Why Do the Smartest Cities Have the Smallest Share of Cars?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Derek Thompson, senior editor of The Atlantic’s Business Channel, looks at what the cities with the fewest cars tell us about driving and density, and why the cities with the smallest amount of cars tend to have more educated populations. His article “Why Do the Smartest Cities Have the Smallest Share of Cars?” draws from a study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, appears in the Atlantic magazine.

Do you have a car in the city? Do you wish there were fewer cars here? Share your thoughts on cars and city-living by leaving a comment!


Derek Thompson

Comments [29]

Carol Markel from Manhattan

I have lived in Philly and NYC for the past 48 years and owned a car for only 10 months because my husband and I decamped for a suburb for that time. We take public transportation, car services, walk and rent a car when necessary. Of course you save money and you have no car-related headaches. It is simply the smart thing to do. Plus I do not want to join the mindless masses who view their cars as extensions of their bodies and are blind to pedestrians. Pedestrians might as well be aliens to the car set.

Jan. 30 2014 08:36 AM
Bruce from Chicago

I haven't owned a car in 26 years. Moved to Chicago four years ago from NYC. Chicagoans told me that I'd "have to" own a car. I still don't. I run, bike, scooter or use public transportation for almost all my transportation needs. If absolutely necessary, I will use a Zipcar. And yes, I would run and do run 15 miles to work.

Jan. 29 2014 05:42 PM
Kate from Carroll Gardens

I agree that car ownership and fuel have reached a tipping point, however I don't see how "smart cities" have anything to do with this topic. The cities that top the list simply have better public transportation and easy of walking/biking than other cities in the nation.

Jan. 29 2014 04:37 PM
francynepelchar from Pelham Bay Park

I had a car for a year after grad school when I had to commute to a job in Rockland County, then lived for 7 long years in NC. We had a car because my ex needed it to get to work, and we needed it for grocery shopping, etc. I used my bike and a Vespa for all my commutes. Never got a driver's license. Now I live in Pelham Bay Park where everything I need on a regular basis is within walking or biking distance.

Jan. 29 2014 01:04 PM
art525 from Park Slope

Ben from WIlliamsburg tries to deflect (as all bikers do) the responsibility to ride according to the rules. As always when called on bad behavior bikers always say that some bikers -but not them- don't follow the rules. There was a demonstration against the bike lane in Park Slope and I had a discussion with a biker about them not following traffic rules. He said that some don't but not him. This after he had just rode up going through a red light. There was even an editorial in the Daily News wheere a biker made the argument that bikers shouldn't have to stop at lights. And of course Ben says that cars are more at fault but I guarantee you that if there was a study done per capita bikers are much more at fault. I am surprised when I see a biker stop for a light. I have lived in NYC since 1976. The thing that I always loved about NYC is that it is a walking city. Unfortunately the experience of beig a pedestrian in NYC has been diminished by the increase in bike riders and the attitiude of entitilement they display. And on another note, I found it amusing that Transportation ALternatives had a bike ride to celebrate the annual Jane Jacobs Walk.I had an online discussion with Eric McClure where he defended that absurd idea. If you want to see the city the way that Mz Jacobs encouraged us to do you have to walk. That is how you will see things. I mean she did say "walk observe connect". And hey it is at least as environmentally friendly as biking.

Jan. 29 2014 12:43 PM

How many of these non-car owners are ALSO not licensed to drive? That would be an informative statistic.

Jan. 29 2014 12:41 PM
Giulia Marra from West milford nj

It is cheaper for me to drive my 2 teenagers to Juilliard and Mannes school on Saturdays then have them use public transportation from NJ. Since I was raised with no car or phone as a child in NYC, this bothers me. But it's a whopping 40.00 carfare and only 3.50 too get over the bridge when one is registered for "carpool". Public transportation should be cheaper !

Jan. 29 2014 12:40 PM
Dennis from BK

No Car, No Car payment, No Gas, No shady mechanics, No Parking tickets, No DUI,

Jan. 29 2014 12:32 PM
John Mason from Yorktown, NY

It will be interesting to see how self-driving cars impact this trend. On the one hand self-driving taxi's will further reduce the desire to own a car. On the other hand some might feel 'driving' time is more productive once they can work, sleep, play while the car drives itself.

Jan. 29 2014 12:31 PM
wingeddancer from Astoria

I grew up in NJ with the family cars. Today, I live in Astoria and love NYC---The great walking city. When my three children were babies, I threw them in the triple stroller and walked everywhere. However, I find there is an awkward age for raising children in NYC. One eight year old and two 6 years olds get tired walking too far. Moreover, they can't take this terrible cold. We now get around with the car :( Someday they will be on bikes and subways--but not now.

Jan. 29 2014 12:31 PM
L.Doyon from BK

I take issue with the latest generation, being the greenest. Granted there is more awareness now, so there are more avenues to be green. However, most of the ground work for these avenues was done by former generations. In this age of disposable electronics especially and generally disposable everything – per capita I’m not so sure millennials are so pristine.

I also have a problem with the use of ‘they’ used in substitution for a huge population set. Data points can be plotted here and there to make the desired point, and like all statistics they should be taken with a grain of salt.

Jan. 29 2014 12:30 PM
Marcos from the Bronx

The suburbs/interstate were created via massive government subsidy supported by a mid 20th century bi partisan consensus.

