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American households are actually becoming "car rich". Despite ride-hailing’s promise, vehicle ownership (and traffic) is on the rise in America’s biggest, most transit-oriented cities, reports New York City transportation consultant Bruce Schaller for CityLab.

He writes: Research that I summarized in my report “The New Automobility” last summer showed that ride-hailing growth has led to more traffic and less transit use in major American cities—not the reverse that we all hoped for.

Uber, Lyft, and advocates for new shared mobility services have pushed back against this analysis. Declaring that we are still at the “earliest stages” of a major shift in travel habits, they look to the day that people ditch their car in favor of a combination of these services and old-fashioned public transportation. Their vision is that diminished car ownership and fewer miles in privately owned vehicles will more than offset added mileage from ride-hailing vehicles.

Household vehicle ownership has increased in cities where Uber and Lyft are most heavily used, using 2012 (the year the companies started offering affordable everyday ride services like UberX) as the starting point. Moreover, the rate of vehicle growth substantially exceeded population growth in five of the eight cities (Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago). At the same time, more urban households also have no or relatively few cars. These households are often referred to as “car-free” (no cars available to the household) or “car-light,” e.g., a working couple that owns one vehicle. (For data availability reasons, “car-light” is defined here as households with fewer vehicles than workers.)

These data thus show that accounts of, “I gave up my car when I moved to this or that walkable urban neighborhood” should not be dismissed as mere anecdotes. But how can we reconcile more car-free/car-light households with rapid growth in total car ownership?

The answer comes in two parts. First, there is a lot more growth in car-light than car-free households. In fact, since 2012 the number of car-free households declined in Chicago, D.C., and Los Angeles. Adding one-car households in cities where there is on average about one vehicle per household results in no real change in the rate of car ownership—all the while adding more traffic to city streets. The other part of the story involves a different, more powerful boom: the growth of urban households with two or more vehicles. We might think that one-car or no-car households are the norm in big cities, where parking and garage space is expensive. But at least 20 percent of households in seven of the eight cities have two or more vehicles (predictably, the exception is New York City). Even more notably, in all eight cities, these households account for at least half of all vehicles.

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