'Toward Los Angeles': hitchhikers photographed by Dorothea Lange, via Library of CongressEnlarge Photo
Apparently, that's the good news. According to a study published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the U.S. Department of Transportation (PDF), the U.S. population is growing and car sales remain strong, but the percentage of households without a car is on the rise.
In 1960, more than 20 percent of American households had no car. By 2007, that number had fallen to just 8.7 percent.
But then things shifted, and the numbers began ticking up. In 2011, the percentage of U.S. households without a car had risen to 9.3 percent.
WHY THE CHANGE?
Researchers suggest numerous reasons for the rise in zero-car households. Among those best reflected in the study's data:
1. Increasing urbanization: There's no denying that more Americans live in metro areas these days -- whether that's because we've said bye-by to the 'burbs and returned to revitalized city centers, or because sprawling cities like Dallas, Atlanta, and Chicago have consumed our once-rural retreats. This rise in population density has diminished the need (and desire) for vehicle ownership. In metropolitan areas, for example, mass transit and carpools become more commonly available. And of course, keeping a car in the city brings huge hassles, from finding a parking spot to paying for insurance on a vehicle that rarely gets used.
The study confirms this. In areas with a population density of less than 2,000 people per square mile, researchers found that only about five percent of households don't have a vehicle. On the other hand, in cities with population densities of 10,000 people per square mile or more, nearly 30 percent of households are car-less.
2. Financial uncertainty: It's no coincidence that the percentage of zero-car households began to rise at the exact moment the Great Recession hit. Will future analysis show a gradual increase in car ownership as the U.S. economy continues to improve? Maybe -- though at least two other studies strongly suggest that America's love affair with driving is over for good.
3. Race: As of 2011, 20.3 percent of African American households had no vehicle. That's considerably higher than the car-less rate among Hispanic and Asian households (12.8 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively). White households were least likely to be car-less, at just 7.0 percent.
Does that imbalance stem from race-based socio-economic inequality? Almost certainly. But it's worth noting that even among whites, the percentage of car-less households rose between 2008 and 2011. In other words, race is a factor, but not the only one.
4. Aging population: Though the U.S. population continues to grow, it's growing at a slower rate than it once did. Since the 1950s, the U.S. birth rate has fallen -- in fact, in 2009, it was as low as it had been in a century. Pair that with advances in medicine that have resulted in increased lifespans, and you have the recipe for a larger population of older people. And older people tend to give up their driver's licenses as well as their cars. The decline begins around age 60 and drops off dramatically at 75.
This study raises as many questions as it answers. On the whole, though, the data seems to make sense. In fact, we have a couple of additional theories about why U.S. households may be giving up on automobiles.