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Job Accessibility for Households Without Vehicles

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Job Accessibility for Households Without Vehicles

Image of Public transportation in Pasadena, California
Public transportation in Pasadena, California
Seven and a half million American households in the country’s 100 largest metro areas lack a personal vehicle. In August 2011, the Brookings Institution released a study that describes the characteristics of these households and assesses their economic and transportation opportunities. The two-year study builds on Brookings’ recent “Missed Opportunity” report that looks at the spatial mismatch between people and jobs. The most recent study, “Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households,” uses data from the American Community Survey and 371 transit providers to compare these households with those households with cars.1

Car-Free Household Characteristics

Brookings senior research analyst Adie Tomer found that zero-car households are:

  • Mostly located in cities (61.7%);

  • Racially diverse, composed of slightly more whites than Latinos or blacks; and

  • Spread throughout the United States, with the greatest numbers in the Northeast (3.19 million) and the South (1.7 million).

Perhaps most critical, households without a car have lower incomes than households with a car; nearly 60 percent have incomes that are less than 80 percent of their metro area’s median income. Twenty-four percent are middle-income households, and a scant 17 percent are high-income households. By contrast, 42 percent of households with a vehicle are high income, and 24 percent are low income.

In addition, vehicle ownership may contribute to the wealth gap between households that do and do not own cars. Studies show that workers with cars can log more hours per week at their jobs than can those without automobiles, which can enable car-owning workers to earn more money.

Access to Public Transit

Tomer says that his team was “pleasantly surprised” by the number of zero-vehicle households that can access transit (90%).2 But he cautioned that, despite such high coverage, some 700,000 households across all 100 metropolitan areas lack both a private vehicle and access to public transportation.

The report also shows the pivotal role that public transit can play in connecting people with jobs. By using mass transit, zero-car households can reach more than 40.6 percent of jobs in their metro areas within an hour and half. In that same length of time, the typical household with a personal vehicle can only reach 28.6 percent of jobs in its metro area.

Suburban Challenges

Suburban zero-vehicle households have the least access to public transit. Only 58 percent of suburban vehicle-less households in these large metro areas live near transit, in contrast to 99.2 percent of their city household counterparts. This group also has a lower rate for accessing jobs within 90 minutes (25.8%) than city-dwellers without a car (47.4%). According to Tomer, one reason that most car-free households live in cities is the difficulty accessing jobs that zero-car suburban households face.


Public policies that provide transit options for low-income households without private vehicles are critical. A study by Raphael and Rice showed that car ownership does increase work hours and wages.3 But providing more transportation options for all households is also important, says Tomer. “No one benefits when they can’t get to all job opportunities available to them. No one benefits when they can’t get there regularly during the hours they want to work.”

For now, metro areas with a large degree of sprawl, including Dallas, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Greenville, are facing a particular challenge in providing car-free households with access to jobs. But future land-use planning can alleviate this difficulty by locating housing and jobs in proximity to core cities and in areas that are accessible to transit.


1 The United States has an estimated total of 10 million households without a vehicle.

2 Interview with Adie Tomer, 21 September 2011. The study looked at fixed-route transit. It did not take into account rideshare programs.

3 Steven Raphael and Lorien Rice. 2002. “Car ownership, employment, and earnings,” Journal of Urban Economics 52, 109–30.

Published Date: January 13, 2012

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.