Expert Commentary

Transit access and zero-vehicle households

2011 report by the Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program on the transit options of U.S. households without private vehicles.

Once upon a time, the American family of the popular imagination lived in the suburbs, had 2.5 children, and spent its weekends washing the car in the driveway. The United States has become increasingly diverse and significantly more urban over time, however, and such images no longer hold true for much of the country — even to the exclusion of that most American of icons, the family car.

A 2011 study by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, “Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households,” found that 10% of households in the country’s 100 largest metropolitan regions do not own a private vehicle. Not owning a car can significantly reduce household expenses, but it also increases reliance on public transportation, particularly to reach jobs. To better understand such households, the study used data from the American Community Survey and 371 transit providers.

Results of the study include:

  • In the 100 largest metropolitan areas of the United States, approximately 7.5 million households do not own a private vehicle.
  • More than 90% of families without vehicles have access to transit, compared to 68% of households with a vehicle. This suggests that “transit service aligns with households who rely on it most,” the authors state.
  • In neighborhoods served by transit, the typical zero-vehicle household can reach 40.6% of metropolitan jobs in under 90 minutes. This is better access than families with one or more vehicles; they can reach only 28% of metropolitan jobs within 90 minutes of transit travel time.
  • In areas studied, 59.8% of households without vehicles have incomes that are equal to or less than 80% of the median income for their area. By way of comparison, only 23.9% of households with vehicles have similar incomes.

The report’s authors hope that the findings will be useful for large metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta with relatively decentralized housing and jobs. Such cities “require a significant change in direction to enable households who need transit most — whether in cities or suburbs — to connect to opportunities throughout their region.”

Keywords: cars, employment, municipal, poverty, mass transit, local reporting