Transportation Lifestyles: Lessons for the Future from 2006–2019
Car-free living increased in the United States in 2019 and then everything changed.
Welcome to the annual update of transportation lifestyles, a story of trends culled from the American Community Survey’s (ACS) vehicle availability data. I thought long and hard about whether to bother writing this update. The new data is from 2019, which seems like from a different future. Perhaps in 2029, data from 2019 will have turned out to be indicative of something, but how relevant is it to understanding transportation lifestyles during a year defined by the start of the Pandemic Recession?
Data dating back to 2006, however, allows a review of transportation lifestyles during and after the Great Recession. Although families with only one car have been on a precipitous decline of late, policy makers should pay close attention to this lifestyle type. We may be about to see a lot more of them. What types of transportation and neighborhood services support this lifestyle?
Policy makers should also recognize the special vulnerability of households — whether families or singles — with only one car. An economic or health catastrophe can leave them car-free in a car-oriented world.
Policy considerations during the Pandemic Recession include equitable home delivery of goods, renewed emphasis on telecommunications, recognition of the vital role of mass transit services, and attention to maintaining vehicle availability.
But first, an update on 2019: Car-free living did increase in 2019, reversing trends during the decade’s middle years. No one state dominated the trend, but it appears geographically limited. Increases in car-free living, however, showed up in four of the five states the essay has been tracking. Including Texas.
Texas’s increase in car-free living wasn’t quite enough though … so big news coming out of the state of Washington.
New to this analysis is Ohio. The addition of Ohio brings in a large, midwestern state that has struggled for decades with deindustrialization. It is also a third red state, joining Florida and Texas. California, Florida, New York, and Texas are the four most populous states. Washington was added because its state and urban governments have been making a concerted effort to diversify their urban transportation lifestyles. Together, these six states contain 38% of American households.
The Usual Definitions
This analysis examines transportation lifestyles — defined as how a household connects to the world and gets things done — from the perspective of vehicle availability. It divides lifestyle types into four broad categories: car-free households, car-lite (or car-one) families, singles with only one vehicle, and car-two+ households.
Car-free indicates the household has no vehicle — a car, van, or small truck — available at home for personal use. I’ve refrained from entering the debate over what these “no vehicle available” households should be called. Carless, zero-car, etc. all have their strengths and proponents. I use car-free because it puts up front what these households have: they are free from the costs of owning, maintaining, and parking a vehicle.
However, the car-free status should not be romanticized. For certain people in certain places, it works well. In the vast majority of the United States, car-free living is the equivalent of an extreme sport. The “athlete” may be the mother taking three buses to get between home, day care, and her job. The “team” may be the group of family, friends, and home care workers driving daily to help keep an elderly person who no longer drives in their own home.
The analysis splits households into “singles” and “families”, defined as one-person households and households with two-or-more persons, respectively. Under this definition of families, members do not need to be related. Because such a large proportion of Americans live alone (28.3% of all households in 2019), using average number of vehicles per household to analyze transportation lifestyles has limited usefulness.
Car-lite households are families with only one vehicle. Singles with only one vehicle are part of the larger “car-oriented” category along with car-two+ households, defined as all households — singles and families — with two-or-more vehicles.
Unless otherwise indicated, this essay is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, one-year estimates, 2006–2019.
2019: New Records and a Car-Free Reversal
The robust economy probably had something to do with 2019’s above average household formation. The number of new households — 1.283 million — in 2019 was down only a bit from 2018’s high of 1.457 million.
Car-lite living (families with one car) declined by another 121,000 households and sank to 14.0% of American households. This share of households sets a new low for the period 2006–2019, from 2011’s peak of 15.8%.
Car-oriented living also set a record high at 77.4% of American households. Singles with one car grew faster than household growth overall, while households living car-two+ kept pace with household growth.
Car-free living, however, may have halted its free-fall from its peak of 9.3% of households in 2011. Not only were there small increases for the second year in a row, but for 2019, unlike for 2018, the estimate of 184,203 additional households living car-free also made it past the margin of error. In addition, car-free living grew faster than household growth overall, increasing its share of households to 8.6%. (See Table 1.)
Given the reversal of past trends for car-free living, I examined additional ACS data including the presence of workers, singles, age of householder, housing tenure, and distribution by state.
Car-free households with workers grew even faster than car-free households overall (3.4% versus 1.8% respectively). All of the increase in car-free living, however, came from relatively young (15–34) or older (65+) householders. Singles and renters dominated.
