Cambridge wanted a big drop in car ownership by 2020. That hasn’t exactly happened
With six subway stations, multiple bus lines and bike lanes, and compact neighborhoods everywhere, Cambridge offers plenty of ways to get around without a car. And increasingly, many of its residents are.
Yet even Cambridge — which took up the anticar cause decades ago to oppose a proposed interstate highway through the heart of Central Square — can’t get more residents to give up their vehicles.
The city appears all but certain to fall short of its 2020 goal of reducing the ratio of cars owned by Cambridge residents by 15 percent from 1990 levels. The target, set in 2014, was to lower ownership to about 0.8 cars per household, but with about a year left on the clock, Cambridge is less than halfway there.
“In terms of the trend, we are on the right track, but we’re not going to get that target,” said Iram Farooq, Cambridge’s assistant city manager for community development.
The total number of cars owned by Cambridge residents has actually increased over that time span, by 2,400, or 6.5 percent, according to US Census data. But the city population since 1990 has increased by nearly 20,000, so the spike would have otherwise been much higher if ownership rates stayed the same.
Still, the figures show even in a liberal vanguard of the environmental movement, many residents still rely on their own cars to get around. Moreover, the numbers may only get more daunting as the regional population is projected to increase substantially by 2040 — by as much as 30,000 in Cambridge alone, with hundreds of housing units under development.
Even though much of the construction in Cambridge and other cities is concentrated near train and bus lines, the figures highlight that more people almost always means more cars.
“As much as we have this goal of providing places in the region where somebody can live without an automobile, it is very hard,” said Eric Bourassa, transportation director for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency focused on Greater Boston.
Cambridge didn’t set hard and fast rules about car ownership. Instead, city officials have primarily focused on providing other options, such as adding bike infrastructure. Cambridge is also working with the MBTA to designate more sections of city streets for bus-only lanes, and said such transit improvements could trigger a sharper drop going forward.
But vice mayor Jan Devereux, who leads the City Council’s transportation initiatives, said the biggest move Cambridge could make would be to eliminate requirements for off-street parking at new residential developments, reducing the available space for new cars. The idea may be politically challenging, she acknowledged, but it has been championed by urban planners across the country and recently adopted into law in Minneapolis and San Francisco.
Cambridge typically requires one parking space for each new housing unit, though developers can ask for reductions through a special permit, and some areas have lower limits. Central Square, for example, has a maximum of 0.75 spots per home.
Jay Doherty, chief executive of real estate developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, was skeptical that eliminating parking minimums would matter. He said the city already pressures builders to keep parking low, and developers are typically happy to oblige. A dip in car ownership could happen naturally, he said, because more companies and workers are moving to the city, making it easier to commute without a car.
“The market demand for parking continues to decline,” he said. “In a place like Cambridge, usually the encouragement from the neighbors and Cambridge itself is to favor that decline.”
Some transportation specialists were impressed that Cambridge has been able to curb car ownership at all. New York, Chicago, and even transit-happy Seattle have experienced an uptick in household car ownership in the last few years.
In Cambridge, Bourassa said, “there’s growth in population and households, but not a large increase in automobile ownership. I would consider that a success.”
Boston, meanwhile, has seen an increase of more than 7 percent in car ownership by household since 1990, while the city’s population grew by 17 percent, or about 113,000 people.
Bourassa said Cambridge may have experienced slower growth in car ownership because it requires residents to pay for on-street parking permits while Boston does not; Cambridge is also smaller and more densely built.
Boston officials question whether vehicle ownership is the right metric, preferring to focus on reducing the number of miles that residents drive. Gina Fiandaca, Boston’s transportation commissioner, noted that some commutes within Boston aren’t easy by transit. It can be easier to get to downtown Boston from much of Cambridge without a car than from some of Boston’s outer neighborhoods.
“I’m not sure that’s the role of the city, to restrict car ownership, as much as it is to create an environment where people aren’t reliant on a car,” Fiandaca said.
Cambridge officials acknowledge that even if somebody owns a car, they may not use it frequently. Cambridge already boasts the lowest average number of miles driven per household in Massachusetts: fewer than 19 miles a day in 2014, according to data from the regional council.
Meanwhile, some Cambridge traffic comes from outsiders driving to work in the city. According to state data, more than 40,000 cars drive along Fresh Pond Parkway each day, and 30,000 travel Route 28 past Lechmere. Yet among Cambridge residents, more people take transit to work than drive.
Nonetheless, people who own cars will inevitably use them, adding to the traffic and pollution that city officials are trying to combat, said Michael Kodransky, US director for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. That should be discouraged as cities continue to grow, he said.
“Maybe the innovations that private car ownership provided before the Boston region looked like it does today made sense, but now we see it’s no longer working,” Kodransky said. “People are losing time sitting in traffic, and the existing system is not catering enough to moving people.”
Bourassa said he is not aware of any other Massachusetts community that has a goal of reducing vehicle ownership. Outside the state, Pittsburgh set a goal in 2017 of no net increase in vehicle ownership going forward as part of a much broader climate plan.
Pittsburgh chief resilience officer Grant Ervin said the car ownership rates mostly serve as a useful indicator of whether the city is achieving broader goals, such as vastly increasing transit ridership.
“There would be a host of factors that would go into a number like that – people reducing the number of cars they own because there are other valid options available,” he said.