Waiting on a late night bus. Photo by author.

The Washington region has gotten a “solid return” on its transit investment, but many carless households still lack good access to transit and many more, even in urban areas, don’t have a realistic option to live car-free if they wanted to, according to a Brookings Institution report.

Following up on a report released in May that examined the correlation between transit access and employment, this report looks at the correlation of cars and employment. The study analyzed data from 371 transit providers and the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

In the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, 7.5 million households do not have access to a private automobile. A majority of these zero-vehicle households live in cities and earn lower incomes. Conversely, households with vehicles tend to live in suburbs and earn middle or higher incomes. The unique locational and income characteristics of zero-vehicle households reinforce their need for strong transit service.

Though the majority of the 7.5 million carless households in the nation’s largest metropolitan are well-served by transit, 700,000 households cannot access mass public transit. Access to transit, the study argues, impacts connectivity to employment opportunities. An inability to access transit further disadvantages these metropolitan communities.

In the Washington DC metropolitan statistical area, spanning as far as Baltimore and West Virginia, there are 193,558 zero-vehicle households, accounting for 9.5% of all metro area households. In the city, 100% of household with or without a car have access to a transit stop. In the metro area, 96% of car-less households have access to transit, and 92% of similar households in the suburbs. Approximately, 82% of metro households without a car are near a transit stop while 78% of suburban households without a car are near a transit stop.

"For most households in the DC region, you can efficiently take a bus, subway, or commuter rail to your job, shopping, and sports,” says Senior Research Analyst Adie Tomer, who led the project. “We have received a solid return on our transit investment, and that helps thousands of households live without a vehicle.”

A total of 7.5 million households in the United States do not have access to a car but can travel by transit. 61% percent of these households are in cities and 60 percent are low-income. New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have the highest number of households without cars. Households without a car in cities have much higher access to transit: 99 percent live near transit. Only 58 percent of households without a car in the suburbs live near transit.

Over 90 percent of zero-vehicle households in large metropolitan areas live in neighborhoods with access to transit service of some kind. This exceeds the 68 percent coverage rate for households with a vehicle, suggesting transit service aligns with households who rely on it most.

The more sprawl in a region, the more obstacles there are to mobility and accessibility. Tomer says older center cities with concentrated cores, such as those along the Eastern seaboard and on the West Coast, have utilized zoning regulations and maximized land use to make it easier to live car-free. Metropolitan areas in the South, like Altanta, Houston, and Dallas, are more car-dependent. “Their recent investments in rapid transit infrastructure can’t keep up with their sprawl,” Tomer contends.

As suburbs grow to encompass more housing and more jobs, planners, policymakers, and transit agencies will need to address coverage gaps and route changes to reflect that growth. Brookings’ report demonstrates that the betterment of public transit can make day-to-day life easier.