For many, driving a car is a rite of passage. I remember counting down the days until I could walk into the DMV and apply for my first driver’s license — the only time I’ll ever look forward to stepping inside one of those offices. But for others, driving or owning a car isn’t even on their to-do list. Public transportation and rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft can take them from point A to B quickly and inexpensively, which brings us to the question: is this the end of car ownership?
A Case Study in Car Ownership
On May 9, 2016, both Uber and Lyft ceased operations in Austin after residents voted against Prop 1, which moved forward a city ordinance that required fingerprint-based background checks for all rideshare company drivers. A year later, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill enacting statewide regulations of rideshare companies — eliminating all regulations at the local level, including the city of Austin’s. The bill, effective immediately, prompted Uber and Lyft to resume operations in Austin on Monday, June 5, 2017.
While Austinites scrambled to find alternative rideshare options, researchers at University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and Columbia University saw Uber and Lyft’s departure as an opportunity to study how rideshare companies affect human behavior. Here are some of the highlights of that study.
For respondents who had used Uber or Lyft to make a trip prior to the suspension:
- 42% transitioned to another transportation network company (TNC).
- 41% transitioned to a personal vehicle.
- 3% transitioned to public transit.
The study also found that for respondents making trips for the same purpose pre- and post-suspension (like commuting to work):
- 9% purchased an additional vehicle.
- Individuals that transitioned to a personal vehicle were 23% more likely to make more trips than those who had transitioned to another TNC.
- The odds of acquiring a car for an inconvenienced respondent was more than five times that of an individual who was not.
The big takeaway? Companies like Uber and Lyft may contribute to reduced car ownership and trip making.
Survey Says: People Not Ready to Give Up Their Cars Just Yet
The results of the study made national headlines. According to The Verge, Lyft’s President John Zimmer predicts that personal car ownership will be extinct in major cities by 2025. This is a huge statement considering that the majority of the U.S. doesn’t have a reliable public transit system, and people depend on cars to get around.
We polled 2,859 people on Twitter, and 60% (1,715 users) said they would never give up their car while 40% (1,144) have either given up their car or plan to do so in the future.
A recent study showed that car ownership may be declining due to rideshare apps (Uber, Lyft, etc.). Have you gone car-free? Do you plan to?
— The Zebra (@TheZebraCo) August 23, 2017
This is by no means a scientific study, but the results were interesting, as were some of the responses.
Is there an option for "I own a car that I pay payments on even though I haven't driven in a year and I just want the damn thing gone"
— Jess Johnson (@_JiggityJohnson) August 28, 2017
If ridesharing services were more pet-friendly, I'd consider it!
— Ava Lynch (@avaklanche) August 23, 2017
— Jessame (@belleoflonglake) August 28, 2017
Car-free or Not: Lifestyle Matters
For those who live in cities with a robust public transit system, giving up your personal car may seem like a doable option without causing a major inconvenience. In fact, there are some metro areas where owning a car is the bigger inconvenience.
For a better understanding of why people opt to go car-free or not, we reached out for answers. Here are their stories.
“Why did you go car-free?”
The reasons for ditching their cars were all similar: no car payments, no insurance costs, no gas or maintenance costs. Many live in metro areas with reliable public transportation, though some use rideshares exclusively.
“I sold the car and use exclusively Uber. You can check parking prices in Manhattan. I’ve done the calculations. It is 27% cheaper for me using Uber versus my own car. No parking fees, no insurance, no maintenance, no time waste on gas stations, no fines, and tickets, hell, I even forgot when was the last time I’ve checked my Google Maps.” – David Braun, New York City
“I gave up my car three and a half years ago when I moved from the suburbs of Washington, DC to the District proper. I am saving a TON of money. Since I opt for biking, walking, and Metro 75% of the time, my Zipcar and Lyft costs per month are, at the most, $200. I used to spend $75 per week on gas on my SUV … I am way ahead on costs.” – Cari Shane, Washington, DC
“I sold my car 4 years ago when I moved from Cambridge into Boston, MA. Last year I spent just shy of $3,000 on ridesharing services and would of had to spend at least $7,000 between parking and car payments owning a car. “ – Ashish Datta, Boston, MA
“When I was selling my house in the suburbs, I knew I wouldn’t need my car. A parking spot in my new condo would have been $6,000, and the costs associated with maintenance and insurance would not have been worth it since Uber and Lyft are so abundant in the city. So, I bundled my car with my house and sold them in less than 3 days. My average monthly costs with ridesharing are around $300-400 per month.” – Gene Caballero, Nashville, TN
“I’m currently a student at UC Berkeley. I brought my car to campus for the last two years, but now I exclusively use ridesharing. In Berkeley, the price for a parking pass is often around $100 each month. Because most things are within walking distance, I spend less than $20 on ridesharing each week. So parking alone makes owning a car too expensive. That’s not even including the price for gas, insurance, etc.” – Neel Somani, Berkeley, CA
“Two years ago I sold my car and replaced it with a combination of Uber/Lyft, electric bikes, and carpooling. I have 2 kids and do pickups and dropoffs on bike. Finally, I do use the VTA and Caltrain (South Bay public transit) when the routes work out for me (not often). I save about $1,000 per year versus driving expenses (gas + insurance). Also, my employer gives bike commuters $20 per month to use on biking gear.” – Nick Switzer, Campbell, CA
“Why won’t you give up your car?”
