Bostonians clinging to their cars
Household vehicles growing much faster than population
MOST BOSTONIANS have more and more ways of getting around town – bikes, scooters, ride-hailing apps, and car shares – but it seems their love of car ownership is not fading away.
According to Census data compiled by New York transportation consultant Bruce Schaller, the number of households in Boston owning vehicles rose faster between 2012 and 2017 than the population as a whole. The total number of household vehicles grew 15 percent over the period, while the population increased just 7 percent.
The research indicates the number of households with no vehicles is growing, but at a much slower pace than households with vehicles. Car-free households increased by 4 percent between 2012 and 2017, while car-light households (those with more workers than vehicles) grew by 19 percent and car-rich households (those where the number of vehicles equals or exceeds the number of workers) grew by 9 percent.
To varying degrees, Schaller found similar trends in a number of other major US cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Seattle.
Schaller’s research raises two issues: Why is the car population growing in Boston and what does it mean for the city?
Eric Bourassa, director of the transportation division at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, offered two explanations for why cars are gaining in popularity. He said the city has seen a sharp uptick in wealthier households, which are more inclined to own vehicles, particularly if they live in neighborhoods of the city that are not well-served by transit options.
Between 2012 and 2017, according to Census data, Boston gained a total of 21,050 net new households. A decline of 12,007 households earning less than $75,000 a year was more than offset by a gain of 33,057 households earning more than $75,000. Nearly 88 percent of the wealthier households reported earning more than $100,000 a year.
Bourassa said the city has also struggled with parking at residential condo and apartment complexes. He said developers are often asked to provide more off-street parking than needed to ease neighborhood fears that the development will crowd out existing on-street parking. But research by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council at complexes in Arlington, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, and Melrose found that more than a quarter of the parking spaces were going unused. Moreover, the research indicated many of the spaces being used probably weren’t needed.
“Our statistical models indicate that parking demand may be induced by parking supply: the number of parking spaces available per housing unit is the single biggest factor associated with parking demand per housing unit. The analysis seems to indicate that ‘if you build it, they will park,’” according to a council summary of its research.
The planning council is currently conducting similar research at apartment and condo complexes in Boston and Cambridge.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack declined comment on the Census data, but her spokeswoman passed along a link to a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe Pollack wrote in 2013 summarizing research she did at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. The research indicated that car ownership tends to rise at housing near transit because the housing is built with too much parking
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu emailed a statement saying the Census data was discouraging but not surprising. “Car ownership in and of itself is not the problem,” she said. “The problem is when people feel forced to drive cars more frequently because there is no public transportation alternative that is reliable, convenient, and expansive enough to serve their needs. The findings line up completely with our daily experience of worsening traffic and congestion on the roads, and of crowded trains and buses that don’t come frequently enough. I know that if I take my toddler home on the T after 5 p.m., we’ll be standing, squished uncomfortably, or unable to squeeze onto the train at all. I do my best to rearrange my day to leave earlier or later, but many people do not have the luxury to change their schedules around rush hour and opt for a different transportation experience instead.”Boston transportation officials, including Transportation Commission Gina Fiandanca and Chris Osgood, the chief of the streets, said they were very interested in the Census data. They didn’t know precisely what was causing the increase in households with vehicles, but said their focus as policymakers is on making it possible for residents to work and live with no car or fewer cars. To that end, the officials said, they supported the MBTA’s decision to offer late night and early morning bus service on many key routes. They are also focused on extending bike share, car share, and other services into areas that are less transit-friendly.
As for curbing the amount of parking at housing developments, Vineet Gupta, director of planning for the Boston Transportation Department, said developers are moving in that direction on their own. “They don’t need the amount of parking that they did five years ago,” he said.