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Where the rich don’t drive — is density the new luxury?

This data is from 2019, but I imagine that things would look pretty similar today and that it might even be a little more pronounced. The dataset from the above article looked at how many people have cars in a given area (a darker dot = fewer cars) and then plotted this against population density and income per capita.

Here’s what that looks like for the regions of New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Houston (data from 2013 to 2017):

What is fascinating about these charts is that they show two different correlations. In dense and transit-rich cities such as New York and Boston, car usage is most closely linked with population density and not with income. The dark dots form a horizontal line near the top.

However, in the case of Los Angeles and Houston, car usage is instead most closely linked with income and not with population density. The dark dots form a vertical line near the left — the lowest income per capita.

So what does this tell us?

It tells us that if you design a city to broadly require a car, then you are likely to sort people based on those that can afford a lot of car and those that cannot. On the other hand, if you design a city around transit, then you are likely to instead create a place where both the rich and poor get around in similar ways.

There is also evidence that the latter is being increasingly viewed as more desirable. 2017 was the first year in the US where high-income young people (ages 26 to 33) drove less than low-income young people. Presumably these high-income people had choices, and so I tend to view this as a preference.

As a whole, this is surely a good thing for our cities. But now I think we need to be careful not to allow density and walkability to become the new luxury that only the rich can afford.

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