New York City Region Leads Nation in Car-Free Households

Nearly a third of all car-less Americans live in the New York metro area, according to a Brookings Institution study released this week.  And most of them are also low-income.

The study shows the link between transit and jobs. Most Americans rely on cars to get to work, and when they're too poor to afford a car, they need transit. The New York metro area has the most robust transit system in the country, making it possible for low-income people to get to jobs.

The region topped the list with 2,093,861 car-less households. Chicago was second, but had only a sixth as many such households as New York. The metro areas of Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston rounded off the top five. 

But the report also found that some 700,000 Americans live without cars and without access to transit, meaning they have to rely on borrowed cars, hitching rides or not going to work at all.

“Seven hundred thousand households is larger than the population of Columbus, Ohio or San Antonio, Texas,” said Adie Tomer, author of the Brookings Institution study Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households. “These people are terribly constrained in earning a living, getting to the store or taking their kids to daycare. If this many people were facing a public health scare, this country would be in crisis mode. We need to approach this problem with similar urgency.”

Tomer’s plea comes at time when the federal government is looking at reducing transportation spending, and as states and cities, faced with budget problems of their own, are slashing contributions to public transit systems.

According to an American Public Transportation Association Survey, a quarter of large transit systems had already reduced the geographic reach of their services, and half had cut peak-service, meaning long and often frustrating waits for commuters. The association published its survey results this week, which also found that a third of all transit systems said they faced more shortfalls in the near future.

Cutbacks in service were particularly troublesome for APTA. The organization’s research suggests that slashed routes, limited service or long waits can drive riders away from transit altogether.  By contrast, APTA said riders were more likely to pay a fare increase and stick with transit, though unhappily so.

But as Brookings reported, most — 60 percent — of so-called “zero-vehicle” households are low-income, meaning that cuts in transit or fare hikes hit poor people the hardest.  Another quarter are middle-income.

Atlanta, whose residents also face one of the steepest transit fare hikes in the nation, has the highest number of no car/no transit households in the country, followed by the metro areas of Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and St. Louis.