A Closer Look at Virginia Auto Ownership Patterns

Vehicles per household. (Click for more legible image.)
Vehicles per household. (Click for more legible image.)

Last week I published maps produced by the Vizual Statistix blog showing the breakdown of car ownership per household across the United States. Virginia appeared as the only East Coast hot spot on the map, with exceptionally high rates of automobile ownership compared to other states. Only limited conclusions could be drawn, I lamented, because the granularity of the data was so rough.

Well, thanks to Luke Juday, a Master’s student in urban planning at the University of Virginia architecture school, we can take a closer look. Juday, who goes by New Virginian on this blog, broke down car ownership by census tract, as shown above.

The super-high car ownership of more than two cars per household is mainly a phenomenon of auto-centric exurban counties ringing the state’s urban cores. There is a significant overlap of household car ownership with related metrics such as:

Cars per person
Cars per worker
Drive alone to work
Household income
Drives alone to work
Vehicle miles traveled

Juday also graphs the data and, not surprisingly, shows strong correlations between the number of adults and the number of cars in the household, as well as between the number of cars and household income.

Looking at density, Juday shows a correlation between density and car ownership (low density means more cars), and miles driven to work and density (low density means more miles driven).

The question I originally asked was, why does Virginia appear to be such an anomaly in the East Coast? Juday’s data gets us closer to an answer — the Old Dominion appears to have a combination of extensive sprawl and higher incomes. Sprawl means more car dependency, and higher incomes afford households the ability to buy and maintain more cars.


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26 responses to “A Closer Look at Virginia Auto Ownership Patterns”

  1. Thanks Luke!

  2. DJRippert Avatar


    There are no urban cores in Virginia. Once you settle out true cities from true counties you have Arlington as the only true city in Virginia. With a population density of 8,300 per sq mi Arlington has the density to actually be what would be called a city in other states. Even with that, it only has 221,000 people. Alexandria, at 9,950 per sq mi is even denser than Arlington but has only 146,000 people. Taken together, you get a smallish city of 367,000 people.

    That’s about it for “real cities” in Virginia.

    The only other two “cities” over 5,000 people per sq mi are Falls Church and Manassas Park with populations of 12,000 and 14,000 respectively (at best – towns).

    Only the City of Charlottesville falls in the 4,000 – 5,000 range. It has a population of 43,000. Perhaps a large town by normal nomenclature.

    Manassas City, Fairfax City and Richmond fall in the 3,000 – 4,000 people per sq mi zone.

    Only 682,000 people in a state of 8M live in a jurisdiction with a density of 3,000 per sq mi or higher.

    That’s 8.5% of the population.

    Meanwhile, 10.6% of Maryland’s population lives in the City of Baltimore alone with a population density of 7,671 people per sq mi.

    Virginia’s variance vs other states isn’t its lust for cars it’s Virginia disdain for cities.

    This is why I question whether so-called new urbanism will work in Virginia. Doesn’t there have to be urbanism before there can be new urbanism?

    Put Virginia’s cities within counties (like all 49 of the other states do) and the new combined governmental entity will suddenly see the value of density.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Also, let me apologize for my rudeness. Thanks to Luke Juday (aka the New Virginian) for his fine work with the statistics.

    Thanks, Luke. I hope we see more of you here at BaconsRebellion – as either Luke Juday or the New Virginian.

    As an aside – I am trying to dream up a statistic to measure the degree of urbanization in a state with a single number. I think population density is an acceptable measure of urbanization. I am thinking it has to be a distribution of people by density range with the middle being the median density. Something like that. I think you’d have to bite the bullet and deal with legal entities unless there was an automated way of getting access to more granular population density data such as by zip code. Once you have a measure of median density you could see where Virginia sits vs states with similar average density when it comes to car ownership, transportation budgets, etc.

    Any thoughts?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      As a side note, California’s population density is 244 per sq mi. Virginia’s is 207. However, I believe California has a far higher percentage of its population living in high density areas than Virginia.

      I believe New Urbanism depends on a fairly high percentage of a state’s population living in fairly dense areas.

      Average density by state is pretty useless as the California / Virginia comparison shows.

      If we’re going to talk about the feasibility of implementing new urbanism at the state level then we need a new metric I believe.

      1. “Doesn’t there have to be urbanism before there can be new urbanism?”

