The Transportation Lifestyles of Single People (Part 1): What the Data Says
Debates continue in the United States over what will happen to young adults’ affection for urban living when they form families. Confidence remains, however, about the growing preferences for urban lifestyles, and urban transportation, of Americans before they form families and after their children leave the nest. A closer look at the data, however, reveals that transportation observers have been spilling a lot of digital ink on only half the story.
The first essay in the What the Data Says series explored car-free living in the United States and the surprising and perplexing changes between 2010 and 2015. Recap: although more people are choosing to live car-free, the shifts are uneven and the core cities of the largest metropolitan areas are not necessarily leading the charge.
This essay takes a deeper dive into transportation lifestyles by examining one-person households. In the spirit of Sheldon Cooper’s Fun with Flags, think of this essay as another episode of Fun with American Community Survey (ACS) Table B08201, Household Size by Vehicles Available. All data is drawn from the five-year estimates of 2011–2015 or 2006–2010. “Have a car” means to have a car, van, or small truck available at home for personal use.
Why one-person households?
More Americans are living alone, continuing a long-running trend. Nationally, one-person households went from 27.2 percent of households in 2010 to 27.6 percent in 2015, an increase of 0.4 of a percentage point.
From the perspective of transportation lifestyles, one-person households are more than twice as likely as households overall to live car-free. (See Chart 1.) More significantly, over half of all car-free households (57 percent) are people who live alone.
Finally, to make sense of the data in ACS Table B08201, one-person households must be analyzed separately. If not, unintentionally humorous conclusions may result. In the interest of brevity, the rest of this essay refers to one-person households and people living alone as “singles.”
For singles, having a car is the default transportation condition in the United States. Nationally, however, singles have indeed shifted away from having only one car, decreasing by -0.4 of a percentage point between 2010 and 2015. If this shift had been solely towards living car-free, the dominant narrative celebrating car-free living would stay intact, and I could simply repeat the analysis from the previous essay. Three tables presenting changes in singles living car-free by states, the 50 largest metros, and their core cities, a few pithy words, and I would be done.
But nothing in the United States is that simple, and like American Presidential elections, there is a third option. People living alone could be shifting from having only one car to having two or more cars. And sure enough, only 62 percent of singles’ shift away from having only one car is towards living car-free.
Suddenly, that small orange box in Chart 1 labeled 15 percent starts to take on added importance. The 15 percent of singles with two or more cars isn’t that much smaller than the nearly 19 percent of singles who live car-free. The increase between 2010 and 2015 of singles with two-or-more cars is small enough to be dancing on the edge of statistical significance, but large enough to have led me down the rabbit hole of exploring the phenomenon of singles who — in transportation lifestyle terms — live car-two+.
What I found was shocking. I knew from playing around with the ACS’s vehicle availability data that occasionally there would be a county on the outskirts of a metro area where a relatively large percentage of singles live car-two+. I was not prepared, however, for how much of the United States experiences this phenomenon.
Thus, the remainder of this essay examines the geography of singles and their car-free and car-two+ transportation lifestyles. Looking at trends since 2010 has been delayed until Part 2. (Coming soon!)
The growing tendency of Americans to live alone is widespread. Between 2010 and 2015, living alone became less common in only eight states: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington.
As Table 1 shows, living single is both an urban and a rural trend. There are not many things the governor of West Virginia has in common with the mayor of Los Angeles, but one commonality is large constituencies of people who live alone. One-person households make up between one-fifth to one-third of households in the 50 states and the 50 largest metropolitan areas.
The core cities host even higher concentrations of singles. In the city of Atlanta, singles are closing in on half of all households. Even in notoriously expensive cities such as Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston, over one-third of households are people living alone.
Nationally, singles number 32.3 million households. Over half (56 percent) are women. Older people are well represented: 37 percent of singles are age 65 or older. To the popular images of unmarried professionals in their twenties and thirties should be added images of single parents with empty nests and the bereaved in their seventies and eighties.
From the perspective of transportation lifestyles, singles have unique abilities and needs. Because of their relatively simple demands for household travel, they have the flexibility that makes it easier to live car-free. They probably also have fewer constraints on adjusting their home or work locations in ways that reduce the need for travel or allow choosing a preferred mode.
Singles also have a certain transportation vulnerability. Not only are they managing a household on only one income, their ability to handle things going wrong with transportation often requires relying on resources outside the household. They have much to gain in terms of both independence and resilience by living in areas with lots of transportation options. (The single-parent household with young children is even more vulnerable than singles to transportation failure.)
Despite being the household size most suited to and most likely to live car-free, singles with cars outnumber singles living car-free in all 50 states and in the 50 largest metro areas. Only in the core cities of New York and Boston do a majority of singles live car-free, although the cities of San Francisco and Washington come close.
Singles living car-two+ is not just a rural phenomenon, although rural numbers can be spectacularly high. Wyoming ranks first with 31 percent of singles living car-two+. Montana and South Dakota come in at over 25 percent and Idaho and North Dakota aren’t that far behind. Singles live car-two+ in metros too. The proportion of singles living car-two+ beats the national number (15 percent) in 18 metros, including the metros that encompass Charlotte (18 percent), Denver (17 percent), Atlanta, Seattle, and Salt Lake City (all 16 percent).
