New York’s Car Ownership Rate Is on The Rise


Car-free households broken down by Assembly district. Red areas indicate where car ownership has gone up, blue areas where it has decreased. Click on each district for more information.

Fewer New Yorkers are driving to work than they did a decade ago, according to Census data Streetsblog reported on last December. But that same data shows that the citywide car ownership rate increased by 1.7 percentage points over the same period.

Among all NYC households, 46 percent own cars, according to Census data gathered between 2005 and 2009, compared to 44.3 percent in 2000. Factoring in Census data on the number of cars each household owns, that adds up to about 120,000 more cars in New York City.

We put together a spreadsheet (which you can download here) comparing new Census data on car ownership to information from the 2000 Census. (The main dataset in the spreadsheet is the percentage of car-free households in each legislative district, so negative changes are actually increases in the car ownership rate.)

The growth in car ownership was spread across the state, with increases in 126 out of 150 Assembly districts. Altogether, the statewide car ownership rate rose by about 1.4 percentage points, slightly less than in New York City.

The Bronx saw the most notable upticks in car ownership. Four of the five Assembly districts with the largest increases in car ownership rates were in that borough: AD 85 (Marcus Crespo, Soundview), AD 86 (Nelson Castro, Fordham), AD 77 (Vanessa Gibson, Morris Heights), and AD 84 (Carmen Arroyo, Mott Haven). All of those districts started from a relatively low baseline of car ownership. In AD 85, which saw the biggest jump, for instance, car ownership rose from 29.1 percent to 35.8 percent.

Of the few districts that saw their car ownership rate fall, the top five were AD 49 (Peter Abbate, Bensonhurst), AD 22 (Grace Meng, Flushing), AD 95 (Ellen Jaffee, Rockland County), AD 66 (Deborah Glick, Greenwich Village), and AD 67 (Linda Rosenthal, Upper West Side). The biggest change happened in AD 49, where the car ownership rate fell by 2.4 percentage points.

Interestingly, the only two New York City districts where our previous analysis found that the percentage of people driving to work increased since 2000, Glick’s and Richard Gottfried’s, both saw their car ownership rates go down.

It’s notable that the share of New Yorkers who own cars rose while the share of those who commuted by car fell. Given that higher car ownership should lead to more driving, all things being equal, this suggests that factors like traffic congestion or high gas prices made driving to work less attractive even for people who own cars.

Transportation analyst Charles Komanoff pointed to the fact that car ownership only increased in owner-occupied housing units, not rentals, and that more households owned their own homes in the recent Census. He hypothesized that something connected to the increase in home ownership, such as a larger affluent population, was propelling the increase in car ownership.

The higher car ownership rate also has important implications for parking policy. With the city’s population on the rise and the share who own cars also increasing, there are many more cars in need of storage than a decade ago. The increasingly desperate attempts to squeeze more on-street parking spaces out of the city’s fixed supply of curb space may make more sense in the light of those numbers, for example. The increased car ownership rate could also reflect the Bloomberg administration’s policy of enabling large amounts of off-street parking to be built throughout the city (though the Department of City Planning would probably cite rising car ownership to justify that same policy).

Map compiled by Frank Hebbert/OpenPlans.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I sent

  • MFS

    Do you take into account the margin of error inherent in ACS data?

  • HamTech87

    Part of this can be related to food deserts expanding in the city and the inner suburbs. The smaller grocery stores and supermarkets have closed, and are being replaced by big box grocery stores that require a car to get to. Look at Stew Leonard’s and Costco’s in a cul de sac off of I-87 in Yonkers; a huge cohort of shoppers comes from the Bronx. And getting there by mass transit is nearly impossible.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Transportation analyst Charles Komanoff…hypothesized that something connected to the increase in home ownership, such as a larger affluent population, was propelling the increase in car ownership.”

    At City Planning back in the day, a PUMS run found that car ownership was associated with family structure and affluence. The recent decade saw more affluent people, and in particular more married couples and married couples with children, choosing to live in the city. So the shift to higher car ownership is to be expected.

    What is interesting, in this context, is the declines in large parts of affluent Manhattan, where were reports of additional families with children (and school seat shortages) during the decade. This was unexpected.

    Ultimately advocates of bicycle transportation and mass transportation need to think about how families with children get around. The car has advantages, I can say from experience, at one phase of life for travel to destinations other than work and outside of walking distance.