        First point: I don’t think you’ll find many people agreeing with you that Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke aren’t cities. Of course they are. They just aren’t high-density cities. If you would stick with that argument, we’d be on the same page regarding nomenclature.

        Second point: New Urbanism is sometimes called Neo-Traditional town planning. It’s a fairly diverse movement, and not everybody is bent upon building Transit Oriented Development. Many New Urbanists are totally comfortable with the automobile — they just want to make urban design less exclusively focused on the automobile, to strike a better balance between cars and pedestrians/bikes. New Urbanists have been giving a lot of thought in recent years to repairing the suburbs.

        Third point: Just because the Richmond region is relatively low density means that it is fated to stay that way forever. (The same applies to other Virginia metros). Infill and re-development is occurring that will increase density over time. Plenty of people here who would like to a more smart-growth approach to development.

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          1. Low density cities are counties for the sake of human development patterns. And high density counties (like Arlington) are cities for the sake of human development patterns. We can call Virginia Beach a city, we can call Arlington a county. In the end, we don’t have enough high density, high population centers. There is Arlandria (Arlington and Alexandria). That’s about it.

          2. Pedestrians and bikes work great when you have … density. Can you walk or bike in low to mid density areas? Of course. I just wonder how much a difference those conveyances can make to the overall transportation scheme in mid to low density areas. In fact, I have to wonder of they are worth the cost of supporting them (beyond recreational value) in low to mid density areas.

          3. Yeah, Richmond is pretty new. It was founded in 1737. C’Mon, Jim – if it hasn’t gotten dense in 275 years why will it get dense now?

          There’s something about Virginia that seems to discourage the development of “real cities” (aka – concentrations of 300,000 people or more at a density of 5,000 people (or more) per sq mi).

          Why is that? We have roughly the same overall population density as California. Yet California is settled into a small number of very large cities and “everybody else”.

          Why don’t we have large, densely populated cities in Virginia?

          I’ll submit that answering that question is the first step to finding a new, neo, or nuevo urbanist plan that will work.

          For better or worse, Virginia is a really weird state.

  4. Any development needs sufficient public facilities for it and its neighbors to function. Changes in density can affect the cost of public facilities. In more rural parts of Fairfax County, there is no sanitary sewer or public water because the low density won’t support the cost of the facilities without major subsidies. Semi-rural parts of Fairfax County oppose any extension of sewer or water to stop development.

    Sometimes, the cost of land in more dense areas pushes up the cost of public facilities much higher than in less dense areas. The cost of the Silver Line and the grid of streets for Tysons would be unaffordable in many other areas. Absent congressional pressure for the US DOT to ignore the funding standards that brought $900 M from the feds and Tim Kaine’s decision to force DTR users to pay the lion’s share of Silver Line costs, it would not have been built on its own. Building the grid of streets has the landowners trying to get out of the Service District that imposes an additional tax on commercial and residential property. Left to the market or even normal political processes, the Silver Line would not be built, nor would Tysons be fully urbanized – 100,000 residents and 200,000 jobs.

    The facts of the matter are that development of any kind is expensive on taxpayers; and that each case of dense or sprawl development needs to be examined individually.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      There are many areas of government that wouldn’t exist if they were left to the free market. There certainly wouldn’t be Medicaid. There wouldn’t be many museums.

      You can’t really “carve out” one area of government and declare that it wouldn’t exist in the private sector.

      How would Virginia look (economically) if you took away all of the urban and suburban areas? Take away the tax revenues and the costs. Economically speaking, what’s left? Mississippi? Belize?

      Here is the various per-capita income levels by locality in Virginia:


      Using my eyes … it looks like higher density = higher income.

      If so, isn’t it in the financial interests of the state to encourage high population, high density localities?

      When do any of the anti-Metro folks ever add up ALL the benefits of high density populations?

      1. I cannot help to point out one of Luke’s graphs: Density and Wealth
        check it out.

        re: cost of public infrastructure – yes… but this occurs across the board from low to high density …. and we have to recognize that if our view of quality of life is obviously not the same as many who live in cities and like it.

        we cannot argue that cities are financially infeasible given the fact that they do exist and in profusion and in fact urban US MSAs are said to be the most productive in this country – and, in fact, more productive than other countries! The Detroit MSA is more productive than many US cities as well as other entire countries!

