What the metros with the highest percentage of non-car households tells us about driving and density.

Think cars are over in America? We do.

The Atlantic has called "peak car"—not once but twice. We have repeatedly explained why young Americans "don't care about owning" a vehicle. We predicted a long-term decline of auto sales, and, in a dramatic moment, essentially announced "the end of car ownership," generally.

We had strong data. Perhaps we had strong biases, too.

I live in New York City. At various points in my life, I lived in Washington, D.C., too. And these two cities, the twin nodes of the I-95 mainstream-media corridor, happen to be the two metros with the highest share of non-car households in America, according to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. Here are the non-car household rates in 30 large U.S. cities (the national average is in RED):

Source: Michael Sivak, University of Michigan

What do NYC, DC, Boston, and Philadelphia have in common? For one, they're crowded cities with good (okay, decent) public transit. “The five cities with the highest proportions of households without a vehicle were all among the top five cities in a recent ranking of the quality of public transportation," Michael Sivak, director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation at Michigan, told WSJ

But that wasn't the first thing this graph reminds me of. When I see New York, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, the first thing I think is: These are all the classic, even cliche, magnets for elite college graduates. 

So I compared the cities' non-car ownership rates to their share of bachelor's-degree holders. And it turns out there is a statistically significant relationship between being college-dense and car-light. Scroll over the points to show the city data.

What's this graph's story? Does spurning cars make you more likely to graduate from college? That would be pretty weird. Do college graduates particularly hate cars? Increasingly. There's evidence that Millennials are turning away from car ownership and swapping their auto loans for student debt. But I think what we're looking at here is an underlying variable of city density. Highly productive cities that are magnets for talented (and rich) people tend to be crowded with twenty-somethings trying to start their careers. Small crowded cities get clogged, and clogged cities require the kind of effective public transportation that makes cars an expensive nice-to-have rather than a have-to-have.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  2. Equity

    Berlin Builds an Arsenal of Ideas to Stage a Housing Revolution

    The proposals might seem radical—from banning huge corporate landlords to freezing rents for five years—but polls show the public is ready for something dramatic.

  3. a map of the Mayan Train route in Mexico
    Environment

    Mexico’s ‘Mayan Train’ Is Bound for Controversy

    President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature rail project would link cities and tourist sites in the Yucatan with rural areas and rainforests.

  4. A photo of a design maquette for the Obama Presidential Center planned for Jackson Park and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
    Design

    Why the Case Against the Obama Presidential Center Is So Important

    A judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by Chicago preservationists can proceed, dealing a blow to Barack Obama's plans to build his library in Jackson Park.

  5. A sanitation employee helps homeless people with their possessions in New Orleans in October 2017.
    Equity

    Because of Louisiana, the Minimum Wage in New Orleans Is a Poverty Wage

    Around the World Day of Social Justice, we should consider why cities pay poverty wages, and why 28 states can preempt local efforts to raise the minimum wage.