For many, car ownership means personal freedom. Some tried the car-free lifestyle and found that it wasn’t a good fit for them. Others want to go car-free but can’t right now.
“I essentially ended up spending about as much as I would on car maintenance or a low car payment with these little extras, but without the benefit of doing these things on my own schedule. When I got the chance to buy a used Honda, I took it, and I’d have a hard time going back even though I still bicycle, walk, or take public transportation to work and around town almost every day. So, I guess the short answer is incidental costs and personal freedom.” – Jessica Day, Berkeley, CA
“I lived in Boston for five years, completely car-free by choice since I lived in the train line and rent for parking spaces alone neared $200 and up. When I started looking at new cities to live, a requirement was one where I could easily and financially have a car. After moving to Austin, I am celebrating my car-filled existence. Gone were the days when I had to take a taxi to urgent care, rely on friends to drive me to Target, trudge through snow with heavy grocery bags. I can knock out errands in a fraction of the time and have the freedom to explore nature and areas surrounding my city. I can take road trips again (long or short) and pick up my friends from the airport. Life is so much easier with a car, even with the convenience of public transportation, and I’m never going back!” – Nicole Beck, Austin, Texas
“First, I live in Southern California, land of traffic and horrible public transportation. That leaves shared car services and ridesharing as the only other viable options. Ride sharing works well, and I use it when parking is difficult or expensive, or if I’ll be drinking, but not for my day to day. Cost and timing are both issues. I could spend $20-$30 a day to pay someone to drive me around, and it would add another 10 minutes to each trip waiting for my driver to arrive.” – Brad Waller, Redondo Beach, CA
“I want to give up my car. I ride my bicycle all over town, even though I live at the top of a hill that takes me almost 20 minutes to bike up. Why can’t I give my car up? I live in Carlsbad, CA. The problem with public transportation in Southern California is that it only works for part of the day and major destinations are not connected. And my hill? There’s no bus up it, which is why I find so very few people even using the bike to get to the coast.” – William Volk, Carlsbad, CA
“I like the freedom to go wherever I want whenever I want without waiting a half hour for Lyft to pick me up and charge me $25 each way just to get to the supermarket. Did I mention the waiting? Google, Lyft, and Uber want everyone to give up their cars so they can make money, but the freedom, cost savings, and convenience for me outweighs anything they can offer. So, no, I will never give up my car.” – Dr. Tim Lynch, North Quincy, MA
“I personally will never give up my car for many reasons. Much of the town I live in is accessible through bike or walking, and the next cities over are accessible through public transportation, so in reality, a car is not a necessity to function where I live. However, I do love having freedom and driving around back roads. I love to go hiking with my dog, and many of the good trails are more than a 30-minute drive away — something I couldn’t get to with a bike or public transportation due to their locations. Also, my parents live roughly 3 hours away in an area that I cannot simply get to by plane or train, which, again, requires me to have my vehicle to visit them.” – Nicole Firebaugh, Marion, IL
Will Drivers Opt for Driverless Cars?
Driverless cars are a-coming, whether we’re ready or not. Even Uber and Lyft are anticipating disruption in traditional car ownership models and are actively preparing for this potential shift. Drivers dead set on owning a personal vehicle are open to the idea of self-driving vehicles.
Nicole Firebaugh would consider if it has an option to switch to a driver-controlled mode.
“On monotonous, time-sensitive, tedious drives, I wouldn’t mind allowing someone else to take the wheel,” she said.
How is the Auto Industry Responding?
U.S. car sales fell 7% in July compared to the year before. According to Edmunds.com, the average length a new vehicle sat on a dealership lot was 76 days. That’s the highest in that month since 2009, the tail end of the Great Recession. While dealerships are offering deep discounts to move inventory, automakers are making plans to their business models to prepare for a future with fewer personal vehicles on the road.
Ford, for example, is exploring other modes of transportation in understand how people get around.
“To ignore the fact that in urban settings fewer and fewer people are going to own vehicles is to ignore reality,” Ford’s City Solutions VP John Kwant told BuzzFeed News.
It acquired Chariot, a ride-hailing shuttle service, for $65 million in September 2016. Ford is also planning to invest $1 billion in Argo AI, an autonomous driving startup. It also launched bikeshare Ford Go Bikes in San Francisco. Whether these steps will be enough to keep the company relevant in the next decade, only time will tell.
We’re still a few years away from a complete shift away from personal car ownership, at least in cities. Although it may be hard to imagine what a daily commute might be like in the next 5-10 years, the technology is here; it’s just a matter of time before it becomes mainstream.