When Uber and Lyft arrived on the scene, it seemed like the idea of owning a personal car was on its way out. rides were becoming commodified and that meant that there would be no need to own a car, just order when you needed it. These services would be simple, convenient and cheap. But it didn’t turn out that way in the intervening 10 years and as of late, personal car ownership is actually on the increase. So what happened?
Most people don’t remember this or even know that it took several decades for driving to really take off in the United States. Most people used trains and other mass transit in most major cities. Many people in rural areas still used horses or hitched rides with people that had cars often well into the 20th century. Cars really took off after WWII for 3 reasons: inexpensive cars, the move to suburbia, and the rise of the American middle class after 11 years of depression and war. The car was a symbol of freedom and movement.
When Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway System Act, the American landscape was painted with 4 lane ribbons of roadways offering fast, reliable transportation by car around the entire country. This began a trend of designing everything around car transportation. Major cities tore up their train lines and mass transit systems to accommodate ever more cars. Neighborhoods were divided by the towering pylons of elevated portions of interstates through major cities. The age of personal transportation began 50 years before by Henry Ford was complete.
America: Built for the Car
Cars are convenient. They just are; they allow people to choose when they want to come and go. A car is always ready day or night. There are no schedules. It’s truly personal transportation. Soon, most of the country was no longer built at a scale for people and walking but instead built at a scale for cars and driving, parking, completing a task and then returning home. Leisurely walks, strolls, and other pedestrian activities were actively discouraged by city planners who believed that people walking was simply a threat to be eliminated in favor of driving. As the country grew and the population grew, so did the number of cars on the road. Highways were widened, roads were widened too. Driving went from a pleasant thing to do and an easy way to get around to a real hassle, especially if you didn’t have a car. This affected children, the elderly, and the poor who couldn’t afford a car and were forced to live near transit or near work.
Slowly, main streets were replaced with malls and strip malls with large parking lots to allow cars to park for free, an innovation at the time. Later, box stores like Wal-Mart would even supplant those in favor of big parking lots and widely available goods. Walk-by traffic was often replaced with drive-by traffic. America became a country built for the car. It is no easy thing to change that. The built environment is already in place and can only be replaced at great expense. Ridesharing services sought to create service where one could continue to live within the existing built environment built for cars while not being forced to own a car.
Share a Ride?
Uber and Lyft offered a new world where people would not own cars and simply hail a ride to get wherever they needed to go. Whether a quick trip or commuting, why own when you could simply hail? When these services first launched, many people wrote think-pieces about the death of the car. It seemed obvious in 2009. Although taxi services existed before, outside of New York City and a few other major cities, regular taxi service was not necessarily a possibility or practical and getting a cab during a busy time was always difficult. Cars were dirty and the drivers weren’t exactly always friendly. Between the poor legacy competition and the recession, it seemed like the car was doomed.
2009 was still in the midst of the recession. The US car market had peaked at 17 million cars sold annually and had reduced to 14 million cars sold. Dealerships were closing, GM was still in bankruptcy and bailed out by the government. Chrysler was beginning to get familiar with its new Italian owners and Ford was the only automaker not bailed out by the government or being sold. Even the foreign competition was suffering from reduced sales.
Millennials, cash strapped due to student loans were opting to delay car ownership and helped to popularize the ridesharing services. For those who could not find a job, Uber and Lyft offered a chance to make money in an environment where jobs were hard to find. At first, it seemed like a good idea, drivers could make money and people had convenient, on-demand transportation without owning a car.
One of the biggest areas of concern with ride-hailing services is the driver. Companies like ZipCar and Car-2-Go even offered car sharing. They eliminated the driver by putting the passenger in the driver’s seat. They offered inexpensive short term rentals that could be parked in regular parking spaces around cities.
For Uber and Lyft, the driver has to be paid and often is not making minimum wage per hour despite some people driving full time for 10-12 hours a day. California was the first state to really challenge this way of doing business. These companies used the independent contractor designation for their drivers as a way to pay people a minimal amount and avoid any employer responsibility. For Uber and Lyft, the drivers were just a stop-gap to get to autonomous driving.
With autonomous driving, there would be no driver. A car would simple arrive open its door, and passengers would embark on their trip. The cars wouldn’t need parking spaces and could be stored elsewhere until called upon. The millions of parking spaces would no longer be needed and valuable land, especially in inner-cities would open up. This was another part of the car-ownership free utopia that these services offered.
Ride-share services offered much and promised more and yet car ownership is starting to tick upwards. Shouldn’t that number continue to decrease?
Driving Yourself is Still Practical–For Now
The reality is that car ownership is still incredibly convenient. Ride-sharing only works well in dense cities and large towns. If you live outside of one, then ride-sharing is simply too impractical and expensive. If you have multiple destinations and errands in disparate locations, ride-sharing can add up quickly making it not as practical. There’s also the waiting game, surge pricing, and other barriers to getting around. At some point, it seems like it’s just easier to buy a car where you can get in and go. If you have children (as many people reading this do) moving child seats in and out of a car is a real hassle. Herding children in and out of a car is already a problem, imagine doing that with an Uber! For older children, the car services are quite convenient because parents can send their children off with a car service and avoid having to transport themselves.
However, the reason car ownership is ticking up is for the same reason our grandparents bought cars in the 50s:
- Car infrastructure (America is built for the car)
- Millennials are being pushed out to the suburbs
- America is not a dense country
- Transit is chronically underdeveloped
For busy people working multiple jobs or in busy careers, owning a car, while expensive at $8,000 a year (on average) is simply easier. For now, car ownership is here and here to stay but with the rise of autonomous vehicles that may soon change.