There’s nothing inherently problematic with having two cars. Just because you live alone, why shouldn’t you make most of your trips in that sensible sedan and still tool around town with the top down on a nice summer day? Or hook up your truck to the boat for a fishing trip with your buddies? Or be the half-time parent with the SUV big enough to give rides to the soccer team and carry their equipment?
I don’t think it is wise, however, to discount the role that the special vulnerability of singles plays in their transportation decision-making. Recognizing this vulnerability could go a long way to explaining why for 15 percent of singles, their answer to the question, “What would you do if your car wouldn’t start?” is “Take my other car.”
For many Americans, that additional vehicle may well be about creating a sense of security around being able to meet their obligations as a responsible adult. This could flip the assumption made by many forecasting the future of mobility: that the need for a range of functionality drives the ownership of multiple cars. They argue that the future for car-sharing (short-term vehicle rentals) is bright — especially for self-driving vehicles — because everyone will save money by just ordering a trip in a specialized vehicle when they need it, instead of owning multiple vehicles.
If, instead, the attractiveness of additional vehicles is more about creating a back-up plan for transportation resilience, what may be driving choices around the types of vehicles could be very different. If you are going to have two cars anyway, why have two boring sedans? Or in the snowy north, why have two energy-guzzling vehicles with four-wheel drive? Or why sell the old, but low-mileage truck inherited from a dearly departed Uncle? It might save your emergency fund — or job — someday if something goes wrong with your first car.
Transportation planners and the transportation industry should engage the possibility that in parts of America it is rational to put your money into two modest vehicles instead of one nicer vehicle. Even for people who live alone.
The balance between the numbers of singles living car-free versus car-two+ may also serve as an indicator of different types of transportation systems and cultures. Places where singles living car-free significantly outnumber those living car-two+ could be said to adequately support a range of transportation lifestyles. A rugged transportation individualism may be more the order of the day in places where singles living car-two+ outnumber singles living car-free.
Even if this hypothesis is totally bogus and what is really driving the number of cars owned by singles is something like the cost of land, the patterns are still fascinating. Their political implications are also truly profound.
How many states have more singles living car-two+ than living car-free? Place your bets. More than ten? More than fifteen? More than twenty?
Try twenty-five. In an additional five states, the two extremes are roughly equal. That’s 30 governors and 60 U.S. senators whose single constituents living car-two+ equal or outnumber singles living the celebrated car-free lifestyles.
(In Tables 2, 3, and 4, the percentage in parentheses immediately following the name of the state, metro, or core city is the percent of singles who live car-free.)
As to which states lean car-free versus car-two+, regional differences seem more important than a simple rural-urban divide. The car-two+ list includes all of the Great Plains states and none of the New England states, although Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire are pretty rural. For the Mid-Atlantic region, the states are split: Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia lean car-free; Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina lean car-two+. For the south, Louisiana and Florida stand out on the car-free list. The only industrial heartland state on the car-two+ list is Indiana. On the West Coast, Washington’s place on the car-two+ list is the exception.
For the 50 largest metropolitan areas as a whole, 22 percent of singles live car-free and only 12 percent live car-two+. When it comes to metropolitan planning, however, is it comforting or disturbing that singles living car-free outnumber those living car-two+ in only 27 metros (Table 3)? On the one hand, in 11 of these 27 metros, singles living car-free outnumber those living car-two+ by over ten percentage points. (The 11 are the metros encompassing Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, San Francisco, and San Juan.)
On the other hand, America’s 50 largest metros offer singles ample opportunity to live car-oriented lifestyles, including if they want two (or more) cars. In only eight metros do fewer than ten percent of singles live car-two+ (the metros encompassing Providence, Tampa, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Boston, San Juan, and New York). The metros that lean car-two+ include some of America’s fast-growing, glamor regions: Austin, Charlotte, Denver, and Raleigh.
Earning the transportation lifestyle diversity award for singles are the metros encompassing Seattle and Louisville. Both lean car-free, but still have car-two+ rates higher than the national rate of 15 percent.
In the core cities of the 50 largest metros, 35 percent of singles live car-free and only 8 percent live car-two+. In a majority of core cities (27), singles living car-free outnumber those living car-two+ by over ten percentage points (Table 4). Singles live car-free and car-two+ in roughly equal numbers in only five core cities. This is, of course, as it should be. There would be something terribly amiss if even urban America was not supporting singles living car-free.
Finally, a note about Virginia Beach, the only core city where more singles live car-two+ than car-free. Although Virginia Beach is twice as large as Norfolk, Virginia Beach is historically Norfolk’s suburb. In Norfolk, the 19.1 percent of singles who live car-free do outnumber those living car-two+.
As urbanists studied the revitalizing downtowns of American cities, they found plenty of localized evidence that urban lifestyles, including urban transportation, have been attracting new converts. Changes in cities, however, happen in the context of their metropolitan regions and are subject to political processes driven by the organization of federal and state governments. Losing sight of these bigger pictures also risks overlooking the diversity of American lifestyles — even for people who share the common trait of living alone.
See also The Transportation Lifestyles of Single People, Part 2 — Trends and The Transportation Lifestyles of American Families for lifestyle changes between 2010 and 2015.
This essay is part of a larger project that uses transportation lifestyles to improve transportation planning and land development. For more information, contact me at sjpeterson [at] 23urbanstrategies [dot] com.