  • ddartley

    That new “advertise on Streetsblog” ad? Perhaps it’s time for streetsblog to pitch ad space directly to Zipcar and Hertz Connect and whatever other car share programs there are out there; with a view towards helping reverse this bad trend…

  • Driver

    “The smaller grocery stores and supermarkets have closed, and are being replaced by big box grocery stores that require a car to get to. ”
    That’s a pretty big claim, do you have any evidence of this? Where are these alleged “food deserts”? Even areas served primarily by crappy bodegas are a reasonable livery cab ride away from a traditional supermarket.
    Somehow I doubt the decision to incur the significant expense of owning a car is significantly influenced by a desire to get to Stew Leonard or Costco.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I wouldn’t dismiss the trend. Parking was tough where I live in 2000. It is tougher now. Those who choose to have cars don’t blame themselves. They blame the bicycles, apparently.

  • Does NYS make vehicle registration data available? Wonder how it compares.

  • Pengel

    This doesn’t surprise me one bit.

    Here’s the problem that most of you are having: an inability to understand that owning an automobile is aspirational, regardless of socioeconomic status. Rich people get them because they can, and they’re convenient. Poor people get them even though they can’t afford them, don’t really need them, but again, they’re convenient. That’s been the paradigm since Henry Ford brought out the Model T. All the “cars are bad for you” rhetoric in the world isn’t going to change that until a better message is developed. I don’t know what that is.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That data is faulty because it doesn’t include everyone who registers their car outside the city so they can avoid carrying their share of the insurance fraud.

  • tom

    NYS car registrations would not be valid or complete. Many city residents register their car outside the city or in another state to take advantage of lower insurance costs. There are other reasons, like discounts on the Verazanno Narrows Bridge for Staten Island residents. The BP of SI once noted that he had 5% of the city’s population but 24% of the car registrations. You figure.

  • Driver

    How about the ability to get to where you need and want to go, and bring who you want with you, much faster, comfortably, and conveniently than by mass transit or bicycle, regardless of the weather or time of day or day of the week, or location of your destination.
    Everybody’s situation and travel needs are unique. For some a bicycle and mass transit meets the majority of transit needs. For others, the significant time saved, comfort, and travel options offered by a car are superior enough to justify the significant expense.

  • Driver, the convenience you describe comes from the infrastructure, not the cars themselves. If cars are more convenient, it’s because we’ve built too many roads.

  • I understand that, just curious if the data is even available.

    People who don’t register their cars where they live are breaking the law and helping increase auto insurance rates for the rest of us. Another reason for resident parking stickers/zones (assuming they’re restricted to vehicles registered in the zone).

  • Driver

    It’s because they are capable of destination to destination travel in a time frame that can not realistically be matched by any transit system. Also, 24 hour frequent service, especially in less urban areas, is impractical based on late night ridership, and will realistically probably never happen.
    Make significant improvements to transit, and IF it is more convenient for people, they will choose it if they want. If transit infrastructure became more convenient, however far fetched that may be, something tells me you wouldn’t claim it was because we built too much of it.

  • Driver

    Larry, those “out of staters” may be doing us a favor. Have you seen how some of them drive, maybe we don’t want them in our insurance pool.

  • J:Lai

    If this increase is real, and not just statistical noise, I bet it is due to a wealth effect. People have more money now than they did ten years ago, so they will buy more stuff, including cars.

  • Mr Bad Example

    This doesn’t all hold together. More cars but fewer car commuters? Not on my bike commute–I’m seeing more gridlock on Dean and Bergen in North Brooklyn to the point where they’ve got traffic police at one intersection.

    My guess would have been more car commuting simply because the recession had a lot of us looking at jobs in suburban places that don’t have any transit to speak of. When I was looking for work, I was put up for interviews in all these little towns in Jersey and Long Island that literally have no mass transit connections (there’s no way to ‘reverse-commute’ to these places).

    An uptick in car traffic is about the last thing the city needs right now. But that’s probably what we’ll get since the MTA’s capital infrastructure is geared toward moving Brighton residents to Midtown, not Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst.

  • Driver, next time you’re stuck in Lincoln Tunnel (or Manhattan) traffic, tell me again whether that time frame cannot realistically be matched by any transit system.

    Anything you can do with a car, you can do without a car, if you have the right infrastructure. Usually more effiicently, safer and cleaner.

    We built too many roads, not because it’s conveneient, but because it’s inefficient. If we built lots of transit, it would only be too much if it were inefficient.

