Measuring Automobile Dependency

Rankings among 794 locations.

Fascinating data from Governing magazine comparing auto dependency of various municipalities around the United States: Arlington, Alexandria and the City of Richmond led the pack in Virginia as the least auto-dependent, with Norfolk, Lynchburg and Roanoke close behind.

There are two main variables affecting automobile dependency: income and availability of transportation alternatives.

autos_povertyIncome: Poorer communities, or those with large concentrations of poverty, tend to have more car-less households and fewer cars per family. These households are more likely to car pool or avail themselves of whatever non-car alternatives exist, typically municipal bus systems. As the Governing scatter chart to the left shows, there is a significant correlation between the poverty level and the vehicle-to-household ratio. Note: Governing identified Harrisonburg as an “outlier” having both a high poverty rate and high rate of auto ownership.

Transportation alternatives: Core urban jurisdictions have the best developed transportation alternatives. In Virginia, traditional cities (and Arlington County) tend to be highly walkable and have access to mass transit.

By way of comparison, New York has the lowest rate of auto dependency in the country — o.6 vehicles per household.


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12 responses to “Measuring Automobile Dependency”

  1. I think when you DON’T look at this as MSAs, it’s totally bollixed.

    Virtually every city is surrounded by exurban localities with significant commuting workers.. who are about as auto-dependent as you can get unless there is commuter rail or bus service.

    but also – I get confused when you express support for urban settlement patterns – that function with subsidized transit – then later in other posts argue that transport subsidies are wrong.

    so which is it when it comes to urban?

    I think you should say if you believe that urban settlement patterns should function – without subsidies for transit – or not.

    Do you think if they need subsidies to function that they are legitimate functional settlement patterns?

    Do you think everyone who live in an urban area should pay the full cost of transit service?

    or .. do I totally misunderstand your philosophy?

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Dulles Toll Road drivers are paying the bulk of the capital costs for the Silver Line. And transportation officials have admitted that other roads are experiencing more congestion as drivers abandon the DTR.

    1. TMT – take a look at page 7 of this VDOT budget where there is an entry for MWAA and tell me what you think:

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar


    I may well be wrong, but it is my recollection that the transfer is related to legislation that directed money to the Silver Line construction project to help reduce the excessive tolls.

    My position remains: 1) the Silver Line did not meet the cost/benefit standard set by federal law, and, therefore, should not have been funded; 2) if the Silver Line was to be built, the bulk of the costs should have been paid by the landowners gaining density and a surcharge on fares to and from Dulles Airport; and 3) since it’s already built, we need to make the best use of the Silver Line.

    The Silver Line is producing more weekend trips to the Tysons Malls, which is good. But crime rates are way up, according to presentation from Fairfax County Police. General ridership is slightly above projections, which is good. There is considerable residential construction near the rail stations which is good. But traffic remains terrible. Fairfax County’s commercial real estate assessments are down again. There is job loss at the higher pay levels. But long-term, I think Tysons will be reasonably successful, but will continue to cause massive traffic problems.

    1. TMT – I asked Jim the question – no answer yet – and now you.

      do you think urban transit – buses and subways should operate if they cannot do so without subsidies?

      should transit and subways operate solely from farebox – or go away?

      1. In an ideal world, buses and rail would cover their up-front costs and ongoing operating costs from two sources (a) fares and miscellaneous revenue like advertising, and (b) the capture of a share of the higher real estate value created. In the same ideal world, roads, highways and bridges would be funded on a similar user-pays basis — through a gasoline tax or a vehicle miles driven tax.

        Right now transit people say, why should we be required to cover 100% of our costs — roads sure don’t. And they’re absolutely right.

        The system we now have for funding and allocating resources to different modes of transportation is absolutely incoherent. Even if we begin rating projects on an ROI basis, as we will begin to do for some road projects, that methodology will do nothing to help us decide rationally how much money overall we should be spending. We took a huge step backward with the McDonnell administration transportation tax package. Yes, we did get more money for transportation. But there is no guarantee that money will be spent well.

      2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        When a community gets to a certain size, there is often a need for transit. Just as car owner pays most costs for operating his/her vehicle, fare box receipts should pay a significant part of the operating costs and, likely, capital costs for the transit.

        I can see some level of public support for transit as its availability provide benefit to everyone in the community. Sort of like the roads in Tysons. Landowners are paying 90% of those costs, with the public paying 10%.

        I still think the decision for Uncle Sam to fund the Silver Line was wrong. It did not meet funding standards. What is the difference between that and a government contractor getting paid when it did not deliver the agreed upon products or services?

        When the true nature of a transit project is to enable density gains for landowners, they need to pay most of the costs. Any elected official involved in the Silver Line in an honest, off-the-record moment will tell you that the Silver Line was not about transportation, but rather to deliver large increases in density for well-connected landowners. Is that how we want to spend limited resources? What’s the difference between this and $600 toilet seats?

        If a transit system cannot obtain reasonable fare box recovery, it may need to cut costs, reduce operations or even, in extreme cases, shut down.

        1. well.. we never can seem to get a definitive number for what is a “reasonable” subsidy …

          and transit is more like a toll road operation than a “free” road where there is no accepted/recognized way to compute ROI…

          so we cut some slack to numbers for transit, perhaps a lot of slack since I’ve not really seen any kind of consensus among those who don’t like the idea of subsidies anyhow.

          and.. I’m quite sure that if someone asked if a toll road could be partially subsidized – LIKE transit – it may evoke even stronger responses from the “we don’t like subsidies” folks…

  4. shaunalex Avatar

    Not that you asked me….
    I think transit/subways should usually be built even if subsidies are needed.
    There are many things good for all that don’t necessarily cover their costs; libraries, parks, public schools, museums.
    A new toll road or subway line typically serves more public good than say, a new 4-lane road out to the countryside where Jane Developer built 150 mansions on an old farm.

    1. “There are many things good for all that don’t necessarily cover their costs; libraries, parks, public schools, museums.”

      Basically, that’s an argument for subsidizing anything and everything for which someone can construe a public good. I hereby contend that public policy blogs like Bacon’s Rebellion are a public good for which the authors are not sufficiently compensated. Let’s subsidize public policy blogs!

      1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        This is a fantastic idea, actually. Blogs fill in the gaps and niches that are increasingly overlooked by traditional media and foster forums for debate that strengthen political involvement.

        Give this blog a grant!

    2. well, actually ANY question I ask here actually desires responses from everyone.. that’s the value of substantiative dialogue – that I know, helps me understand issues as well as how others feel so by all means – PLEASE!

      I too think that some things are valuable to society as a whole and that includes includes AND mobility and other things.

      I still find Jim’s views on the issue to be less than clear and firm.

      There is not a city on the planet where transit and subways operate on farebox alone – and yet they are incredibly important – and one of the primary differences between 3rd world cities and 1st world cities.

      And Jim continues to assert that cities are uber efficient, cost-effective enterprises compared to exurban and rural … all the while he hammers on roads – he appears (to me) to gloss over/ignore the much higher subsidies for urban… where they do NOT pay their own way – at all – whether it’s transit, or electricity or water/sewage, foods, you name it – cities require massive external supports – financial and infrastructure wise.

      Jim is in a different camp that Ed Risse, who was unabashed about the need for government to … essentially operate cities – not the private sector.

      Jim is back a notch… and seems conflicted by the fact that cities require massive external resources – as well as top-down, centralized govt.

      it runs entirely counter to the Conservative view… these days.. which see govt as essentially some kind of liberal conspiracy!


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