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Where the Work-From-Home Revolution Can Allow Americans to Have Fewer Vehicles

The coronavirus pandemic has upended Americans’ relationships with their commutes — and their vehicles. Businesses surveyed in May said they expect the number of work-from-home days for full-time employees to more than triple after the crisis.

With many Americans struggling to make ends meet, and households likely to need fewer vehicles to get to work, downsizing could be a source of budgetary relief. LendingTree researchers looked at the percentage of households with multiple vehicles to find out how the work-from-home revolution could alter future commutes.

Here’s what we found.

Key findings

  • Oxnard, Calif., has the highest percentage of multi-vehicle households in the 100 largest U.S. metros. According to LendingTree’s analysis of Census Bureau data, 70.2% of households here have at least two vehicles — 31.7% have three or more vehicles.
  • Riverside, Calif., finishes just shy of Oxnard, with 69.5% of households here owning two or more vehicles. Riverside is about a two-hour drive east of Oxnard.
  • San Jose takes third in our ranking, completing a top-three sweep for California. We calculate 67.9% of households here own at least two cars.
  • New York is by far the metro with the smallest percentage of multi-vehicle households. Just about a quarter of households here own two cars, while only 12.9% report owning three or more. Both percentages are the lowest among the 100 metros.
  • Only two other metros in our study have less than 50% of households with at least two cars: Buffalo, N.Y., and New Orleans. In these two metros, 49.1% and 49.6%, respectively, of households report having at least two cars.
  • California metros may have the most to gain from downsizing in the current work-from-home culture. Six of the top 20 metros on our list are in the Golden State. Not only can multiple cars be expensive — in a state where homes are also expensive — but they don’t seem to be getting workers to work particularly fast. California has one of the longest average commute times in the nation, according to the Census Bureau.

California residents have opportunity to cut back on vehicles

California — a state that would have had the world’s fifth-largest economy in 2019, if it were a separate country — holds the top four spots on our multi-vehicle-households list, and six of the top 20 overall. That means residents in the following metros may have opportunities to downsize by one (or more) vehicles.

California’s representation in the top 20
Rank Metro Percentage of multi-vehicle households
No. 1 Oxnard 70.2%
No. 2 Riverside 69.5%
No. 3 San Jose 67.9%
No. 4 Stockton 67.3%
No. 12 San Diego 64.6%
No. 19 Sacramento 63.5%
Source: Census Bureau

For context, here’s how those six California metros — which all have higher median household incomes than the average U.S. household ($61,937) — stack up financially:

Median household income in California metros
Metro Median household income (2018)
Oxnard $84,566
Riverside $65,671
San Jose $124,696
Stockton $64,119
San Diego $79,079
Sacramento $73,142
Source: Census Bureau

People with higher incomes might be able to handle multiple car payments more easily than others, particularly if their disposable income is higher. Still, Californians also had the sixth-highest mean travel time to work (30 minutes) as of 2018 — the latest year for which data is available. So having more than one car per household can help minimize the pain of daily commutes, especially for households with more than one person working outside the home.

And this is where the coronavirus crisis can come into play. Since so many more Americans are working from home, the appeal of multiple vehicles may dim in favor of other options, including investing in homes or apartments or making workspaces better — though, this may not last for all workers when things can return something closer to the “old normal.”

For those who are willing and able to downsize their garages, the opportunity to save — either from a car payment and the accompanying interest, or simply the costs of owning a vehicle, such as gas, car insurance and maintenance — can be appealing. And California drivers are in a great position, given the number of metros that rank at the top for multi-vehicle households.

Just 12.9% of New York metro households have 3-plus vehicles

The New York metro area isn’t a beacon for multi-vehicle households. Just 12.9% of households there have three or more cars, and only 37.8% have multiple vehicles at all. New York metro households are about half as likely to have multiple vehicles as the No. 1-ranked metro: Oxnard.

The median household income in the New York metro area ($78,478) is substantially higher than the U.S. average ($61,937). That said, it’s still lower than three of the six California metros we highlighted. And taking a closer look, Newark, N.J. (included in the New York metro area), has a median household income of $35,181 a year — that’s only slightly more than half the U.S. average. So there’s quite a bit of difference within the metro, which could make it easier or substantially more difficult to afford a second or third car — if you need any at all.

