Angie Schmitt

Milwaukee Has 9th Fastest Growth in Car-Free Households

Study shows only 8 U.S. cities grew faster; 20% of households here are car-free.

By , Streetsblog - Jan 22nd, 2014 03:19 pm

Have we reached peak car usage in America? Research from the University of Michigan suggests the answer is “yes.”

The highest rate of vehicle ownership in America occurred in 2007, when the average household owned 2.07 vehicles, according to research by Michael Sivak for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute [PDF]. Recently, the average number of cars per household dipped below 2 — at the end of 2012, it was 1.98.

That’s in part because a growing number of American households — especially in big cities — don’t own a car at all. In 2012 — the latest year in which data was available — 9.2 percent of American households lacked a motor vehicle. That’s compared to 8.7 percent in 2007, according to Sivak’s review of Census data.

The share of car-free households varies considerably among the 30 largest American cities, from 56.5 percent in New York to 5.8 percent in San Jose, with Milwaukee at 19.9 percent. But between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of car-free households grew in 21 of those 30 cities. The change was especially pronounced in cities where a lot of people were already getting by without cars. The 13 cities with the highest proportion of car-free households in 2007 all saw an increase between then and 2012, reports Sivak. Milwaukee saw an increase of 1.5 percent, the ninth highest increase.

Not all cities are seeing an increase in car-free households. Denver, Dallas, El Paso, Austin, San Antonio and Columbus all bucked the trend, registering slight increases. Houston registered no change.

Source data: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

Source data: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

Growth in car-free households reflects a number of local factors, including the quality of transit, walkability, and income levels, among other factors, according to Sivak. But he says wider social trends are at work as well.

This study is the latest in a series examining trends in driving behavior for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute — which is funded in part by auto companies. Sivak’s previous research has shown that in addition to owning fewer cars, Americans are driving less miles and consuming less fuel.

Sivak points out that all of these trends predate the recent economic crisis, suggesting they are the result of wider cultural influences, such as the rise in telecommuting, increasing urbanization and changing preferences of young people.

This story originally ran on Streetsblog. Angie Schmitt is a newspaper reporter-turned planner/advocate who manages the Streetsblog Network from glamorous Cleveland, Ohio. She also writes about urban issues particular to the industrial Midwest at

6 thoughts on “Streetsblog: Milwaukee Has 9th Fastest Growth in Car-Free Households”

  1. Al says:

    Ironic that Detroit is the highest percentage. More good reason to support improved mass transit in Milwaukee.

  2. Adam says:

    I was suprised as well with Detroit. Could a potential driver of that increase be due to an increase in households that can no longer afford to own an automobile?

  3. Al says:

    Adam, I would imagine so. Detroit is the motor city, so I’m sure people would rather own a car if they could afford it. I think it is important that more cities offer better mass transit opportunities, Milwaukee being one of them. Better bus, street tram and light rail offerings. There is a real need for it.

  4. Eric S says:

    Keep in mind this ranked the cities with the greatest rate of increase in car-free households, not the cities with the greatest percentage of car-free households. Note that New York has more than twice the rate of car-free households as Detroit. Frankly, I wish this study had also ranked cities by the percentage of car-free households, rather than just the change.

  5. Tom D says:

    Eric S, here is a list of the 50 US cities (among those with at least 100,000 population) with the highest proportion of car-less households as of 2000:

    This data differs a little from what Angie Schmitt posted. According to the Wikipedia list, 21.36% of Milwaukee households had no car in 2000, slightly higher than the numbers that Schmitt had.

  6. Eric S says:

    Tom D, thanks. I had seen that list, using 2000 information. I assume this study uses 2012 Census data from the American Community Survey (or something like that).

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