In bicycle friendly D.C., going car-free is increasingly common

September 11, 2011

When Robert George moved to Washington several years ago, he said goodbye to his car before he left Texas.

“I sold it before I got here,” said George, who abandoned Houston for Adams Morgan. “This is an urban environment not as geared to driving everywhere and parking.”

Houston is a bit urban, too, but it sprawls across 8,778 square miles, compared with the District’s 68.3 square miles. And in Texas, the car is king. The District and its immediate suburbs are crisscrossed by subway and bus lines, downtown swarms with taxis, and the expanding network of bike lanes has increased the popularity of cycling.

When George arrived in the area sans car, he signed up with Flexcar, a company that merged with Zipcar in 2007. He takes the Metro to his federal IT job and uses a Zipcar from a lot across the street from his home for a couple of trips a month.

Short-hopping on somebody else’s wheels has become common among the generation of suburbanites-turned-city dwellers, many of whom grew up being ferried about by mom and dad.

More than a quarter of the households in the District are car-free, compared with 6 percent of homes regionwide, federal data show. Slightly fewer than half of District households own one car. Regionally, 64 percent have two or more vehicles.

A third of people who have lived in the District for less than a decade described themselves as Zipcar users, a Washington Post survey found, and they’re also most likely to cruise around town on the red bicycles offered by the Capital Bikeshare program.

“I use the Zipcar to get the groceries that require some heavy lifting or to get a big bag of pet food,” George said. “I don’t think the rate structure works well for the longer trip. For that I take the Metro to Reagan [National Airport] or Union Station to rent a car.”

The typical D.C. Zipcar user is a white college graduate younger than 39 who lives in Northwest, the survey found. The vehicles are less popular among black college graduates, with 8 percent saying they use them. With people older than 40 — also just 8 percent. People who haven’t graduated from college typically are not inclined to drive Zipcars.

“Generation Y doesn’t feel the need to own a car,” said Chris Hamilton of the District, who works as Arlington County’s Commuter Services bureau chief. “They want to live in places they can get around without one. The car isn’t the same status it once was.”

A couple of other factors have come into play with the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s. Surveys show that more than a third have been underemployed or unemployed during the recession and that they graduated from college with an average debt of $23,200, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

A car’s expense makes alternatives attractive. Even people who own them are driving less.

In urban areas nationwide, drivers younger than 24 drove six fewer miles a day in 2009 than in 1990. Drivers 25 to 34 drove almost 2.5 fewer miles a day.

In Arlington, where 92 percent of households have one or more cars, Hamilton says research shows that overall driving is down.

“They don’t use it as much,” he said. “They may have that car for the weekend or because it’s a hard habit to kick.”

Zipcar offers a couple of different deals in Washington, but the basic plan costs $60 for membership, plus an hourly charge that starts at $7.75. The full-day rate is $75 on weekdays and $82 on weekends. Hertz is offering an almost identical service in the Washington area, but The Post survey asked only about Zipcar, so there’s no data from which to draw a profile of Hertz On Demand users.

At 66, Sandy Carroll is a rare older Zipcar member, but she has been using the service since the company opened and said she delights at the thought of having a car ready when she needs one. She moved to Southwest Washington in the 1970s and gave up car ownership after a couple of break-ins and side-swipings.

“You don’t have to keep a car,” said Carroll, who takes Metro to work most days but walks the 2.4 miles occasionally on a nice day. “I love that the city is becoming more pedestrian-friendly and more bicycle-friendly. I can rent a bike and ride downhill all the way from work. I haven’t yet, but I’m going to.”

And Zipcar? She’s a longtime member who has never used a Zipcar.

“I have kept up my membership because you never know,” she said. “I might have a visitor who wants to take a trip to Middleburg or someplace. I think it’s a very valuable option.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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