison. This seems to be changing, however. Fewer teenagers than ever are getting drivers licenses. Maybe there is hope for the next generation.

  • Pete

    [QUOTE]”I personally don’t like taking the subway, so it must be normal.”[/QUOTE]

    I like taking subways fine – relatively empty quiet air conditoned subways that run on time. Sadly these are rare..for the reasons I explained above. Here in NYC they are cutting service – to make more money.

    What’s good for the individual (calm, quiet, peaceful with some personal space) is not good for the MTA. Any need for “proof” of the above theory is ridiculous IMHO.

    As its abundantly clear that this is what people want. I don’t know ANYONE who wants to wait in the heat or likes the noise of NYC subways. What you want “proof” people don’t like it when it smells bad or that constant rats and rat poison?

    That’s why they are in the news all the time. That’s why they have groups that advocate improving it and cleaning it up.. The concept of public transportation is fine – the reality of it is incredibly underwhelming. it’s a bit like marxism in that regard.

    It sounds great but here in reality it just delivers various levels of suck.. We should instead close down half the street parking in NYC and put in divided bike/scooter/ebike lanes..

  • Pete, you’re a walking billboard for sending every American who rants about transportation to a Swiss reeducation camp.

  • ajedrez

    I changed my username to ajedrez (my real name wasn’t John in the first place)

    [/QUOTE]I see what you are saying. However, crowded and efficient shouldn’t always be confused. A bus can seat about 40 people. A subway train can seat about 500 people, and both have a lot of capacity for standees. For the cost of one driver, you can transport a lot of people in comfort. Of course, an empty bus or train is inefficient, but usually, they are never “empty”.[/QUOTE]

    First off – I live and commute in NYC. What you say here is somewhat true of course. But you have to examine why they are never ’empty’ its because the MTA staggers the buses/trains during non-peak times. So they keep them perpetually crowded.

    More importantly though its in their own FINANCIAL interest to KEEP THEM CROWDED. I have taken the 6 train downtown on a quiet Sunday morning and its packed. Why? Because they make money that way.

    So sure you can keep your buses/trains at pleasantly busy levels – but when you make even more money packing them in like sardines you have a problem. Look at mass transit in Japan – they have guys shoving people into to the trains..

    [QUOTE]It has a cost of $0.81 per passenger, when the fare is $2.25. The buses don’t get overcrowded, yet it is very efficient.[/QUOTE]

    Don’t get overcrowded? Try taking a crosstown bus on 79th street durning rush hour. And I am sure many people have it alot worse then I do. I live in one of those most convient areas of NYC and still have travel times of over 40 minutes to work.

    NYC has one of the worst commutes in the entire nation. If you rely on public transportation your going to be screwed. You can’t count on the government to care about you. The actual ride is very slow for a short distance and you have to wait just to get on the public transportation. And its still one of the best systems in the country!

    This is why car ownership is so popular and why we should be instead pushing for personal transport in NYC like electric bikes. Divided bike lanes for personal transport is a much better idea. Copenhagen is a nice city to get around in.

    For more serious transport I would put money on electric cars dominating buses/trains in the future. People don’t really want to share personal space with strangers and would choose cars if at all possible.

    Like I said its just a money issue that forces people in NYC to use public transport. I haven’t owned a car here in 12 years. But my extremely wealthy friends all have them..

    .

    As far as your quote about not getting overcrowded, I was using an example of a bus that is very efficient and isn’t crowded. The B74 has approximately 4,000 riders per day divided among 200 runs (100 each way). That is 20 passengers per bus, even if they all were on the bus at the same time. Of course, there are plenty of routes that are efficient and overcrowded, like the Manhattan crosstown routes (the M79 that you mentioned)
    For the worst commute, it all depends on where you live. It is much quicker for a Wall Street banker on the Upper East Side to take the 4 or 5 train than it is for them to drive or take a taxi. It all depends on where the person lives. However, you have to consider that, if everybody in NYC could afford a car, or have the ability to drive one (elderly people), the commute time would be longer, as there would be more cars on the road. You have to remember that a lot of these cities with high rates of auto ownership are less dense, meaning that there are that many fewer cars on the road.
    I don’t know if electric cars would really sell well with the people. Electric cars still get stuck in traffic, just like a regular car. The only difference is that the carbon emissions are lessened.