  • Mr Bad Example

    I’m in a food desert in Brooklyn–there’s not a local supermarket where I trust the produce or frozen goods (I spend my summers throwing out milk that’s been under-refrigerated ad the local Key Food). It’s hard to see any NYC supermarket competing with Target or Costco–buying a can of soup at Gristedes is almost a $2 premium.

  • Tim

    This is pure anecdata, but I live in the AD next to a couple of the ADs in the Bronx with a high increase in ownership, and I think that you are absolutely right. If these places aren’t all ‘food deserts’ by the strictest definition, they are absolutely deserts for quality retail and recreation.

    Also, the same dirt-cheap money that fueled the housing boom was also definitely at play in the car market before the economy crashed–banks and dealerships were financing anything that could move, the buy-here/pay-here lots were thriving, and so on.

  • Adamlaw

    I think most of us understand the notion that car ownership is aspirational and that this is a problem. The solution, however, is not that difficult. We need to challenge that notion with hard facts. I bet that if a significant percentage of car owners in NYC did a cost benefit analysis of car ownership vs. alternatives, they would see that their choice does not make economic sense. Further, many of these folks would improve their quality of life. (The same can be said for getting rid of one’s t.v. too.) I live in Park Slope, a neighborhood served by terrific mass transit and a plethora of car service companies. Many of the car owners I see who live in my building, use their cars their cars occasionally and only on the weekends for shopping and driving their kids around to sports, parties, etc. Typically, they could easily take a subway or use a car service but don’t because of the perceived convenience of car ownership. Factor in the cost of car insurance, car maintenance, gas, expense of paid parking, risks and wasted time associated with on street “free” parking, and that “convenience” comes at a high personal price. I used to be a slave to the alternate side of the street shuffle in the early 90s, the last time I owned a car; getting rid of the car was a freeing experience and I have never looked back. The number 1 reason I live where I do is not the coffee shops and craft beer locales (though they may be reasons 2 and 3) is because of the luxury of not having to own let alone rely on a car. If I need a car for a day, a weekend or longer, there are ample car rentals and, as of a few months ago, I have a choice of 3 brand new sporty Zip Cars, with gas cards and EX passes downstairs from my apartment in our building’s garage. On a rainy or snowy day, I don’t even have to step outside. I feel rich NOT owning a car!

  • Curious Bystander

    @Driver:

    “a reasonable livery cab ride away”

    First of all, the location he’s talking about is in Yonkers – most livery cabs do not cross city boundaries unless they’re going to the airport in Newark.
    Second of all, livery cabs are expensive. I’m pretty positive that no one will pay a fare upwards of $10, possibly more than $15 to do their weekly grocery shopping.

  • Curious Bystander

    Owning a car isn’t realistically practical for most people – it’s a 6000 lb hunk of steel that sits in the driveway 90% of the time. It’s more about the American dream and all that BS.

    The higher car ownership rate probably has more to deal with materialism than actual commuting. Besides, when driving to Manhattan, there’s the issue of finding a parking space that won’t break the bank.

  • Curious Bystander

    That’s actually not (completely) the MTA’s fault. You can’t shift rails around – reverse commuting would have to be satisfied by bus service. Long Island Bus service is contracted to the MTA; I’m pretty sure that they would have to consult Nassau County before reorganizing bus services.

    New Jersey is in the jurisdiction of NJT, so you’d have to bother them about incorporating reverse-commuting as well.

    Basically, the only place that the MTA could (and should) overhaul bus routes is the five boroughs. Then again, the MTA is also the biggest political punching bag in the state, so don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

  • Curious Bystander

    @Driver: “For others, the significant time saved”
    Just stop. Time saved? Obviously, you’re not a New Yorker, or you would know that sitting in traffic does not “save time.”

