Car payments represent the second-largest monthly expense for many Sacramento-area residents, trumped only by a mortgage or rent.
Small wonder, then, that as tough times caused thousands to lose their homes, thousands also lost their cars.
Among the newly carless is Julie Smith, a middle-aged preschool teacher who quit her job in 2009 to take care of her mother, who had cancer. When her mom died six months later, the school district that had employed her wasn't hiring it was laying off hundreds so she sold her Chrysler PT Cruiser to pay bills.
"You can't say, 'Why me?' " said Smith, who has yet to find steady work and is homeless after splitting the proceeds from the sale of her mother's Oak Park house with relatives. "It could happen to anyone."
The number of Sacramento-area households without a car has risen more than 25 percent during the downturn, going from 43,700 in 2007 to 55,600 in 2011, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
With myriad pollution and congestion problems linked to heavy traffic, the trend might be something to celebrate if it weren't largely forced on the region.
Sacramento, which has an urban footprint of almost 500 square miles, has long been one of the nation's more car-dependent metropolitan areas. Approximately 13 of every 14 households in the region have a car, roughly 20 percent higher than the national rate.
While some of the region's residents with a job and the means to own a car have voluntarily given up their vehicles, they are a small minority. Most carless area residents aren't in the labor force: They can't work, won't work or have given up looking for work.
Among those still in the labor force, the unemployment rate was 33 percent in 2010, nearly triple the regionwide average, according to census figures.
That's no accident, said Sharon Krause, a career counselor at the Citrus Heights One Stop Career Center, which is sponsored by the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency.
"Bus routes don't go everywhere," she said. "If you can't get to your interview or you can't get to your job it's a big deal."
Sacramento has an extensive mass transit system with dozens of routes and a few light-rail lines. The system can get residents to most developed areas but getting there can take a long time.
Riding a car from Citrus Heights to downtown Sacramento, for instance, takes about 25 minutes. Using mass transit, that same trip takes 50 to 90 minutes, depending on the time of day and not including the walk to and from a bus stop.
"You are trying to present yourself well, but you have to walk 10 blocks from the bus stop in 90 degree weather," Krause said, referring to job seekers heading for an interview using mass transit. "How are you going to look or smell?"
Smith, the carless resident, agrees that taking mass transit can be time-consuming, but she doesn't think it's keeping her from finding work. Instead, she said, the lack of good jobs, not the lack of a car, is the main reason she sleeps outside most nights.
"I could take a bus or light rail; that's no excuse," she said.
Smith stays mostly near downtown Sacramento, where the region's largest concentration of jobs, trains, buses and social services are situated. Downtown and midtown contain the highest proportion of local residents without cars, census figures show, followed by several economically distressed areas and neighborhoods around college campuses.
While the economy is a primary driver of the growth in residents living without a car, other factors do come into play, census data indicate.
Baby boomers are aging and some are giving up motor vehicles, often due to disability. That comes on top of an existing pool of thousands of disabled residents who cannot drive.
"I need a car very badly," said Phyllis Helms, who held a disability identification card in her hand last week while waiting for a bus near Oak Park. Helms declined to name her specific disability but said walking to bus stops often leaves her exhausted.
Agencies such as Paratransit provide door-to-door transit for the disabled and very elderly, though the rides usually cost more $5 per ride at Paratransit than taking a fixed-route bus. Paratransit has seen consistent annual ridership growth of roughly 5 percent, said Linda Deavens, the organization's CEO. She expects that trend to continue.
"People are aging," Deavens said. "They are driving less often to get around."
The number of area residents who can afford a car but don't own one has held steady over the past decade. About 12 percent of carless area residents have a job that pays more than $25,000 a year, census figures show.
A growing percentage of residents making more than $25,000 annually bike, walk or take public transportation but they also tend to have cars available. More than 90 percent of Sacramento-area workers who make more than $25,000 annually and bike to work, for example, also own a car, census figures show.
The same opportunities that let them bike to work would also make it possible for them to ditch their cars if they wanted, said Ed Cox, the city of Sacramento's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.
"I think it's gotten easier," Cox said, noting an increase in bike lanes throughout Sacramento. Also, he said, "We have a lot of advantages fairly flat terrain and good weather."