  • Pete

    As far as your quote about not getting overcrowded, I was using an example of a bus that is very efficient and isn’t crowded. The B74 has approximately 4,000 riders per day divided among 200 runs (100 each way). That is 20 passengers per bus, even if they all were on the bus at the same time. Of course, there are plenty of routes that are efficient and overcrowded, like the Manhattan crosstown routes (the M79 that you mentioned)

    I consider M79 one of the best in the city because it runs so often and actually goes a decent distance (when its cruising through the park). But its very crowded.

    And this is of course by design. I’d expect your bus line to be cut in service. The problem with public transportation (and this is easy to see with amtrak) is that certain ‘routes’ don’t make money. Those trains that go to smaller towns areas get scaled back. The same things happens in NYC.

    Its much better then the situtation in Boston (so my dad is always telling me). It’s one of the best systems in the nation. But my point was that it will always be crowded and unpleasant because that’s how they can balance their budget.

    However, you have to consider that, if everybody in NYC could afford a car, or have the ability to drive one (elderly people), the commute time would be longer, as there would be more cars on the road.

    Oh sure cars are hugely inconvient in NYC. That’s why people don’t own them. But given sufficent funds many/most people would get cars just for the escape.. As a New Yorker I just wanted to voice my resentment for picking the particular combination of slow public transport with dangerous roadways (instead of bike lanes) as a model other cities should emulate.

    For quality of life – I’d much prefer either a bike oriented city like Copehagen or a car oriented (less dense) city. I think most people feel the same way as their has been an exodus out of the east and to the west and south for last 30 years or so..

  • The problem with public transportation (and this is easy to see with amtrak) is that certain ‘routes’ don’t make money. Those trains that go to smaller towns areas get scaled back. The same things happens in NYC.

    True. And the problem with roads that certain routes don’t make money; those still get fully funded, driving local governments into insolvency. There were a few states that couldn’t afford even the 10% local match required in the original Interstate program.

    But given sufficent funds many/most people would get cars just for the escape.. As a New Yorker I just wanted to voice my resentment for picking the particular combination of slow public transport with dangerous roadways (instead of bike lanes) as a model other cities should emulate.

    And as a person who’s lived in countries other than the US, I just wanted to voice my resentment for the idea that New York is a model transit city. It really isn’t, and I’d rather American cities learned from examples like Zurich, Vienna, Paris, and Tokyo. Calgary did, and got a light rail system that costs 27 cents per passenger to operate.

    I think most people feel the same way as their has been an exodus out of the east and to the west and south for last 30 years or so..

    The exodus has been about economics, not transportation. The rise of the (subsidy-fueled) Sunbelt economy and the decline of the Rust Belt have been the primary driving force behind this; this is why people are moving to North Carolina and not North Dakota. In countries where the economic situation is different, the migrations work differently. In Japan the fastest-growing prefecture is Tokyo, while with few exceptions the rest of the country is seeing population declines.

  • Once civilization no longer requires high-energy densities cars and many other wasteful practices will become a thing of the past.

  • Pete

    True. And the problem with roads that certain routes don’t make money; those still get fully funded, driving local governments into insolvency. There were a few states that couldn’t afford even the 10% local match required in the original Interstate program.

    I wasn’t aware the interstate program covered every road – doesn’t it just cover interstate roads? Anyway we should crank up a gas tax to pay for roads which are in a state of disrepair. The solution to transportation problems isn’t to screw roads over. Why? Because traffic ruins the enviroment alot more then SUVs do.

    Likewise NYC got screwed over on congestion pricing..by the state legislature. That was the worst failure of the Bloomberg administration. How can you hold up NYC as some great mecca of transportation when they don’t even have something basic like that?

    [QUOTE]And as a person who’s lived in countries other than the US, I just wanted to voice my resentment for the idea that New York is a model transit city. It really isn’t, and I’d rather American cities learned from examples like Zurich, Vienna, Paris, and Tokyo. Calgary did, and got a light rail system that costs 27 cents per passenger to operate.[/QUOTE]

    We are in agreement. But here in the US low car ownership does not equal a good transportation system. Its not even among the best in the US. I much prefer the quality of life in smaller bike friendly cities like Portland or Boulder, Co.

