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.

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

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

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.

  • I am glad that L.A. at least made the top 50 cities! We’re #49 with 16.53% – good to know that at least about one in eight L.A. households is car-free.

    East L.A. makes the list at #32 with 21.24%. I’d like to see how different parts of the vast city of L.A. break down. I suspect that the swath of L.A. from Hollywood through Downtown would have a car free percentage similar to (or maybe better than) San Francisco (they’re #14 with 28.56%.)

  • er… make that “about one in six”!

  • It’s really easy to go to the Census site, type in your zip code, scroll down to “housing characteristics,” click show more, and then scroll down to “vehicles available.” In my zip code, 90026, 25% of households have 0 vehicles available, and 42.6% have only one–considering the average household size is 2.96 people, that’s saying a lot. Stunning to see that the norm is to pay more than 35% of one’s income for housing. These numbers are all ten years old, this year the census gets updated.

  • DJB

    You can get more up-to-date info at the same site from the American Community Survey, but not for places as small as zip codes (until the 5-year estimates come out, if I’m not mistaken). You could look at small cities though.

    What I want to know is how many of those carless people are carless by choice, and how many wish they could afford a car. Sadly, in LA not having a car sometimes means you’re cut off from economic opportunity, so this is a social equity issue as well as an environmental issue.

  • I’m going to agree with DJB. In LA the carfee thing in LA is more of a carless thing. The public transit here is abysmal. The distance for the average working class or poor person to their job is probably at least 20 miles. Poor people don’t live next to their job. For LA being that high up on the list is scary. It says there are alot of poor people in LA. And this wasvfrom 2000 when things were good. There were alot of poor people in LA in 2000 imagine what it’s like now.



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