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Private Vehicle Ownership Down 6 Percent in the District

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

(Washington, DC) - Recently released data revealed that vehicle registrations in the District dropped by 5.8 percent between 2005 and 2008. The total number of privately-owned vehicles decreased from 258,100 in 2005, to 243,200 in 2008. This decrease of almost 15,000 cars translates to a net reduction of 173,811,000 pounds of annual carbon emissions and a net savings of almost $122 million annually in car ownership and maintenance for District residents.

The decline occurred despite a steady increase in population and in real per capita income during the same period. Population and per capita income increases are factors traditionally thought to be associated with increases in private vehicle ownership.

The District of Columbia Office of Planning points to several possible factors contributing to the decline in private vehicle ownership in the city. These include:

Increased Investment in Multi-Modal Transportation. Over the past five years, a number of new or enhanced transportation services have been made available to area residents: express Metrobus service; expansion of the Yellow Line Metrorail to Fort Totten Station; extended Metrorail hours of operation; and replacement of aging Metrorail cars. The DC Circulator, a premium transit service linking cultural, entertainment and business destinations has also become a much-relied on transportation option in the city’s central core and has experienced a 492 percent increase in ridership between July 2005 and February 2009.

Higher Costs to Own and Operate a Car. Gas prices and the cost to maintain a private vehicle have risen during that period. At the start of 2005, a gallon of regular gasoline cost $1.79, compared to $3.15 in January of 2008, according to data from the US Department of Energy. In addition, the American Automobile Association estimates that in 2008 it cost an owner an average $8,121 per year to own and operate a private vehicle in the US, up from $7,823 in 2007. Recently released data from the National Capitol Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) revealed that the percent of District residents taking daily trips as a driver decreased from 44 percent in 1994 to 37 percent in 2008. Less expensive alternatives, such as walking, bicycling and taking transit have increased in appeal, as the cost of car ownership continues to rise.

Walkable, Amenity-rich Neighborhoods. The District has made major investments in neighborhoods throughout the city, resulting in new destinations for shopping, dining, entertainment, culture and recreation that residents can conveniently access on foot, by bicycle or by transit. The availability of these local amenities has given residents the option of doing more walking or bicycling to meet daily needs.  In fact, according to recent TPB data, Washingtonians now take 28 percent of all their trips by bike or on foot, a 20 percent increase from 1994.

At the same time that private vehicle ownership in the District decreased, rates for walking, bicycling and transit use increased. Increased transportation options in the District have made it easier for residents to travel around the city.

  • ZipCar provides car-sharing services, with over 700 vehicles available to local residents and over 30,000 members. The company reports that 13 percent of members have sold a car since joining the program and more than 40 percent of members are avoiding the purchase of a car.
  • Rail and bus are convenient and popular for DC residents. Today, the average distance of a DC household to a Metrorail Station is three-fourths of a mile, and to a Metrobus stop is less than 500 feet. The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority reported that eight of its 10 highest Metrorail ridership days have occurred in the last year.
  • Significant investments in bicycling facilities, including bike lanes, trails and bicycle parking have increased the convenience and safety of biking in the District over the past five years. In addition, the launch of the District’s SmartBike bicycle sharing program (the first of its kind in the nation), has raised visibility of bicyclists in the city and has provided yet another transportation choice to residents.

These findings were developed by staff of the Washington DC Office of Planning (OP), with assistance from the Washington DC State Data Center, a division within OP that provides data and statistical analysis of demographic trends in the city. More information on the work of the Office of Planning and the State Data Center is available at