Car-light lifestyles on the Caltrain corridor

Recently, we put out a survey of how Friends of Caltrain participants feel about cars and driving.  The results from the group that replied to the survey shows that there is a “car-light” population that considers driving an annoyance and prefers not to drive where possible.


Contrary to stereotypes, this “carlight” cohort isn’t just in San Francisco, and isn’t just childless.   These folk uses many different modes of transportation, and also contrary to stereotype, many use both buses and trains.

The survey population is self-selected and not very large (109 responses). More rigorous research would need to be done to verify whether there is a large-enough sized “car-light” customer segment to influence transit and transportation options and policies in the Caltrain corridor.

We asked about respondents’ attitudes toward driving. 90% felt that driving is a pain, and they would rather avoid driving, while 10% or respondents that driving represented freedom, and would prefer driving.

So, how do these attitudes relate to transportation behavior?  More than half of respondents live in households that have fewer cars than adults.


Contrary to what one might think, the car-light cohort isn’t dominated by San Francisco residents.  Among respondents who live outside of San Francisco, 46% reported having fewer than one car per adult, including car-free households.

Also contrary to what one might think, the car-light cohort isn’t dominated by childless households. Among respondents who had household members who don’t drive (kids and other nondrivers), 46% reported having fewer cars per adult, compared to 56% of all respondents.

This cohort uses many modes of transportation – walking, driving, train, bus, bicycle, and more.    Contrary to stereotypes in our region assuming that there is minimal overlap between the people who use trains and buses, about 40% of this cohort uses both trains and buses. The share who use both is higher in San Francisco, but it’s still 30% outside of San Francisco. While the share who use both trains and buses is a minority, it is a much larger minority than the stereotype that train-riders and bus-riders are mutually exclusive groups


And the “car-light” cohort tends to use use nondriving transportation for many purposes, not just commuting.


We asked whether respondents had considered changing the number of household cars, and over a third replied that were considering giving up a car.  Changes that would help them give up a car include more transit operating hours (off-peak), better transit reliability and speed, more convenient carshare (e.g. ZipCar), cheaper rideshare (autonomy), and a safer bicycle network.  Several mentioned better transit to recreation and shopping destinations. Other factors people mentioned were job changes, and waiting for their current car lease or useful life to run out.

changecarsImplications of a car-light market segment

The survey is not scientific – it is a self-selected subset of a non-representative sample of the population.

But the survey results do show that there is a set of transit riders who prefer not to drive,  and who use a variety of transportation modes.   The findings are counter to stereotypes – it’s not just childless residents in San Francisco who prefer to drive less, and people who use both buses and trains.  Among the car-light population, a notable share are looking to reduce their car ownership; better transit, shared mobility, and bike options would help reduce car ownership.

These results raise questions for transit agencies and city planners in the Caltrain corridor:

  • How large is this “car-light” segment? Is this customer segment large enough to affect transit planning and marketing?
  • Is this segment large enough to affect city planning, such as parking requirements and policies?
  • Would increased all-day transit frequency attract new riders in addition to the small currently transit-dependent population
  • Is the co-hort of multi-modal users large enough to provide bundled marketing and fares?
  • Are there opportunities to provide residential options with less parking (creating more room for housing and improving housing affordability)
  • How much would helping car-light household reduce car ownership affect traffic, parking, and greenhouse gas emissions?
  • The co-hort of car-light users includes families with children. How could transportation services do a better job for families  (e.g. car seats for car-share, much safer bike infrastructure)

Transportation planning in the corridor is based assumptions that the two main groups of transit users are peak hour commuters who use trains, and transit-dependent users who use buses.   Is the current and potential car-light segment large enough to change assumptions about how to serve transit customers?