    The car ownership level is low because its a mega city and its too expensive to own cars here. Places like Baltimore, Chicago and others have lower car ownership too – because they are poor. Or they have large areas that are poor and they are mega cities. Plenty of Latinos ride their bikes to work in LA. But if you ask them its not because they are “enviromentalists’ or love riding bikes. They all want cars..

    As someone who lives in Manhattan the fact that 25% of people own cars is pretty amazing. its STAGGERINGLY expensive to own cars here compared to the rest of the country. Its a total waste of money. This proves though that people really LOVE cars, IMHO.

    [QUOTE]The exodus has been about economics, not transportation. The rise of the (subsidy-fueled) Sunbelt economy and the decline of the Rust Belt have been the primary driving force behind this; this is why people are moving to North Carolina and not North Dakota. In countries where the economic situation is different, the migrations work differently. In Japan the fastest-growing prefecture is Tokyo, while with few exceptions the rest of the country is seeing population declines.[/QUOTE]

    Of course but the vaunted NYC subway wasn’t really enough to keep people here. That was my point. Like I said in my first post – I don’t think NYC should be held up as a model of great public transportation. Sure its subways have huge coverage but the quality of life is low. The average commute for the people in the area is among the higest in the nation.

  • What’s good for the individual (calm, quiet, peaceful with some personal space) is not good for the MTA. Any need for “proof” of the above theory is ridiculous IMHO.

    It’s nice to use logic to figure out what people are thinking, but it’s always good to double-check yourself, since often logic can lead you down a blind path.

    Pete, you’ve been making tons of outrageous statements (“The NYC way of life isn’t something people aspire too”) and ignoring whenever someone demonstrates that you’re wrong. You’re making it pretty hard to take you seriously.

  • Pete, actually New York City is growing faster than its suburbs, and Manhattan is growing faster than the rest of the city. So when people make the decision where to live within this region, the trend for avoiding the subway is over, and is slowly being reversed. (The same is also true in Boston and San Francisco. In a few other large dense city cores, such as Philadelphia, only the center of the city has high population growth, while the rest is still seeing declines.)

    It’s not true that traffic ruins the environment more than SUVs. In fact, the opposite is true. An SUV driving on a freeway at constant speed will still consume much more gas than a sedan stuck in traffic. Go to the EPA’s website and compare the highway ratings of the Ford Explorer with the city ratings of the Honda Civic. Traffic can actually improve the environment, by inducing people to drive less. For example, New York’s traffic horribleness increases per-mile gas consumption by about one half, but also makes sure people take shorter trips; thus the per-car gas consumption in New York is below the national average.

    The 25% bit doesn’t prove that “people love their cars.” It proves that some people like owning a car; you should bear in mind that the majority of Manhattan’s car owners do not use their cars for their daily commutes. It’s always true that a large, dense city will have some people owning cars. However, half of all households owning cars is not 90%, and 250 cars per 1,000 people is not 800. It all depends on what the alternatives are. New York’s are objectively better than Houston’s and objectively worse than Tokyo’s.

  • ajedrez

    You never know why they have cars. They might like being in the city with a quick commute via subway to their job, but they might enjoy visiting places that aren’t accessable via public transit. They might use the car to visit their summer home in upstate NY, or relatives in NJ, or they might have a job in an inconvenient location. For example, when my family lived in Brooklyn, we used a car to access a job (often the midnight shift) in a part of Yonkers that was far away from mass transit options. For the most part, the rest of the family got around by public transportation and walking, and the car was mostly used for commuting.

  • Public transportation is ONLY efficent when its CROWDED. So you are perpetually slammed in with many other people and are forced to wait long periods of time.

  • It’s nice to use logic to figure out what people are thinking, but it’s always good to double-check yourself, since often logic can lead you down a blind path.

  • i really learn a lot from it . but i need some time to get  it deeply.

  • Anonymous

    As always, this is just one metric. Very few cities
    would say publicly that they want to increase the number of no-car
    household. This need our efforts.

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