  • Driver

    Capn, as a frame of reference, I have owned a car for many years, and mainly drive in Queens, but do drive my car to other areas from time to time for a variety of reasons. I also drive a truck in Manhattan, the boroughs, and in the regional area, so I have many years of driving experience in many areas in and around the city. I have also spent some of my younger years without a car, relying on bicycle, transit (mostly bus), and walking, so I have experienced this lifestyle as well. I also used to commute to Manhattan in the PM, and I would park and ride at the subway. (Using a car is an option to be weighed against the best possible alternatives)
    When I talk about the convenience of driving, I am not talking about a typical rush hour commute into Manhattan or Jersey City or other typical commuter destination, (or short trips within Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn). Trips like that are ideal for mass transit (or walking), and mass transit is designed to facilitate these types of commutes.
    As someone who does a LOT of driving around this city, between boroughs, within boroughs, and to outer suburbs, (I am talking about delivery driving in a truck, not discretionary driving) i can definitely say that driving is generally MUCH faster than any combination of transit that would be required to travel to the same locations, even factoring in traffic, and some locations would just be prohibitively unreachable.
    The vast geography of our city and metropolitan area coupled with the millions and million of inhabitants make implementing a transit system that can realistically provide efficient routes for the billion? trillions? (I’m pretty rusty on math and permutations) of different destination to destination possibilities makes developing transit that meets the needs of all trips an unlikely possibility.

  • Alon Levy

    If you go on ACS population data, then 120,000 extra cars and 400,000 extra people means about 3 more cars per 1,000 people. Even if it’s outside the margin of error, it’s a tiny amount.

    On another note: in Disqus, if I accidentally hit a link while writing a comment and then press the back button, I need to rewrite the comment. Previously, even if I hit refresh the comment text would be saved.

  • Driver

    Newsflash, Curious Bystander, New Yorkers are not just people in Manhattan and DT Brooklyn. Oh, and waiting 15 or 20 minutes for a bus that stops every few blocks along the not always direct route, or taking the subway through Manhattan, making stops all along the way, to get to Brooklyn or the Bronx is “saving time”. Right.

  • Driver

    I was talking about a livery cab to a regular local supermarket (as opposed to the corner bodega), not to Yonkers.
    “I’m pretty positive that no one will pay a fare upwards of $10, possibly more than $15 to do their weekly grocery shopping. ”
    Then you agree that people are not going to spend thousands annually on a car for the same purpose, which was the original implication by Ham Tech.

  • Driver

    Yes, because EVERYONE goes to Manhattan.

  • Whatever the uptick, we need to get it in to the minds of our elected officials that driving a car in NYC in general is something done by the minority. ANd even though 46% of households may own one, not all of them use it to go to work and so on. I know plenty of people who own cars and only one – my future wife – uses it to go to work and she is a teacher in Long Island and has no good transit option. When she comes home she parks it and uses bike, foot, and subway to get around.

    So all I am saying here is – even these numbers don’t tell full story.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Did anyone run the numbers of voters who own cars and the number who don’t? I’ve heard car ownership is 2/3 of voters but I’d like to nail down some actual numbers on this.

  • Anonymous

    Nico, the voting information is in a different survey, the Current Population Survey, so it can’t be cross-referenced. The only way to get that kind of information is to do an independent poll.

  • carma

    This may scare many folks here. but i own 2 cars. and im the primary driver. why? b/c i love cars. but guess what. i still use mass transit over my cars when i have to commute to work in jersey. why? b/c traffic stresses you out, and the cost of tolls kill you. but on the weekends. i only drive. why? b/c mass transit starts to really suck and you cant get anywhere w/o unreasonable wait times out here in queens.

  • carma

    most cars are not 6000 lbs of steel. try 3200 lbs for your average sedan. driving to manhattan is not pleasant when parking is premium. thats why it makes more sense for outer borough folks to drive to a train station and just take the subway.

  • carma

    exactly. i happen to own two cars. 1 sienna for the family. and a bmw 3 series stick shift strictly when i enjoy to drive. 2 cars combined, i put in a measly 4000 miles per year. i commute by bus/train most of the time.

  • Jokadam

    I bought a Range Rover last month and I love it! Beats taking the smelly public subway (parking costs be damned)

    I feel better and more luxurious

  • THi

  • Mr Bad example

    This is bad.

    What cars did in the 1950’s and 60’s is doom local stores and neighborhoods in favor of the malls. In the years since Target moved in 20 blocks from me, the local markets have all struggled–the majority of people I’m seeing at the Key Food checkout have a WIC card. It’s the same with shoe stores and restaurants and everything else.

    I frankly don’t know how locals are doing it–we gave up the car in 2006 after doing the math and figured that it was costing us some $7k annually to keep old rustbucket moving. There was awhile last summer when it looked like things were moving in another direction–lots of for sale signs on the big land cruisers–but we’re back to the same gridlock.

    Somebody needs to think this out a bit. Brooklyn can’t take the level of traffic involved with everybody carting off to Target or a suburban mall where the sales taxes stay there.