The car-free trend may be geographically limited, however. Ten states account for 69% of the total increase and 84% of the net increase in car-free living. (See Table 2.)
Even in the Top 10, New Jersey’s increase is within the margin of error, and Wisconsin’s increase may be a correction for an equally unusual large swing away from car-free living recorded in 2018.
In addition, the Top 10 states do not show a clear pattern for car-free households with workers. For New York, almost all the overall increase in car-free households came from households with workers. In Maryland, at the other extreme, only about one in five of the additional car-free households had workers.
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the list of Top 10 states is Texas. Car-free living did outpace household growth overall in Texas, but so too did the car-oriented lifestyles.
The Six States: Washington Ducks Under Texas; California Joins in the Reversal
The biggest news, however, in the five states that I’ve been visiting each year is that in 2019 Washington gained enough in the car-free and car-lite lifestyles that it is no longer more car-oriented than Texas. Car-oriented lifestyles in Texas shifted up 0.5 percentage points, while in Washington, they shifted down 0.2 percentage points. For state and urban policymakers who have focused on diversifying Washington’s transportation lifestyles, this indicates progress.
Whereas Washington’s trends in 2018 hinted at sorting — car-free and car-two+ living were both up — 2019 complicates this interpretation. For 2019, car-free households and singles with one vehicle grew faster than households overall, while car-lite and car-two+ showed a slower pace. Diving a bit deeper, however, reveals that, for Washington’s households overall, the majority of the increase came from people living alone. Singles also overwhelmingly dominated the growth in car-free households. Washington’s apparent stabilization in car-two+ living may have come from the lackluster growth for households with two-or-more persons.
California ended its long slide in car-free living. For the first time since 2011, the number of car-free households were not only up, but they increased faster than household growth overall. Car-lite living (families with one car) continued its decline, sinking below the total number in 2007. In addition, households living car-two+ continued to grow faster than household growth overall.
In Texas, car-lite living slid even further, numbering fewer households in 2019 than in 2006. Texas’s spectacular track record for increases in household formation makes the losses in families with one car even more notable.
In Florida, car-two+ lifestyles continued to gain on all the other transportation lifestyles.
In New York, car-free lifestyles have shown strong growth in both recession and boom times. The car-oriented lifestyles, however, have also been gaining ground.
Finally, Ohio’s 2019 increase in families living car-lite and continued large losses in car-free living were unique among the six. In addition, Ohio’s strong growth in singles with only one vehicle is underpinned by a continued shift to living alone. In 2006, Ohioans were already more likely to live alone than Americans overall. From 2006–2019, although Ohio’s total households only increased by 5.1%, households with one person grew by 12.1%.
(Please note: the charts of trends in household vehicle availability in the United States and for the states of California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Washington are not all on the same scale.)
The Great Recession and the Pandemic Recession
Travel patterns and transportation lifestyles shifted during both the Great Recession of 2008–2009 and today’s Pandemic Recession, albeit in very different ways.
During the Great Recession, a boom and then bust in car-free and car-lite living tracked the economic contraction and the slow economic recovery that followed. Car-oriented lifestyles suffered during the recession and its aftermath, but eventually recovered and then outpaced household formation overall.
The six states all participated in at least part of the Great Recession’s national trends. California mirrored the country as a whole, except with a much lower percentage of people living alone. Texas had its own booms and busts in car-free and car-lite living, although the booms never outpaced household growth overall. Florida was slower to bust: car-free and car-lite living hung on until 2016. In Washington and New York, car-free living had a smaller bust and then recovered. In Ohio, car-free living took the longest to bust, not falling below household growth overall until 2019.
The Great Recession coincided with high gasoline prices that, at the time, many predicted were permanent. (Remember the policy discussions about peak oil from the supply side?) Drivers faced the highest gas prices ever in 2008, got some relief in 2009, but then watched prices hit new records in 2012. The shift to car-oriented lifestyles coincided with growing confidence that the lower gas prices — down 40% by 2016 — may be here to stay.
During the early months of the Pandemic Recession, average gas prices in the United States fell below $2.00 per gallon. The last time Americans paid so little at the pump was 2004. The Pandemic Recession also vastly changed travel patterns for reasons of health, especially travel related to office workers, accessing household goods, and recreation or entertainment.
Leaving vehicle availability for a moment, transit ridership during the Great Recession also appears heavily influenced by both economic conditions and gasoline prices. Ridership repeated the boom and bust, peaking per capita in 2008. Ridership declined a bit with the loss of jobs and cuts in transit service early in the recession, but recovered, hitting a new peak in total ridership in 2014. Then came the crash: ridership declined 8.2% between 2014 and 2018, stabilizing in 2019.