      2. Tysons is likely to be successful over time. The best sign of that is last year’s commitment of Intelsat to move much of its operations to Tysons.

        However, Tysons is heavily subsidized by taxpayers and DTR drivers. The Silver Line did not meet the grandfathered standards for federal funding. Heavily lobbying by both parties resulted in the Bush Administration caving in and agreeing to $900 M in federal dollars. Toss in Tim Kaine’s sacrifice of DTR drivers and we see a huge transfer of wealth to a few landowners. But for the work of the McLean Citizens Association, the transfer of wealth from taxpayers to landowners would have been $403 million higher. The Silver Line will not reduce traffic congestion, but is triggering added density that will result in crushing increases in traffic. I’m not opposed to Tysons. We are too far down the road. But it’s being built on the back of a helluva lot of non-rich people. Let’s call a bull a bull.

  5. re: “Only 682,000 people in a state of 8M live in a jurisdiction with a density of 3,000 per sq mi or higher.

    That’s 8.5% of the population.”

    hells bells.. a lot more folks than that voted Dem last election… what’s with that?

    by DJ, I think you missed an important Jim Bacon point that he himself forgot..

    All these zoning restrictions obviously is what has caused Va to create low density rather than high density cities!

    I’m surprised that Jim missed that….


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Then tell me what Virginia-specific zoning restrictions are absent in Maryland. Or any of the other many, many states that seem to have a higher median density than Virginia.

      I have yet to hear one person tell me one zoning ordinance that is unique to Virginia.

      However, I can list one political / structural decision after another that is unique to Virginia. Let me start with cities that are never within counties.

      Sometimes you have to believe your own eyes.

      1. my compliments on your premise. you make a strong argument about density.

        there are a number of public services things that are related to density.

        For instance, the transportation planners at our MPO tell me that transit is not feasible in locations where density is not at least 8du.

        that’s not 8du at some spots – it’s 8du along the entire transit route.

        of course to be fair to Jim – that’s the standard form of transit which Jim and others assert (and I somewhat agree) that more innovative and free-market type “transit” might do it more cost effectively but then if you think about it – that would also make lower density more feasible transit-wise…

        but when I hear that there are thousands of acres of undeveloped land in NoVa that has developers itching to turn it into affordable subdivisions, I’ll buy the “land use restrictions” claim.

      2. re: ” Let me start with cities that are never within counties.”

        I guess I would have thought that to be an advantage. Cities in Va get more authority including taxing authority than counties – and are also responsible for their own roads.

        I often wonder what would happen if Fairfax became a city…..

  6. what is the threshold of density for New Urbanism given the fact as illustrated by DJ that almost no cities in Va are truly dense?

    Can you make a place New Urban if it is not very dense?

    what is the threshold and is New Urbanism, among other things, a de-facto activity to make a place dense enough to be New Urban?

    there are 640 acres to a square mile…if you take DJ’s Arlington 8300 per square mile that works out to about 13 people per acre.

    If a dwelling unit has 2 people in it and there are 8 per acre, that’s 16 people acre. where am I screwing this calculation up?

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    Arlington and Alexandria ought to merge (and become a city). If they did that the resulting city would be the only “real city” by my definition – 300,000 or more people with a density of 5,000 people per sq mi or more.

    Even without merging, they are the only places in Virginia with substantial “walkability” beyond small areas with a jurisdiction. For example, Reston is walkable while the vast majority of Fairfax County is not.

    1. how about Fairfaxandria?

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Ahh … you have stumbled into a truth. Alexandria and Arlington, as well as cities like Falls Church should be within Fairfax County. This is the structure that would happen in every state in the union besides Virginia.

        Each city would have it own city council and delineated rights of self-governance. Services that are more efficiently provided by the county (snow removal, perhaps) would be county services. Services more efficiently provided by the cities (local road maintenance, perhaps) would be provided by the city.

        Presumably, county planners would have to think long and hard about where to put new development. Since taxes would be shared between the county and the cities it would not be a zero sum game. In fact, putting more development into the high density cities would make sense for county planners who would recognize the economic benefit of development while respecting the (supposed) cost savings of building high density, walkable, bikable communities.

        However, in Virginia, every Tom, Dick and Harry of a locality is a completely separate and independent entity. They are bound together only by a state government in Richmond that attempts the Sisyphean task of writing one set of legislation that fits all situations.

