Consequences of an auto loan bubble

With more financing options available for purchasing cars, American driving is up:

By increasing access to cars, lax financing standards also appear to be contributing to a national rise in driving, and with it, declining public transit ridership. In the latest edition of its biennial survey of who’s riding buses and trains in U.S. cities, Transit Center, a public transportation research and advocacy group out of New York, notes that the share of households without vehicles fell 30 percent between 2000 and 2015, with foreign-born residents, who are more likely to earn lower incomes and ride transit, posting even sharper declines.

In the survey, respondents who reported decreasing their bus and train use overwhelmingly replaced transit with private cars. And almost half of respondents who said they’d purchased a car over the past two years received a loan to finance it. Of those, 56 percent said that getting a loan “was easier than they had expected.”

Of course, improved car access among lower-income groups might look to be a positive trend on its face, since a personal vehicle can equate opportunity. So strong is the historic link between car ownership and household income that a trio of transportation equity scholars recently called for subsidizing access to wheels for poor Americans. But fewer rides made by public transportation and more by private automobile is a trend with consequences that transcend the U.S. economy: It feeds the planet’s existential problem of rising carbon emissions, especially since SUV and truck sales have become particularly popular during this auto-loan boom. “The rise in auto debt is evidence that we’re dependent on cars in an unsustainable way,” said Cross.

The new high-water line of defaulted auto loans also suggests that personal vehicles aren’t always golden tickets. Instead, for Americans living paycheck to paycheck, they’re a catch-22: If you don’t have the money and can’t buy a car, you’ll struggle to make ends meet. And if you don’t have the money, but still buy a car, you’re liable to fall even further behind. Vehicles may be the table stakes for playing in the U.S. economy, but in so many ways, it’s getting harder to win.

As noted by many, just as homeownership came within the reach of more people in the 2000s due to creative lending options and subprime options, the same is true of the auto industry. Does this mean that a burst bubble in car loans – due to many people being behind on their vehicle payments – would cause Americans to rethink driving and the reliance on personal vehicles?
I would guess no. At this point in American history, the country is too far in on its dependence on driving. It is not just about driving to work; driving offers opportunities to access cheaper housing, independence for drivers compared to utilizing mass transit which works on consistent schedules and requires being around other people, and a host of consumer and recreational opportunities primarily accessible through driving (think big box stores, shopping malls, fast food places, road trips, etc.). This list does not even account for the auto industry and the construction industry which have huge stakes in more driving.
At the same time, while Americans have resisted public housing, would they be more amenable toward government help in obtaining or paying for cars? Few communities or government agencies have provided cars or money towards cars but it may be necessary in a society heavily dependent on getting around via a car.

 

#1 payment priority for Americans: car loan

In a country dependent on and built around driving, perhaps the importance of making car payments is not a surprise:

“Your car loan is your number one priority in terms of payment, “said Michael Taiano, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “If you don’t have a car, you can’t get back and forth to work in a lot of areas of the country. A car is usually a higher priority payment than a home mortgage or rent.”

People who are three months or more behind on their car payments often lose their vehicle, making it even more difficult to get to work, the doctor or other critical places…

After the financial crisis, there were a lot of restrictions placed on mortgages to make it harder to take out a home loan unless someone could clearly afford to make the monthly payments. But experts warn that there are far fewer restrictions on auto loans, meaning a consumer has to be more savvy about what they are doing when they take out a loan.

This article made me think a little: does this mean that cars come before homes in the United States? This would counter my own claim that suburbs are more about single-family homes then they are about cars – see my rough rankings of Why Americans Love About Suburbs.

Yet, the suburbs existed before cars. By the early 1900s, suburbs existed and utilized transportation technologies like railroads and streetcars. Mass suburbanization certainly occurred on a different scale with the availability of cars in the 1920s and then after World War II. But, the United States would have had some form of suburbs and their emphasis on single-family homes without cars even if that was on a smaller scale.

The whole relationships between cars and homes was cemented in the postwar era when increasing sprawl really did limit other transportation options for many people. And the shift of jobs to the suburbs made this problem even worse. Perhaps we could shift the what-if scenario to the future: could the suburbs go on without cars (hard to imagine) or cars on without suburbs (probably)?

Ads showing giving a new car as a Christmas gift

Given the American love of driving and American consumerism, is it a surprise to see lots of car commercials at Christmas suggesting people are gifting others new cars?

But traditionally December means steep discounts for cars, and with annual dealership goals and sales quotas knocking, people buy cars in December for a lot of reasons. More than 17 million new cars and trucks were sold last year; 1.6 million were sold in December. Some were gifts, some necessary purchases that conveniently doubled as gifts. Said Akshay Anand, executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book: “The thing that isn’t talked about much is that the big luxury manufacturers are all competing in December to claim they were the ‘luxury brand sales leader of the year.’ ” Which is partly why Lexus, BMW and Mercedes’ Christmas ads are so frequent.

