Since 1960, the U.S. Census has asked American households to report on their “long form” the number of cars or light trucks “kept at home for the use of members of your household.” In the 2000 Census, 10% of households nationwide reported not having any vehicles available and 34% reported having only one available.
The distribution by state reflects the influence of large, dense cities with concentrations of people with no cars. The District of Columbia tops the list with 36.9% of homes reporting no car available. After D.C. is New York at 29.6%, Pennsylvania at 12.8%, and Massachusetts at 12.7%. The other states include Alaska (10.8%), Hawaii (11%) and West Virginia (10.8%). The states with the fewest number of carfree homes are understandably some of the most rural, including Kansas, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming all around or below 5%. After the 1990 census the Census Bureau compiled this fact sheet (PDF) analyzing car ownership trends, including this graph ranking metropolitan areas by households without vehicles.
Since 1990 the number of homes reporting no vehicles has stayed constant in D.C. This comparison of the population density and percentage of carfree homes in D.C. shows the two are not necessarily correlated; homes without cars are clustered along Connecticut Avenue, Foggy Bottom, around downtown, and in Anacostia:
Although some of the households in these statistics are without automobiles by circumstance (cost, legal prohibition, poor health, etc.), for some the decision is one of lifestyle choice. Existing at the margins of urban policy the so-called “car-free movement” is composed of activists who believe cars should be banned from cities, citing a variety of reasons from environmental protection to community building. In the U.S., the organization Bikes At Work Inc. has put together a “Carfree Census Database” drawing upon car ownership and commuting data that allows users to find “carfree cities” based on various criteria.
Last spring, National Geographic covered the nacent movement, which can claim credit for several modest events in places like Portland, Oregon and Berkeley, California where events have closed streets or encouraged people to commute using alternate means. Organizers say the days, which started in Europe in the 1990s, can “transform” a city and be a “catalyst to get people thinking about what their cities would be like with fewer cars.” J. H. Crawford’s 2000 book Carfree Cities has no doubt contributed to the emerging movement. In it he argues (ironically, perhaps) that modern technology now makes it possible to “return to the pattern of lively, attractive streets that we had enjoyed for thousands of years, until the advent of automobiles.” Finally, the World Carfree Network website boasts they are the “hub of the global carfree movement,” dedicated to creating revitalized towns and cities without automobiles.
The historically minded will note such ideas are far from new. After all, as I learned from my friend Scott, the first plank of Hunter S. Thompson’s tentative platform for Sheriff of Aspen in 1970 was “Sod the streets at once. Rip up all the streets with jack hammers and use the junk asphalt (after melting) to create a huge parking lot and auto-storage lot on the outskirts of town.”