        Virginia’s governance system is antiquated and broken. Progress along the lines envisioned by Jim Bacon will not happen until the governance process is fixed.

        While I can’t prove it, I suspect that Virginia – the state without cities – has a stunted urban environment based on our oddball political structure – especially the addiction to independent cities.

        1. My understanding is that Falls Church wanted out of Fairfax County because the latter had crappy public schools and the folks in Falls Church wanted to run their own. Can’t prove it’s true, but I did hear this from several individuals.

  8. Virginia is actually the ONLY state to have truly independent cities separate and apart from counties – as well as some towns that are more a part of the county.

    You would think that the independent city structure would be an advantage over say Cook County ….

    and what happens when a METRO area, an MSA in other states expands out into multiple counties instead of remaining as one entity?

    I agree with you on there being one government for the MSA – to coordinate services and to do planning on a more holistic basis rather than in competition with adjacent jurisdictions.

    I also point out that Va does allow , even incentivize regional approaches to services and down our way we have multi-jurisdiction jails, libraries, transit, solid waste, water and sewer…

    and up your way – the Fairfax County Water Authority, if not mistake, provides water for most of NoVa (but perhaps not Arlington?).

    Virginia does promote regionalism via the Commission on Local Government, the Weldon Cooper Center and the Planning Districts and the Feds do so with MPOs.

    and one of the very few things that citizens can initiate referenda on is combining jurisdictions.

    In the last couple of years when Culpeper the town was feuding with Culpeper County over water/sewer, citizens threatened to get the signatures to put consolidation on the ballot – and the two got their differences settled in short order.

    I don’t think Virginia is all that unique than other states but the states themselves are different from each other and the thing Virginia is unique on
    is transportation planning because we’ve separated land-use decisions from transportation planning by give land-use authority to the counties and transportation authority to VDOT and VDOT ends up getting into issues like trying to decide where regional growth is going in their planning process which the FEDs delegated to the regions but VDOT still controls funding and thus priorities.

    I’m not defending current practices nor apologizing for them but instead trying to state them accurately (and seek correction if disagreement).

    Even as I occasionally take part in the blame game, I tend to think that Va still has strong govt practices that have their roots back to who settled Virginia and who instituted govt in Virginia – the King of England and to keep this relevant, a guy named Lord Fairfax …


    not totally clear how he got 5 million plus acres … but not unusual for that time as the King transferred vast boundaried lands various gentry for various reasons…

    (if someone else has detailed historic knowledge here, it would be interesting to have it shared here).

    1. Larger sized units of local government are often regarded as less responsive to individual citizens and neighborhoods. I know more people who would like to form multiple towns out of Fairfax County than to consolidate Fairfax County into a larger unit of government.

      Bill Lecos, when he was president of the Fairfax County Chamber, was pushing to get a sizable number of supervisors elected at large, because developers found local supervisors too responsive to their communities and constituents. Bill struck out on three pitches. Jim Corcoran has had the good sense not to try this again.

      At best one will see metro coordination for some government functions. But residents want the decision-making close to home.

  9. smaller are more responsive, I agree but they tend to be competitive with other jurisdictions over development that brings in taxes so you get into these commercial development arms races which put commercial in the best place for the smaller jurisdiction but in a wrong place for the region.

    same thing with transportation. If you do not think regionally for transportation – not only in transportation itself but in land uses – you end
    up with a patchwork system.

    this is the exact problem we have now in many places where adjacent counties actually engage in actions that are harmful to the region as a whole.

    we had Fredericksburg designate a huge part of it’s I-95 lands, some of it gained through the threat of annexation and totally sucked up the tax revenues from commercial. Spotsylvania was force to designate a vast amount of land for commercial also. What happened? A LOT of commercial development – too much – and now there are semi-abandoned commercial pods and strips throughout the region. Huge parking lots with grass growing up through it… anchor store buildings now being used for consignment sales or just empty.

    the better path I think is to have larger jurisdictions with elective wards and I might argue against at large – or at least having nothing but at large because in a ward system, a developer might convince the ward leader but it won’t be successful unless the other wards agree – and in those cases – the taxes go to the jurisdiction, not the wards.. so it’s not the same calculation.

    what you don’t want is one ward making decisions that are counter to the other wards and by extension counties making decisions that are counter to the interests of a region.

    you have to think regionally. your highways, your transit, your water and sewer, etc… it makes no sense to have 5 different rescue entities for instance and making site decisions based on a border and not the population patterns, transportation, etc, irrespective of boundaries.

