Yet More Evidence That America's Car Addiction Is Not About To Die

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
yet more evidence that americas car addiction is not about to die

New York City and San Francisco, besides having the most tailored beards and bike activists on both coasts (Note: Portland might have something to say about this) might not like some of the data emerging from the University of Michigan.

While some Millennials, especially ones working at startups and paying the equivalent of a Cadillac for a shoebox apartment in a trendy, upcoming part of their building, might think personal car ownership is as dated a concept as VCR tapes and telephone banking, there’s a vast gulf between that lifestyle and that of the average American. It’s clear to see in the U-M Transportation Research Institute’s latest findings.

The data also pours a cold glass of asparagus water over an earlier poll that suggests we’re poised to kick car ownership to the curb.

The contrast between the two studies, illustrated by Automotive News, can’t be denied. Early last year, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll asked those who traded in or sold a vehicle in the previous 12 months what they ended up driving. Some 9 percent of respondents claimed they didn’t pick up a new car — ride services and carsharing filled in the vehicular absence.

Roughly the same number of respondents who planned to get rid of their car in the next 12 months claimed they’d go the mobility route, too.

Naturally, the Reuters piece profiled one such American who made the switch to modern mobility. A Michigan expat living in New York City discovered owning a car in New York City was a pain in the ass, and an expensive one at that. After jettisoning his car, lo and behold, the man soon discovered his pockets bulging with saved cash. Choosing mobility options meant his monthly car budget sank from $820 a month to $250 a month.

Who wouldn’t expect this? Living in a congested city with stratospheric rents and expensive (and severely limited) parking, coupled with nearby rapid transit and multiple mobility offerings, just might compel someone to walk away from their car — if not for convenience than for fiscal salvation.

The U-M study paints a different picture, though. As use of carsharing and ride services like Uber and Lyft increases (in some cases, just to avoid taxi company gouging and slow bus travel), personal car ownership rates have climbed for the past four years, now sitting at the highest point since the recession.

In 2016, the ownership rate per person was 0.766, while the household rate was 1.968. That’s down from 2006’s record high by about 2.5 percent for individuals and 4 percent for households, but still on par with 2003 for individuals) and 1994 (for households).

There’s a myriad of factors that go into ownership rates and annual miles driven, from the economy to migration to technology, but financial turmoil certainly took a bit out of driving in 2008-2009. The recovery has been slow but steady. In 2016, the number of miles driven per person (8,819 miles) was the same as in 1999, and the per-household rate (22,649 miles) matched 1995.

Both of those figures are down from the peak miles-travelled year of 2004, but interestingly, both figures climbed in the past three years. New vehicle sales hit a record high in 2016, barely beating out a stellar 2015. With low, stable gas prices over the past few years, coupled with a strong economy and low interest rates on new car purchases (plus an increase in subprime lending), the stage was clearly set for an uptick in cars owned and miles driven.

Eventually, and for a number of reasons, these figures will fall off again. And yes, many people moving to the big city for that thinkfluencing job will look at their options, do the math, and replace their vehicle with the kind they can summon with an app and never have to worry about parking, overdue payments, or repairs.

Still, the U-M numbers put into perspective the image painted by the 1,150-person strong Reuters/Ipsos poll. The personal car is not on its last set of tires; not by a long shot.

[Image: Bryce Watanabe/ Flickr]

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  • Jthorner Jthorner on Jan 26, 2018

    Car ownership in cities like New York and Tokyo has been a horrible idea for at least 40 years. That hasn't really changed. All these professional prognosticators are really predicting the future they personally would like to see. That, and saying controversial things is kind of expected if you are going to get big Key Note Speaker fees and/or get time of the TV.

  • TomLU86 TomLU86 on Jan 29, 2018

    Well said AMCA. To that, I would add that pedestrians and cars really cannot coexist. The thinks that make car traffic flow better, like simple right-hand turn lanes, or limited access roads, make it harder for pedestrians. The things that make it easier for pedestrians, like crossing zones, or 'narrower streets' (to make it easier to cross), snarl traffic. The Europeans seem to have the best mix, IMO. The price they pay is much less 'space'. But they've preserved more of their (limited) countryside this way. They walk more (because it's the quickest way to travel short distances) and thus are healthier and less obese. Yet, given a choice, they would prefer to live like Americans if they could, in a detached home with two SUVs.

  • Darren Mertz In 2000, after reading the glowing reviews from c/d in 1998, I decided that was the car for me (yep, it took me 2 years to make up my mind). I found a 1999 with 24k on the clock at a local Volvo dealership. I think the salesman was more impressed with it than I was. It was everything I had hoped for. Comfortable, stylish, roomy, refined, efficient, flexible, ... I can't think of more superlatives right now but there are likely more. I had that car until just last year at this time. A red light runner t-boned me and my partner who was in the passenger seat. The cops estimate the other driver hit us at about 50 mph - on a city street. My partner wasn't visibly injured (when the seat air bag went off it shoved him out of the way of the intruding car) but his hip was rather tweaked. My car, though, was gone. I cried like a baby when they towed it away. I ruminated for months trying to decide how to replace it. Luckily, we had my 1998 SAAB 9000 as a spare car to use. I decided early on that there would be no new car considered. I loathe touch screens. I'm also not a fan of climate control. Months went by. I decided to keep looking for another B5 Passat. As the author wrote, the B5.5 just looked 'over done'. October this past year I found my Cinderella slipper - an early 2001. Same silver color. Same black leather interior. Same 1.8T engine. Same 5 speed manual transmission. I was happier than a pig in sh!t. But a little sad also. I had replaced my baby. But life goes on. I drive it every day to work which takes me over some rather twisty freeway ramps. I love the light snarel as I charge up some steep hills on my way home. So, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Passat guy.
  • Paul Mezhir As awful as the styling was on these cars, they were beautifully assembled and extremely well finished for the day. The doors closed solidly, the ride was extremely quiet and the absence of squeaks and rattles was commendable. As for styling? Everything's beautiful in it's own way.....except for the VI's proportions were just odd: the passenger compartment and wheelbase seemed to be way too short, especially compared to the VI sedan. Even the short-lived Town Coupe had much better proportions. None of the fox-body Lincolns could compare to the beautiful proportions of the Mark was the epitome of long, low, sleek and elegant. The proportions were just about perfect from every angle.
  • ToolGuy Silhouetting yourself on a ridge like that is an excellent way to get yourself shot ( Skylining)."Don't you know there's a special military operation on?"
  • ToolGuy When Farley says “like the Millennium Falcon” he means "fully updatable" and "constantly improving" -- it's right there in the Car and Driver article (and makes perfect sense).
  • Master Baiter New slogan in the age of Ford EVs:FoundOnRoadDischarged