Big Metal Elephants

Rather than tiptoe around personal bias, I’m going to celebrate it. I now raise a glass to anyone who has ever grumbled, mumbled, festered, or shouted over the indisputable reality that cars suck.

I am mild-mannered about virtually everything, but when I dwell on the world-takeover cars have achieved, particularly in the U.S, I find my blood rising to a steady and roaring boil. So I try not to dwell on it.

But then I do anyway. It’s fascinating, really—the car in America. People orchestrate their lives around their cars, and they also transform behind the wheel. They become anxious, defensive, cocky, and even sedated by the lull of the road on a long drive. Cars and their paved accomodations are everywhere, and when it comes to issues of our own safety and health, the environment’s, and making our surroundings pleasant places to be, the absurdity of this setup is the elephant in the room. Yet it seems that hardly anyone stops driving.

Data from the American Community Survey on car ownership and means of getting to work support this loud and clear. The map below shows the percentage of households that have no “passenger cars, vans, and pickup or panel trucks of one-ton capacity or less kept at home and available for the use of household members” (p. 42) by U.S county.

Data obtained from 2006-2010 American Community Survey at the county level

The average percentage of U.S households without a car is 4.3%, though the map above shows the average to be less than 2% within the overwhelming majority of counties across the country. As expected,  sparsely populated areas in the Central West of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the far Northeast are the most car-dominated, while counties with car-less household rates of over 10% are concentrated around major metro areas like New York, Boston, and San Francisco. It’s also worth noting the cluster of counties straddling Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas – stretching over Georgia and along the coast of South Carolina, that have above-average rates of car-less households. It’s no coincidence that the collective poverty rate among these Southeastern states is over 25% above the nation’s average. Not being able to get around can become a real poverty trap given the high cost of car ownership and the lack of viable alternative transportation options in many of these areas.

How much does it cost, anyway, this car order of ours? To individuals, the average cost of owning a sedan and driving it 15,000 miles/year is upwards of $8,900 annually, including fuel, maintenance, tires, insurance, license/registration, depreciation, and financing – not including parking and toll fees. That’s over 30% of the median annual earnings for US workers, at $28,900 according to 2010 ACS estimates. And let’s not forget the cost to government. $129 billion is to be allocated to the federal Department of Transportation in 2012, and 54% of this money goes directly to the Federal Highway Administration to maintain and rebuild roads and bridges, while only 24% goes to public transportation and passenger rail projects. A mere 1.6% goes to bicycle and pedestrian projects – though this amount has increased significantly in the past decade, which you can read about in the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2012 benchmarking report.

Below, mapping the percentage of workers aged 16 and older that walk or take public transit to work shows a slightly different, though still car-dominated picture. It is clear that not all workers within car-owning households use those cars to get to work, as 7.9% of U.S workers walk or take public transit to work on average. The Southeastern U.S stands out as a pocket of blue among relatively higher rates of walking/transit use in the Northeast and West, as well as in major metro areas.

How can it be that Southeastern states have above-average levels of households without cars, but below-average rates of workers using alternative modes of transit to get to work? Perhaps those car-less households aren’t tallied here, perhaps because their members aren’t working. This data suggests a link between car ownership and employment, and I’ll venture that in many areas there are no viable alternatives for the car-less to transport themselves to work opportunities.


About katosulliv

Transportation, mapping, and cities enthusiast.
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2 Responses to Big Metal Elephants

  1. Chris says:

    I like your site, but what kind of crazy projection is that? Sorta looks like it would make Canada look HUGE and threatening sitting up there atop the US of A.

  2. hawkeyemaps says:

    I don’t remember the projection…but Canada IS huge and threatening.

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