Pandemics and recessions also mess with household formation, relevant because the form that households take affect their transportation lifestyles and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. In much of the United States, having a car is typically a prerequisite for forming a household.
Household formation weakened considerably during the Great Recession and aftermath, reaching an astounding low, nationally, of only 320,000 additional households in 2013. The Great Recession also coincided with an acceleration in the ongoing trend of young adults living with their parents, a trend that has accelerated again in the Pandemic Recession, reaching 52% of those ages 18–29 in July 2020.
Historically, pandemics and severe economic contractions have affected the formation and makeup of households into the medium and long-term as well. Death, chronic illness and disability, and disruptions in employment and education can permanently change a household and the transportation lifestyles of its members.
Transportation Lifestyles as Economic Strategy
The patterns from 2006–2019 drive home that household vehicles are an economic strategy, as well as a lifestyle choice. Households shed vehicles during difficult economic times and acquired them when economic confidence returned.
Americans entered the Pandemic Recession with record numbers of households living car-two+. Will these vehicles be an economic cushion? How many of these car-two+ households can let go of vehicles without it seriously affecting how they connect to the world and get things done? How many of the vehicles in the car-two+ households will end up being used by a struggling extended family member or sold cheap to a family friend in need?
If the pattern of the Great Recession repeats, there will soon be many more families with only one vehicle. Households with only one vehicle — whether families or singles — have a special vulnerability in economic downturns. An economic or health catastrophe could render them reluctant car-free households in a landscape hostile to car-free living. The catastrophe may be as simple as a $400 car repair bill.
Despite recent declines in families with only one vehicle, they still number over 17 million households nationwide. Combined with the growing number of singles with only one vehicle, one-car households range from a high of 39% of Florida households to a low of 23% in Utah. Missouri, the median state, comes in at 32%. The top ten states are an unusual group. There can’t be many times Vermont, Nevada, Illinois, and Louisiana end up in the same category. (See Table 3.)
For vulnerable households, many of the pandemic’s transportation trends support car-free and car-lite living. The spread of home delivery of goods including groceries, work from home for office workers, and telehealth and other online services may make shedding vehicles easier.
Factors working against shedding vehicles may be an increased reluctance to share rides with friends and colleagues, take a taxi/Uber/Lyft, or ride mass transit. And don’t forget cheap gas.
In addition, the Pandemic Recession has crushed mass transit ridership and fare revenue. However, 2020’s ridership numbers and service cuts are as much a product of public health policy choices — for example, encouraging work from home — as any judgment on the desirability of mass transit. Still, as long as funding to maintain mass transit service remains uncertain, the threat of continued service cuts will interact with people’s decisions about household vehicles.
That is, if taking mass transit is even an option. Transportation lifestyles, moreover, are influenced as strongly by land use patterns as by transportation options.
Conclusion and Policy Considerations
State-level trends remind us that state departments of transportation and state governments have a leadership role to play.
But the real power of the ACS data on vehicle availability is that it can be mapped at the census tract level, and thus used to target assistance and examine questions of equity. Analysis indeed shows that transportation lifestyles tend to cluster, making these lifestyles a neighborhood as well as a household characteristic.
For many Americans, transportation lifestyles changed along with travel patterns in 2020. If the patterns of the Great Recession repeat, vulnerable Americans will start letting go of vehicles.
Transportation is something we do together, as a society. No individual can have much impact — short of trying to relocate — on the transportation options available in their corner of the world. The Pandemic Recession is just one more reason why it is crucial to take a more people-centered approach to transportation in the United States. We should focus on improving how well individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities connect to the world and get things done.
1. Last mile of freight: Policy makers should be keeping an eye on the home delivery of goods. Are neighborhoods and communities being equitably served?
2. Telecommunications: More than ever, the speed and reliability of internet service and cell phone service is central to how well people connect to the world and get things done.
3. Mass transit service: For Americans who depend on mass transit service, the threatened cuts in service would be devastating. It is immoral to leave them stranded.
4. Maintain vehicle availability: It is also immoral to strand people living in places that only support car-oriented lifestyles. Society, as a whole, has a responsibility to provide adequate alternatives or put in place policies and programs that support vehicle availability.
Sarah Jo Peterson, PhD, is the founding principal of 23 Urban Strategies, LLC, which works at the intersection of transportation, land use, and sustainability.