    Cities in Va benefit from more authority to tax and make land use and transportation decisions… it’s not home rule, but it’s more/better than county authority only.

    I think the Fairfax Water Authority demonstrates a regional success (not without some issues) but without the enabling law that allowed them to serve the region regardless of boundaries… each jurisdiction would have done their own system where it not only would have been much more expensive, but not as capable or redundant, and worse, competing against each other for water sources.

    If we can do that with water, why not with other things?

    1. Way back when I was in college, I wrote a paper with a professor of mine and a fellow student. It was on fiscal issues in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. One of the chapters in the paper analyzed the effects of a Minnesota state law that shared a portion of new commercial development tax revenues among all of the localities in the metro area, as defined by the state legislature. I haven’t followed the issue in decades, but it was interesting concept to me.

    2. Way back when I was in college, I wrote a paper with a professor of mine and a fellow student. It was on fiscal issues in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. One of the chapters in the paper analyzed the effects of a Minnesota state law that shared a portion of new commercial development tax revenues among all of the localities in the metro area, as defined by the state legislature. I haven’t followed the issue in decades, but it was interesting concept to me.

  10. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This discussion (and DJ’s insight in particular) brings an important insight to the table – namely that fragmentation of political jurisdictions often not only encourages but actively seeds the ground for endless sprawl. Perhaps too as DJ suggests, Northern Virginia is the poster child for this mindlessly obsessive drive to clutter up beautiful land from horizon to horizon.

    Perhaps too most every county or city in Virginia too often feels that it needs to compete with and outdo those counties and/or cities that adjoin it. Perhaps most every politician becomes obsessed with a perceived need for building within his or her county or city something (most anything really) that will generate as least as much as, and preferable far more tax revenue, than the Jones down the Block are able to haul in and spend lavishly annually. This will make every politician and mogul rich and powerful and important, particularly the already rich and powerful and self important.

    So Loudoun wants its own Tyson’s Corner (or the tax revenue equivalent thereof) and so sets up shop in eastern Loudoun hocking land for whatever use the county and its moguls can profitable sell that land for. Loudoun has been doing this like a painted lady of the streets now for several decades now. The iterations of what’s available, for what uses and prices change endlessly. We are talking market demand here and there has been some flux lately, you understand. So we got houses, hotels, offices, warehouse, industrial, distribution, a whole world class air cargo hub, even maybe an airport for you, you name it, we got it and plenty of it, sliced and diced to order any way we can offload it, almost 200,000 acres worth of prime land right there behind our Dulles Airport right smack dab in River City, folks.

    And doing this over the years, and they have been very rough years indeed, Loudoun, trying to cash out its buckets full of tax revenue future that goes all the way to the rainbow, Loudoun like an oil wildcatter working a dry hole to date, has been busily creating mostly a big mess for itself in its own nest and for everyone passing through, right there in eastern Loudoun County.

    And what’s wrong with that? Why not? After all, it’s the America Way.

    So step right up folks into your sea of manufacturing and distribution centers and warehouses, truck depots and truck routes, even with their very own world class international air cargo hub right there snack dab in the middle of the Rural Crescent of Virginia’s historic Northern Piedmont. We’ll even throw in a big truck route or two, the Heritage Parkway and Bi-county whatever flavor of the day to get your undivided attention.

    Have we got a deal for you, Terry McAuliffe, right down your alley. Better and bigger than Disney even.

  11. it’s not so complicated.

    school costs drive the equation.

    commercial retail provides a certain amount of funding for schools.

    if you don’t have that then your property taxes have to go up.

    so most jurisdictions fight to get their share of commercial retail/other so they can get their share of the tax revenues.

    so it’s not just politicians out for their own interests.. they’re fighting for their jurisdictions ability to keep their taxes lower.

    In Virginia, by the way, I’m not convinced that smaller is more responsive because these guys get in for 4 years. think about it. Congressmen have to run every two years but the local BOS has 4 years to totally screw up and there is not a dang thing citizens can do about it.

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