How much do people in the District really drive?
This post is the fourth in an ongoing series about reducing the trips people take by car in DC.
- Part I: Vision Zero is meaningless unless we get more drivers off the road
- Part II: DC’s current car trip reduction goal is woefully inadequate
- Part III: Driving is the New Smoking: Lessons from America’s public health victory over tobacco
In an earlier post in this series, I calculated that the level of car-trip reduction DC needs in order to hit its Vision Zero and carbon-free goals is a net drop of 400,000 trips per day by 2032.
To get there, DC residents will need to reduce their car usage to only one out of every four trips they take. That may seem like an impossible goal, but breaking it down into different cohorts of existing drivers shows the path.
A 2019 analysis from the Washington Post of area residents best describes the landscape. WaPo’s polling partner, the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, surveyed the region, but provided crosstabs by jurisdiction. Applying the survey percentages to the District’s current population, about 700,000 residents, yields the following breakdown:
And grouping these six categories further produces three roughly-equally-sized cohorts:
A large plurality of 35%, or about 250,000 residents, already don’t even use a personal vehicle. Given how axiomatically car ownership is treated by political leaders, the size of this cohort may surprise you. Of these 250,000 residents, some may desire to own a car but cannot afford the significant expense (an average annual cost of over $13,000 in DC), but many, including myself, live car-free and are just fine doing so.
Another 30% of residents own cars, but are already using them only a few times a week or less. Depending on their total number of trips, which we can’t tell from the WaPo/GMU data, many of these folks are probably already hitting the 1-in-4 goal, while the rest are close.
These residents likely represent low-hanging fruit of car-trip-reduction. They are already comfortable choosing a non-car mode for some-to-most trips. Similar to the car-free research, identifying whatever set of incentives are working for those trips and applying them to more will help enable this cohort (which includes the majority of GGWash staff) to take the final plunge to car-free life.
The final 33% are drivers who use their car daily. For the revered place this group holds in our political rhetoric and personal imaginations, it may be a shock to learn they’re actually a minority. And even the term “minority” obscures the scale of the disparity between car-heavy residents and car-free and -lite ones. Because of the frequency gap—car-lites and car-frees are rarely driving, while car-heavies are driving daily—this third of residents is disproportionately responsible for the lions’ share of all trips. That means their patterns present the largest opportunity for reduction.
Of course, as with the other groups, there is certainly a blend of force and choice among these drivers. A resident who lives in a transit desert may be eager to leave their car at home, but cannot so long as transit options are limited and they are priced out of more accessible neighborhoods. Others may have sufficient current opportunity, but need a combination of social encouragement and cost/convenience incentives to give them a push.
So, how do we reach our goals?
Given this breakdown, the path forward is not a one-size-fits-all car-banning maxim, it’s a series of policies meant to address the unique situations different kinds of residents face. Here, the parallels to smoking cessation are clear again. Recreational “only when I drink” smokers may be able to cut the habit out completely with only small nudges, but expecting pack-a-day smokers to do the same is unrealistic. For them, shaving a few cigarettes off their daily average represents a meaningful, valuable success while they work on accessing quality support for quitting and meaningful replacement options.
Thinking back to the first chart with six cohorts, an ambitious but approachable first-order goal for DC leaders should be to help each group shift down one level. High-frequency drivers should aim to get to a once-daily trip, once-daily drivers to a few-times-a-week, and so on. To do so, policymakers need good information on what those trips are, which are most moveable, and which interventions offer the biggest bang for the buck.
Some of that information is already quite intuitive. Using my personal car-free case as an example, the primary factor for me is being able to afford to live in the relatively accessible, central neighborhood of Edgewood, a reality that is increasingly out of reach for many current and prospective DC residents because of our failure to build densely enough in these types of locations.
With a combination of Metro accessibility, multiple useful bus routes, and close access to some of the city’s best protected bike infrastructure (the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the cross-town cycle track), I can use something of a “defense in depth” strategy that provides backup options if any one mode is inconvenient for that trip. I am also indebted to the availability of rental bikes and scooters (both Capital Bikeshare and dockless) and particularly the expansion of e-bikes, which makes a huge difference for trips that include some of the hills in Ward 5.
Finally, there are still car trips I take that can be reduced! I’m served well by rideshare services if I have a trip outside the standard operating hours of MetroRail and MetroBus (or between two locations not well connected by transit) and by car rental services like Free2Move, which allow me to complete the couple trips a month that really are easiest using a vehicle with significant storage space.
To be very clear, these opportunities are a product of my privilege more so than pretty much anything else. But that’s also exactly the point. If we’re going to get our collective trip numbers down on schedule, folks like me who already live in accessible neighborhoods and have the ability to more easily choose other modes have a responsibility to be doing so as much as possible.
And at the same time, our medium and long-term goal should be to make that true of every neighborhood in DC to help replace the stickiest trips. We should not collectively settle for the idea that accessible neighborhoods, quality transit service, and safe infrastructure are privileges for the few. They should be seen as public investments we owe all residents and deserve an aggressive allocation of resources reflecting that priority.