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.

  • Here’s an idea for a Muni fundraiser–offer a car amnesty. Anyone turning in a car registered in the city of San Francisco would get three years of free Muni passes ($2520 value). If the car got under 30 mpg, it would be sold for scrap; if it got over, it could be resold in a land where cars are happier (say San Jose) with the hope it wouldn’t return too quickly. Muni would get to keep all proceeds and it would cost them next to nothing. Maybe City Carshare could kick in a free three-month trial. And maybe San Francisco Bike Coalition could offer a bike alternative–turn in your car and get a free bike. (Okay, I don’t think there would be a whole lot of takers trading in a car for a bike, but you never know . . .)

    I think encouraging people to go car-lite is a more practical first step than car-free. People need to keep hearing how expensive owning and maintaining a car is.

  • Clutch J

    For most of America, achieving one-car households is a meaningful and more realistic goal. In far too much of America, having zero cars means having the life of a zero.

  • Seven

    Want more San Franciscans to go car free? Create more jobs within the city. Yes, it’s that simple.

  • Zero-car household right here. Sadly, because we chose to do this on our own free will, we’d be left out of taomom’s fast pass give-away. It’s kinda like PG&E who wants people to reduce by 10% and will punish those who don’t, but I already use 40% less then the average household.

    People give up there car for a bike at events like Tour de Fat.

  • @Seven, I work on the peninsula and live in the city with no car. There are a lot of people who do this. Maybe you need to expand your range past the city and just onto any transit corridor. Maybe if we create jobs in the east bay on a bart line, then people won’t have to pack the bay bridge and tube every day to get to two stations downtown.

  • ZA

    Zero-car? The reality right now is that a car is useful some of the time, but far less than most Americans believe. I drove 400 miles more than I bicycled last year, but that was for destinations too disconnected from the alternatives.

    Weaning yourself off the car is something everyone can do, if you will it.

  • Thebe

    We are a zero-car household — myself, my husband and our 5-year-old son. We have depended on City Car Share and Muni since we moved to SF in 2007.

    But I have to say, Muni’s rising costs and horrible service has us considering buying a car this year. We are, quite simply, exhausted from trying to conduct an active lifestyle using Muni’s undependable, dirty buses. It often takes 40 minutes to an hour one-way to get to the hair stylist, doctor’s office, dentist, shopping mall, etc.

    Our monthly fast passes cost $135 — once that number hits $220, we’ll probably give up and be part of the problem, driving to work and errands, spewing carbon emissions and adding to traffic congestion. I’m not proud of this, but gosh, there’s a limit to how much punishment we’re willing to take here. Lots of people would love to give up their cars, but the city needs to meet them halfway. It’s hard for me to remember our principles when my son and I are waiting in the pouring rain for a bus that should have arrived 13 minutes before and NextBus is saying 4 minutes-3 minutes-4 minutes-6 minutes.

  • ZA

    @Thebe – how much can bicycles help with your daily journeys? I agree, MUNI is really a shame, poor at helping people meet their needs.

  • @Thebe – I’m of the opinion that they should offer a group pass (up to 4 people) at a discount. Something like what Munich does. The 4 people have to travel together of course, but it will greatly help families looking to take MUNI but not wanting to shell out $8 per trip. This won’t help your situation with the waiting, but we are all waiting. Standing there praying that the Nextbus gods will grant us our wish – only they taunt us by making the clock go backwards.

  • elephant_in_the_room

    oddly enough, nobody has yet mentioned the elephant in the room here:


    the day that parking is a privelege and not a (highly subsidised) right, the cost of driving in an urban area will come closer to matching reality.

    in the case of san francisco, we could offer FREE muni to everyone by simply charging MARKET RATE for parking permits and charging for parking on sundays.
    no more service cuts, faster buses/trains (due to not waiting for passengers to pay upon boarding), incentives where they belong.

    what needs to happen now is a focused effort to manufacture the political will to demand cost equity on parking versus transit. if anyone has ideas how to do this, let me know!

  • The elephant has been beaten to death.

  • peternatural

    I’m in a 5-person household (3 adults, 2 kids) with 0 cars. Renting an apartment instead of owning makes it easier to move when things change, like we moved a few blocks from my daughter’s school after she started kindergarten. We weren’t into using our car anyway for getting to school/work, but the main motivation was to save money. We save about $5000/year, counting the cost of the car itself plus insurance, parking, etc.

    We could afford the car but that’s $5000 more each year going into savings. Maybe if the economy continues to deteriorate that calculation will become more compelling to more people.

  • peternatural

    I meant we’re *now* a zero-car household, since selling our 1 car last September. The $5000 figure is my estimate of what it cost us yearly.

  • peternatural – awesome. Keep us posted on your journey. Too many people use kids as an excuse to car ownership, maybe you can provide some insight into your struggles and triumphs.

  • peternatural

    For the 8th grader, we just hand her a fast pass each month and she does the rest. (It’s a 20 minute ride on 1 bus. She’s been riding MUNI on her own since 6th grade, when we lived in a less central location and the commute was twice as long.)

    For the 1st grader, living a short walk from her school makes it super easy to manage. (It’s a 4-block walk, so a car would be irrelevant.) Before we moved to our current apartment, we did one year of commuting by trail-a-bike (to school) and MUNI (returning home). The logistics got a lot easier to manage once we moved close to the school.


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