A photo of traffic outside Chicago.
Car-light or car-rich? Chicago is one of several big U.S. cities that have seen automobile ownership grow since 2012. Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

In a Reversal, ‘Car-Rich’ Households Are Growing

Despite ride-hailing’s promise, vehicle ownership (and traffic) is on the rise in America’s biggest, most transit-oriented cities. So how is mobility really changing?

There is no doubt that ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are remaking how people get around major American cities. The growing availability of shared bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters is further changing the personal mobility story. The transformation is partly personal, offering a wealth of options for getting around town. It’s also supposed to be societal, ameliorating clogged traffic and boosting transit ridership.

The evidence for personal transformation is uncontested. But the societal benefits are less clear. How ride-hailing in particular is affecting vehicle use, traffic, and transit has been hotly debated. Research that I summarized in my report “The New Automobility” last summer showed that ride-hailing growth has led to more traffic and less transit use in major American cities—not the reverse that we all hoped for.

Uber, Lyft, and advocates for new shared mobility services have pushed back against this analysis. Declaring that we are still at the “earliest stages” of a major shift in travel habits, they look to the day that people ditch their car in favor of a combination of these services and old-fashioned public transportation. Their vision is that diminished car ownership and fewer miles in privately owned vehicles will more than offset added mileage from ride-hailing vehicles.

As we enter the eighth year of the Uber and Lyft revolution, it’s worth checking whether we are seeing those “ditch your car” hopes being fulfilled. Recent trends can be traced using the American Community Survey, which shows yearly household vehicle ownership in U.S. cities.

At first glance, the picture looks contradictory. Household vehicle ownership has increased in cities where Uber and Lyft are most heavily used, using 2012 (the year the companies started offering affordable everyday ride services like UberX) as the starting point. Moreover, the rate of vehicle growth substantially exceeded population growth in five of the eight cities (Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago).

(Bruce Schaller)

At the same time, more urban households also have no or relatively few cars. These households are often referred to as “car-free” (no cars available to the household) or “car-light,” e.g., a working couple that owns one vehicle. (For data availability reasons, “car-light” is defined here as households with fewer vehicles than workers.) Here’s the growth in car-free and car-light households in the eight cities.

(Bruce Schaller)

These households grew notably faster than population in Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago and at about the same rate as population in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., from 2012 to 2017. (By contrast, in Los Angeles population grew faster than car-free/car-light households.)

These data thus show that accounts of, “I gave up my car when I moved to this or that walkable urban neighborhood” should not be dismissed as mere anecdotes. But how can we reconcile more car-free/car-light households with rapid growth in total car ownership?

The answer comes in two parts. First, there is a lot more growth in car-light than car-free households. In fact, since 2012 the number of car-free households declined in Chicago, D.C., and Los Angeles. Adding one-car households in cities where there is on average about one vehicle per household results in no real change in the rate of car ownership—all the while adding more traffic to city streets.

The other part of the story involves a different, more powerful boom: the growth of urban households with two or more vehicles. We might think that one-car or no-car households are the norm in big cities, where parking and garage space is expensive. But at least 20 percent of households in seven of the eight cities have two or more vehicles (predictably, the exception is New York City). Even more notably, in all eight cities, these households account for at least half of all vehicles.

Households with at least one vehicle per worker (“car-rich” perhaps?) account for the bulk of increased car ownership in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Growth of car-light households accounts for only about one-quarter of the total growth in vehicle ownership in these cities.

The picture is different in Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco, where rapid growth among already-numerous car-light households is the source of half or more of overall vehicle growth.

The best evidence that some Americans are actually ditching their cars can be seen in Seattle, where the ranks of car-free/car-light households increased by 23 percent. That’s consistent with the city’s standing as one of very few with growing transit ridership. Yet even in Seattle, total vehicles edged up faster than population (16 percent versus 14 percent) since 2012.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Los Angeles, where car-free households dropped by 11 percent since 2012. L.A. also shows car ownership greatly outpacing population growth (10 percent versus 4 percent). This picture is consistent with a recent UCLA study that linked declines in transit ridership to increased car ownership among low-income and in particular immigrant communities in the L.A. area.

What’s driving the rise of the car-rich city household? It likely includes economic trends that put money in people’s pockets: job growth, the influx of affluent urban professionals, and falling gas prices. Changing demographics, especially more families with children, likely spur some to buy a car. Troubled transit service in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., surely plays a role.  Ride-hailing might also catalyze car use; once you get used to on-demand transportation, who wants to go back to waiting for the bus?

Increased car ownership in America’s most walkable and transit-oriented cities is a deeply worrisome reversal from what came before. From mid-2000 to 2012, transit ridership increased while car ownership grew slowly, if at all. But now car ownership is expanding faster than population. Add in ride-hailing services, and the glut of motor vehicles makes it more difficult to give buses, bikes, and now e-scooters the road space they need to be speedy, safe, and comfortable.

To reverse the rise of for-hire and personal auto use in major American cities, we need to continue to expand space-efficient and active transportation options. Amid the many modes that can help out, we need to focus above all on one particular way for people to share the ride. But it’s not some new form of “shared mobility.” It’s frequent, reliable, safe, and comfortable public transportation.

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