The founders of Uber and Lyft, among others, declared that people would no longer need to own cars. Instead, car ownership is rising.
Throw your driver’s license out the window. Better yet, don’t get one at all.
For nearly a decade, that’s been the message from buzzy transportation companies. In 2011, car-sharing company Zipcar touted a study claiming millennials believe car ownership is difficult. The same year, Zimride, founded by the guys who would later cofound Lyft, was touted as a startup challenging the “old model of individual ownership.” Former Uber head Travis Kalanick boasted that his driver’s license had expired and that his 1999 BMW M3 convertible—his only car—had a broken alternator.
Municipal officials joined the chorus. Earlier this month, New York City banned cars from busy 14th Street, in favor of bus-only lanes. San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency voted on Tuesday to transform Market Street, its main downtown artery, into a place for bikes and scooters and buses—and definitely not personal cars. Similarly, some real estate developers tout apartments without parking spaces but with built-in Uber pick-up spots and leases with monthly ride-hail credits. Cities and companies say such moves can help take emissions-spewing cars off the street, make it easier to get around by foot or by bike, and unburden riders (if not the drivers) from the drudgeries of car maintenance. And Census data suggests that the number of households without cars, and those with fewer cars than workers, has grown.
But here’s the funny thing: Personal car ownership in the US has actually increased in the past 10 years, even in the frenzied urban places where Uber and car-share have become verbs. According to research from former New York City transportation official Bruce Schaller, the number of vehicles has grown faster than the population in some of the cities where ride-hail is most popular: Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
“We can’t tell if millennials aren’t owning cars until they start having children, and especially until their second kids hit school age.”
ROBIN CHASE, FORMER ZIPCAR EXECUTIVE
Moreover, some services targeted to the aspirationally or actually car-free have hit the skids. Car2Go, the car-sharing company now jointly owned by Daimler and BMW, said earlier this month it would pull out of half of the North American cities where it operates. (The company, which allows users to pick up and drop off cars at regular street parking spaces, says it will focus its firepower on its remaining North American cities: New York, Montreal, Seattle, Vancouver, and Washington.) BMW-owned ReachNow, a wide-ranging experiment in ride hailing and car rental, folded in the US this summer. The scooter-share folks at Lime last month killed their experimental LimePod car-share service in Seattle. General Motors wound down its Maven car-sharing service in eight of its 17 North American cities this summer. Uber and Lyft, now public companies, are losing gobs of money, and the services’ most popular times are Friday evenings, which seems to indicate less that people are ditching their personal cars than ditching their personal cars while drinking. (Still a worthy goal!)
“The roller coaster induced by the recession and recovery has leveled off, and now the rate of car ownership is the same as it was before,” Schaller says.
Researchers suggest a number of reasons for the gap between hype and reality. It is no mistake, perhaps, that the peak of “no more personal cars” occurred in the years following the recession, when car ownership still felt for many like a luxury, and profligate spending on gas felt even more so. Since the recovery, the US has seen some of its best annual car sales numbers. Gas prices, meanwhile, have generally fallen, making it cheaper to swan about town on four wheels.
Millennials, the city-loving generation that was supposed to break the wheel of car ownership, are growing up, and recent research has suggested that their recession-related decisions to delay starting families may have contributed more to their lower rates of car ownership than an aversion to the personal automobile. “We can’t tell if millennials aren’t owning cars until they start having children, and especially until their second kids hit school age,” says Robin Chase, a former Zipcar executive who’s now an independent consultant. That’s when not owning a car, even in a dense American city, becomes the biggest pain.
Car sharing, meanwhile, has proved to be a difficult place to make money, especially in cities that aren’t dense enough to ensure that riders will quickly and easily be able to find their next ride. “Car sharing is so capital-intensive,” says Steve Banfield, who stepped down as head of BMW’s ReachNow initiative earlier this year. “Clearly, it’s a tough business.”
To be sure, a new breed of mobility companies has seen some success. Research using Car2Go data published in 2016 by UC Berkeley researcher Susan Shaheen suggested members of the car-share program were able, in some cases, to avoid buying new cars because of the Car2Go vehicles. Banfield says ReachNow’s experience echoed that work: The service saw success, particularly among people in their thirties whose household owned only one car. Americans aren’t ditching the personal car, but maybe they’re ditching the second personal car.
Chase, the former Zipcar executive, says car ownership isn’t changing as dramatically as it should be, because the US remains oriented around the automobile. “Now we need to rejigger the way streets have worked for 100 years,” she says.
Earlier this week, Schaller, the former New York official, walked down Manhattan’s 14th Street, where honking horns have been relegated to the background, and buses reportedly have to pause at stops to avoid getting ahead of schedule—that’s how quickly traffic is moving without personal cars. “This change on 14th Street made it more of a hassle to get here by Uber than by bus,” he said on Tuesday. “That’s what we want to see.”