  • Of course, this is to be expected. We need to face the reality: most people drive cars and this is not going to change significantly. With the raise in the population there will be an increase in numbers of cars. One can only hope that not all of them will be driven daily to work. The NY weather is not suitable for cycling for 4-6 months every year for most people. The number of every day, year round commuters in NYC is insignificant as is the number of utility cyclists.

  • Doug

    epc – I agree totally. In Somerville MA you can’t get a parking permit without a local address… and you can’t renew your state registration without paying all your parking tickets! New York needs to get on that.

  • Why, in an article about how most households still don’t have cars, would you say “most people drive cars”?

  • archie

    I’m not following. Isn’t that 1 car for every 3 people?

  • The “weather” problem preventing cycling for 4-6 months is easily fixed via infrastructure such as roofed over, grade-separated bike lanes. For those who might scoff at the cost, these are WAY cheaper than highways. Roofing, or even partial enclosure to moderate temperatures, will allow cycling during precepitation.

    You can even channel the prevailing winds so the cyclist always has a tailwind. This is no small advantage. An average 15 mph tailwind pushes a 12 mph cyclist up to 21 mph, and a 20 mph cyclist up to 30 mph. Combined with eliminating the need to stop, those kinds of travel speeds easily rival auto. If we want to mass produce aero velomobiles, you can easily add 20 mph to the above speeds. Yes, 50 mph travel under human power? It’s possible with the right equipment and infrastructure if we have the will to do it. No need to leave out those who are physically unfit, either. You can stick a small motor in any human-powered vehicle so a less fit rider can keep pace with the rest.

  • The math of owning a car solely as a means to get to work if you never use it otherwise doesn’t work out. I faced this dilemma once, where I may have had a choice of getting a car (and license) just to get to a job I couldn’t otherwise get to. Once I did the math, I figured out I would be better off working even a minimum wage job whereI didn’t need a car. Cars are black holes for money any way you look at it. The only way to thnk of them is as a luxury good like an expenive watch or jewelry. To try and justify them otherwise makes no sense.

  • Driver

    Joe, How about the fact that you CAN (and many do) use a car for many other things besides commuting to work. In fact many people find a car a justifiable expense, even if they plan to use it for all their travel EXCEPT their daily job commute.
    If you do not get any utility from owning a car that is fine, but to think that everyone has the same needs, desires, and priorities with regard to where they go, what they do, and how they get there is extremely closed minded.

    I was wondering where you have been Joe. Good to see you back.

  • Driver, thanks for the sentiments. I’m just busy doing my taxes, and also got a big order in, so not much time to post on Streetsblog last week or so. Anyway, I actually concur with the point you’re making. I think a car is actually MUCH more useful if you regularly use it for things besides your daily commute. My comment was referring to those who purchase cars solely to commute, and rarely if ever use them for any other purose. If cars were as inexepnsive as bikes this wouldn’t matter, but as a businessperson and engineer an expensive asset sitting idle much of the time might be a questionable use of capital.

    And like I said, there are OTHER reasons to own a car, including as a hobbyist. My brother has four cars, three of which are in various states of repair. He obviously has no practical use for more than one car, but he enjoys working on them. Even me with bikes, strictly speaking I never use my bike for anything but recreation, so it has no practical use. I justify it just because I enjoy riding.

  • Alon Levy

    120,000/400,000 is 300 cars per 1,000 people, and the city’s average rate is about 235 cars/1,000 people. When you average everything out, the extra cars and people added in the last decade work out to an additional 3 cars per 1,000 people.

  • Clarence

    Joseph –

    Please refrain from making broad, sweeping generalizations on just your own experience. I am referring to this statement:

    “The math of owning a car solely as a means to get to work if you never use it otherwise doesn’t work out.”

    Although for many people – even the majority of people that could be true. But in the case I was speaking of, in fact it does work out. The car is 10 years old and there’s no other option very cheap and importantly timewise. I mean take it from me – I want as few people owning or using cars as possible and she HATES driving. But fuzzy math proclamations (it is either a 15-20 minute drive to her job for her versus about 90 minutes on a subway/LIRR trip/walk) leave much to be desired. Much like congestion pricing, time is money too. It’s worth the little extra for the daily car trip factoring in gas, tolls, insurance, etc because she gets back almost 2 hours of life to exercise and invest. Funny, I never saw myself ever being with anyone who owns a car, but she is extremely responsible. Nothing wrong with that.

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