Plus, having a car in New York is notoriously challenging. Between the high cost of parking — and the lack of space and gas stations — it can be difficult to justify owning a car at all, let alone multiple. That’s especially true when public transportation is such a large part of the culture.

But what would this data look like even a year from now? During the week of Aug. 17, 2020, total estimated ridership on New York subways was down more than 70% each day of the week compared to the 2019 weekday/Saturday/Sunday average. The coronavirus crisis could throw a wrench in plans, as public and personal safety could sway people to either make their work-from-home situation permanent or continue to own multiple vehicles.

Historical look: People per household vs. vehicles per household

In 1969, the average household had about three people — and just over one vehicle. But, as the years passed and driving alone to work became more common, the number of vehicles per household began to rise, even as the number of people per household began to fall.

People per household vs. vehicles per household
Year People per household Vehicles per household
1969 3.16 1.16
1977 2.83 1.59
1983 2.69 1.68
1990 2.56 1.77
1995 2.63 1.78
2009 2.50 1.86
2017 2.55 1.88
Source: National Household Travel Survey

The Census Bureau estimates that about 64% of workers drove alone to work in 1980. By 2006, that figure had risen by 12 percentage points.

By 2017, the number of people per household had fallen by about 0.6 overall since 1969. Meanwhile, the number of cars per household rose to 1.88 in 2017, up from from 1969’s 1.16.

Alongside these changes came a change in the way Americans work — there was an increase in the percentage of people working from home at least one day from 7% in 1997 to 9.5% in 2010.

Can your household get by on one less car? 5 questions to ask

If you’re trying to decide whether your family can manage with one less vehicle amid the work-from-home revolution, here are five questions to consider.

No. 1: Are your transportation needs likely to change in the future?

Life changes can often impact your transportation needs, so they need to be a factor for those considering downsizing. Landing a new job in a different part of town may make having a car a necessity, even though your current job is within walking distance.

No. 2: Will downsizing create friction in your daily life?

Going from multiple cars to one car (or going from three cars to two if teen drivers are in the mix) can create issues that extend beyond the logistics of getting to and from work on time. You’ll have to consider if downsizing will create social issues. Cars can be cramped quarters, and being stuck in traffic with your partner can be a problem.

“If your spouse likes to sing loudly off-key during car rides, that may be a deal-breaker for the idea of a one-car household,” said Jenn Jones, LendingTree’s auto expert.

You’ll have to decide what potential social hiccups are acceptable — and what aren’t — before making this decision.

No. 3: Is working from home likely to be in your future?

Many workers have found themselves switching from office jobs to home offices amid the pandemic, but that won’t last forever for everyone. So it’s worth asking if your employer favors a continued work-from-home situation — or at least will allow for one — or if the offices are destined to be reopened when safety is no longer as imminent of a concern.

Home-based employment in computer, engineering and science occupations, for example, has been on the rise, which could make it a more likely option for these individuals.

No. 4: How will the people at home get around?

Planning ahead means not just considering how things will function in the best of times, but also what happens when things go wrong.

If having one less car means that someone working from home is unable to quickly travel for basic needs, such as groceries or medical appointments, it may not make sense to downsize. On the other hand, if you live in an extremely walkable area with access to ride-share services, it could work — but only if you’re comfortable with this type of travel amid a crisis.

No. 5: Which type of vehicle is most useful?

If you do decide to downsize, you’ll need to figure out which vehicle will work best for your lifestyle, and which one (or ones) would be better to sell. A pickup could be better for those who frequently haul large or heavy items, while a sedan could be better for those looking for a simple commuter car.

“Households should consider downsizing carefully,” Jones said. “Cars usually take years to pay off, and the taxes on buying one can be in the thousands. It might not be wise to downsize to a single vehicle now if the household will need to buy another vehicle next year.”

Methodology

LendingTree researchers used 2018 data — the most recent year available — from the Census Bureau to compare the combined percentages of occupied housing units with two-plus vehicles and three-plus vehicles in the 100 largest U.S. metros. The metros were ranked from highest to lowest based on this figure.

 

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