They were artificial.

Since there is no bi-partisan consensus to continue subsidizing the suburbs, "natural" economic forces that formed cities are begining to govern again.

Jan. 29 2014 12:30 PM
Jaime from Ellenville, NY

Your mixing apples and oranges. The relationship between cars and people is still based on economics and location. If a person could have a car, even living in a city, they would. Also Baltimore is economic choice not a social one.

Jan. 29 2014 12:28 PM
Pat from Westchester

With the decrease in middle class earnings, it seems that the "two car family" will no longer be affordable in twenty or thirty years, then cities will have to improve their public transport systmes.

Jan. 29 2014 12:28 PM
Q from NYC

@thomas from Astoria
Do you mean the street level mini-train system like the one they used to have in Red Hook?

Jan. 29 2014 12:26 PM
june from Bergen County

Totally agree with Mark D. above!!!!

Jan. 29 2014 12:26 PM

We may need more housing built for a car-free, public transit lifestyle, but wherever these complexes are built they are expensive, even beyond the cities you speak of.

Jan. 29 2014 12:25 PM
Nora from Brooklyn Heights

Cities like St Louis and Cleveland need the help of these smart kids to come back and revitalize them. They are very affordable. They ripped up their streetcars in the 1960s. Argh.

Jan. 29 2014 12:25 PM
William from Madison, NJ

My 25 year old daughter went to school in and now lives and works in DC. She uses public transportation, bikes, walks, and also will use Zip cars (and another short-term car rental company) when a car is essential. She gets the best of both worlds without the hassles and expense of car ownership. Did the author look at that as a new phenomenon? She also relies on her cell phone for internet access to locate both bikes and cars!

Jan. 29 2014 12:24 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

AS we continue to rapidly move into a "virtual reality" world, where people can interface via the internet, virtually "travel" anywhere in the virtual world while comfortably esconsced in their sofas inside their hi-rise apartments, will simply mean less need to physically get around the real world.

Jan. 29 2014 12:23 PM
thomas from Astoria

Is there any resurgence in streetcars? I think all generations would love to see them return

Jan. 29 2014 12:20 PM
Mark Desiderio

A non-issue, non-topic. A fabrication to float a career. If I hear one more twenty-something chattering away as though pitching a high-concept movie or interviewing at Google, I'll vomit

Jan. 29 2014 12:17 PM
katie from westchester

Zip Cars are really great for current college students and recent college grads in the cities. My daughter is a sophomore at Rice in Houston and uses Zip Cars all the time.

Jan. 29 2014 12:17 PM
Anne from Harlem

Re: young people increasingly not owning cars--It's a no brainer!

When I was young and first able to drive in 1979, it was possible to buy a a used car (VW bug) for $1000 and insurance was cheap. In subsequent years the costs of cars went way up, cars were subject to increased regulation (smog detectors etc), insurance costs went way up and it was no longer possible to own and operate a car cheaply (while working a part time job and going to college)! Besides, young people these days like my nieces and nephews wouldn;t be caught dead in the banged up used cars we used to proudly drive! It's just much more expensive these days…. don;t over estimate the eco-consciousness of youth.

Jan. 29 2014 12:17 PM
antonio from bayside

I am curious about the cities which were investing in streetcars/light-rails? Where did they rank?

Jan. 29 2014 12:16 PM
art525 from Park Slope

Sorry but Williamsburgers are not hip. They have a superior and yet they are all sheep who dress alike and strictly follow what their culture tells them is hip. Not an original thought in the whole neighborhood. Ironic beard. Check. Skin tight jeans, Check. One inch cuff. Check. Tight plaid shirt won over a tight white T shirt. Check. Brown ankle high boots. Check. Big nerdy glasses. Optional. Tatoos. Of course. That's guys. For women. Old fashioned 50s style house dresses. Or skin tight jeans. Check. One inch cuff. Check.No facial hair. And yes tatoos.

Jan. 29 2014 12:15 PM

Car friendly? Why not pollution friendly? The TCO for the planet of private car ownership is off the charts when the cost to the environment of all of that pollution is taken into account.

We chose our home because it is very close (less than 1/4 mile) from public transit and a grocery store.

The lack of a commuting infrastructure was a major factor in turning up the temperature of the sub-prime meltdown. It had been roiling for years but was brought to full boil by Bush Administration mishandling of the oil speculation of 2008 which led to six months of #4+/g gasoline. Too many households had to forego this month's mortgage in order to fill the tank on their three or more vehicles.

The next 20 years ought to be fun to watch as the moneyed 'white flight' elites of the 50s-80's, flock back to cities with a transportation infrastructure and the minorities (with and without means) are sold their empty, old McMansions.

Jan. 29 2014 12:15 PM
art525 from Park Slope

When you consider that there are something like 10 million people in New York it is actually pretty easy to get around in a car. Boston on the other hand is a nightmare even though it's maybe a million people at most. Routes 95 and 128 are always parking lots.

Jan. 29 2014 12:10 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The development of the "smart" driverless car will make car ownership less necessary. Eventually, everyone will be able to summon a driverless car with their smartphone that will taxi them to work, or wherever they want to go, and people will automatically pay for the ride. And then the driverless car will drive itself back to its normal parking lot or garage. A car will be summoned when you need it. Like Batman in the cartoons.

Jan. 29 2014 12:00 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.