Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The trend away from automobile "dependence" continues to build

Recently I saw a television ad from Enterprise Car Share explaining car sharing.  I thought it was odd, not because I don't know what car sharing is, but because to my way of thinking, car sharing makes the most sense in center cities, and were I them, I'd be focusing my efforts on reaching just residents in center cities.

On the other hand, we were out with friends who live in Fairfax County, and one of them commented on seeing the ad, and thinking car sharing could make sense for them, once the Silver Line subway extension starts operation--one of the stops will be about one mile from where they live in Reston.

So it could well be that Enterprise is focusing on market development on a longer time frame.

Note: recently I joined Enterprise Car Share because they had a booth at the H Street Festival (pictured at left) and their introduction sweetener is no registration fee for the first year, and severely discounted hourly rates--as little as $5 per hour plus tax.  (We'll see how the rates rise over time...)

The one thing they do that Zipcar doesn't is reserve and rent in 15 minute increments, which offers more flexibility.

And fortunately, they have two cars in our neighborhood, so at least while they are new--I seem to be the 5,795th member nationally, based on my card id number--there isn't much competition for their use.

Relatedly, last April, the Economist had a takeout on the future of the car (industry), with a focus on driverless cars, "The future of the car: Clean, safe and it drives itself," and also speculation on the concept of peak car ownership ("Demand forecasts: Distant peak car").

A letter to the editor in a subsequent issue made the point that the other element of the future of the car may in fact involvement car use as opposed to car ownership, and the implications for the industry.

This point is illustrated by a recent Wall Street Journal piece, "Europe's Car Makers Spin Their Wheels," on the status of the European car industry--which is pretty bad except for the successful companies, VW, Mercedes, and BMW--started with a vignette about a Spaniard who had intended on buying a car, but because of changed economic circumstances--Spain's economy has been battered by the recession  and in fact many Southern European countries could be more accurately described as being in a depression--he has no intent of buying a car.  From the article:

Sergio Felice embodies a woeful present for European auto makers. He may also reflect a dim future.  Growing up in Italy, the 41-year-old bank consultant says, "it was always important to have a nice car." Now living in Barcelona, he had been saving up to buy an Audi TT. Then Europe's economic distress pushed him to reorganize his financial priorities, and owning a car is no longer one of them.

Even when better times return, he says, he probably won't buy a car until he is in his 60s. He uses public transportation, a motorbike and car-sharing services, he says, and "I prefer to put the money I don't spend on a car in a retirement plan."

This scenario is more likely in more North American and European markets, because reduced economic circumstances on the part of many households make car ownership financially difficult.

At the same time, the "need" for car ownership can be reduced by urban living where more trips can be accomplished by transit, walking and biking, and complemented by access to cars, either ones you drive yourself through car sharing and car rental, or use on a per-trip basis through taxis, car services, and what is incorrectly called "ride-sharing" but should be called something else, but involves getting rides from people who aren't licensed taxi drivers but will drive you someplace in their car.

This latter form I discussed in this blog entry, and I call it the "Overground Economy," where people do things like get paid for giving rides, which is an activity typical in poor communities, but in plain sight and in a measurable way, rather than "underground," "Misunderstanding Uber: Taxi regulation and what we might call the 'Overground Economy'."  It happens my camera wasn't ready, but I did see a Lyft vehicle on 7th Street NW last week.  I knew it was one because of the distinctive pink moustache affixed to the front of the car.

Last week, the US Public Interest Research Group released a report on this growing trend, entitled A New Way to Go: The Transportation Apps and Vehicle-Sharing Tools that Are Giving More Americans the Freedom to Drive Less, which discusses how a shift away from car ownership is being facilitated by mobile e-commerce applications.

The Post wrote it up here: "With new apps, DC millennials help fuel an evolution away from sitting behind the wheel."  But I disagree with the newspaper's take somewhat.

While a lot of people focus on "millennials" "driving" this change, I think it's more a function of urban-ness and the self-organization of households around efficient access to home, work, school, shopping and other amenities using sustainable means.   That's why I am still skeptical about the Enterprise ads.   Few places have the right combination of circumstances already in place to support sustainable mobility where car ownership can easily be avoided.  Yes, millennials are more likely to use smartphones.  But so too are urban residents, regardless of age.

zipcarRight:  Matt Clausen and Margarita Diaz use a Zipcar for errands. Owning a car "was more of a hassle than anything," he said. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post) 

In fact, the Post wrote about car sharing in DC in 2005, "More Area Car Owners Shift to Hourly Rentals," featuring a couple with a baby who decided to use carsharing and not own a car.  The couple featured, Matt Clausen and Margarita Diaz, aren't millennials.  But they were early adopters.

Back then, the article helped me to clarify the difference between car use and car ownership, and how most of DC's municipal regulations privilege car owners over car users.  See "High Cost of Free* Parking Revisited and car sharing in DC" from October 2005.

At least Hoboken, NJ doesn't take the same approach, see "Cars at Curbside, Available to Share" and "Car-Sharing Gamble in Hoboken Has Mixed Reactions" from the New York Times.  The headline of the later article is misleading, because 1/4 of the users, about 750 people, appear to have given up at least one car.

But because new households (millennials) are less likely to own a car already, and therefore are more prone to not own a car, if they have viable alternatives, I can see why observers might believe this shift away from car ownership is because of some inherent cohort "difference" which may not actually be the case.

So that still leaves room for sprawl proponents like Randal O'Toole to continue to praise the automobile.  See "Honk if You Love the Mass-Produced Automobile" from the Wall Street Journal.  Cars are truly remarkable. 

But whether or not cars are economically sustainable for either households or cities is another question.  And for many households and for many cities, the answer is no.

I "love" how this map cover from this 1957 edition of the Esso map for Sweden shows how the center of town has been made over for cars.

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At 1:41 AM, Blogger Bruce Hammerson said...

People should avoid using their cars for small distance traveling so that they can rely on their own in case their car is not on running condition.

Bruce Hammerson

Hammer Bits


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