One car family: the next frontier in transportation

by American City & County Contributor
Aug 23, 2017

By Nick Helmholdt

Cities and counties across North America have adopted transportation goals to increase the number of people walking, biking and riding transit. Ultimately, these goals help improve public health, reduce air pollution from vehicle emissions and make streets safer for everybody. Places that support and encourage one car families will achieve long term success toward these metrics.

By definition, a one car family makes some of its trips on foot, bike or bus, thus helping achieve your transportation goals. One car families don’t magically appear; they require supportive physical environment and public policy.

For cities to thrive in the coming decades, they will need to accommodate families with young and adolescent children who take fewer trips in cars. Often, families fall into the two-car trap: the jobs, schools and services they depend on require two cars. In many places, it’s currently impractical for individuals to live a satisfying life completely car-free. For places with serious goals relating to walking and biking, a focus on supporting one car families will lead to long term progress.

Step zero: Lead by example
Within your local government workforce, there may be opportunities to support one car families. Transportation demand management professionals have dozens of ideas for encouraging walking, biking, and transit for employers of all sizes. These range from telecommuting policies to providing all staff with transit passes to installing bike racks at public buildings. This step has symbolic and practical impacts. 

Step one: Find out where one car families currently exist
Your GIS staff and planning department can use U.S. Census ACS data to identify areas where one car families are clustered and other demographics. Additionally, U.S. Census LEHD data will help you understand commuting patterns in the area. 

Step two: Foster your existing one car families 
A quick scan of the area should help you determine how people get around. Ensure your city’s Capital Improvement Program anticipates maintenance and upgrades to foot paths, crosswalks, bicycle facilities, street lighting, benches, and bus stops in the area. This is a great opportunity to examine gaps in neighborhood connectivity and anticipate changes in land use. 

Step three: Prepare for growth 
There are basically two directions for growth. Outward growth will require changes to adjacent areas to foster one car families. These sorts of changes may include reducing parking requirements, increasing the allowed density of residential development, and ensuring a mix of land uses. Upward growth adds intensity to the community you identified in step one by increasing the number of people who can live there. These directions for growth are not mutually exclusive.

Step four: Celebrate all wins 
Changing transportation patterns can feel like an overwhelming challenge. Every time you make measurable progress on this goal make sure you get the credit you deserve. Coordinate with your public relations staff to make sure each step in the right direction is shared with the wider community. This also helps establish a positive feedback loop where small achievements spur on bigger projects.

These proposals will likely generate some resistance from residents and staff. Although these arguments are well-intentioned, keep your focus on the overall goal and ensure that people in your community are on board with the bigger vision (and if so, ask what for their ideas to achieve the stated goal).

Perhaps the true challenge is finding ways to gracefully integrate these elements into the streets and neighborhoods that support one car families. 

Nick Helmholdt is the acting director of comprehensive Planning at the Chatham County - Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission. He is a certified AICP planner and member of the Congress for New Urbanism.

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