At McGrath Lexus of Chicago, “it’s our busiest time of the year,” said Heather O’Malley, the sales manager for new cars. She said McGrath sells about 120 cars each December at its dealership on Division Street. Maybe five or six are Christmas gifts. “And I have done the whole surprise car-gift thing like in the ads. A husband takes his wife to breakfast and arranges for us to leave the car in the driveway with a big red bow when they return — I love doing that.”…

Cynthia Tenhouse, general manager of product and consumer marketing for Lexus, is aware of the years of grumblings: “There is a lot of cynicism out there — this is never meant to be realistic.” The goal was aspirational (the agency that makes the commercials is Los Angeles-based Team One, which specializes in premium brands like Haagen-Dazs and Ritz-Carlton). In the 1990s, when the “December to Remember” campaign began, “we just wanted to be a part of the holiday culture without having to do just another ‘car sales event.’ ” But they do recognize “we need to be sensitive to what is happening (in the world), and so every year we make small changes because of what is happening.” This year the message is, a Lexus delivers throughout the year — it’s not just a holiday gift anymore….

He’s president of the Car Bow Store outside Philadelphia, which bills itself as the largest manufacturer of oversized car bows in the country. (Yes, there are others.) The Lexus commercials, he says, are a boom for his business. He sells 25,000 giant bows a year, most during the holiday season, to both dealerships and car buyers. “It’s staggering how many people out there are actually giving cars as Christmas gifts.” That said, he never received a car as a gift, “and I don’t know anyone who ever has.”

The formula: people want to buy new cars at the end of the year because of discounts/new models available + lots of spending at Christmas + dealers and manufacturers looking to do well at the end of the year = opportunity to push big-ticket items like cars through advertisements.

While these ads may seem more obvious at Christmas, car commercials are all over the place at other times of the year too. I can’t think of a similar big-ticket item that receives so much ad space. Houses cost a lot more – and it is hard to sell individualized homes through a mass commercial. Smartphones are all over the ads too but even the most expensive models available to the public come nowhere near the price of a new car. All of those car commercials viewed over a lifetime must have some effect, even if it simply reinforces that cars in the abstract are desirable and we need them in society.

I would be interested to know what the effect of giving a new car as a gift is in the long run. It is a large item. It is a necessary item for many people in order to get to work and other places. Because a new car is both expensive yet necessary, does it feel like a gift longer or does it become mundane just as quickly because it is used regularly?

 

Why do communities allow charities to collect money by standing at intersections?

I live near a suburban intersection that regularly has people from charities standing at the stop signs to collect money. I suspect the suburb is willing to let this happen for two reasons:

  1. It is good for the city to allow local charities to be out in the community. This helps build good relationships between everyone. The charities then help people in the community.
  2. The strategy is effective. The people collecting money are in direct eye contact with possible donors. As people come to a stop, they feel obligated to drop some change into the bucket or jug. While this method likely does not lead to large sums of money being donated by a single person, it can add up quickly.

On the other hand, this is an odd way to collect money for a few reasons:

  1. Suburban drivers just want to get through the intersection, not be slowed down. Even if they do not give money and have an interaction with the person standing there, they have to be more careful with a person in the roadway.
  2. Many drivers would respond much more negatively if another party was collecting money or soliciting people at this same spot. Many communities have homeless or jobless people sitting at intersections looking for help or people selling items or services (like squeegeing a windshield without the driver asking for it).
  3. Having people stand in the roadway is generally not a good idea given the lack of attention paid to pedestrians.

Perhaps communities try to balance these two sides by only offering limited numbers of opportunities for charities to do this (it can’t happen every week, for example) or limiting activity to certain intersections where drivers are going slower and traffic is not impeded as much.

On the whole, this particular method is unusual and maybe only certain charities can get away with it with limited exposure to drivers.

Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving

If the single-family home offers private space in suburbia, the car offers private mobile space. The home offers a base to which the owner can retreat, the car offers the chance to travel elsewhere. Even if the single-family home is the ultimate focus of suburbia, these homes are hard to imagine without cars in the garage or driveways (usually front-facing, sometimes in the rear) or without traveling to the suburban in something other than a car. Cars and homes are intimately connected in American society.

Americans love driving (and need convincing to instead use mass transit). The suburbs require driving. The sprawling nature of suburban communities are often ill-suited for mass transit. On one hand, driving offers freedom to go where you want when you want. It is a symbol of American individualism. On a global scale, Americans have one of the highest rates of car ownership. On the other hand, owning a car has numerous costs. It is not just the obvious costs of gas, insurance, and car maintenance (and even these add up for the average owner). Additionally, critics would argue cars are a drain on community life as people can build relationships and spend money wherever their car can take them, commuting via car can take a lot of time and can limit economic mobility, road networks are costly to maintain, have negative effects on the environment, contribute to health issues through limited walking and biking, and are a menace to pedestrians and bicyclists who want to be part of the streetscape as well as are a safety threat to drivers and passengers themselves. Even with these costs, Americans persist in driving. For example, rather than push back against highways and driving in the auto-dependent Los Angeles area, officials instead focused their efforts on getting more efficient cars. The thought of major highways closing for a few days in a sprawling region creates near panic and highways can become effective sites for protests because of the number of inconvenienced drivers.

Numerous aspects of suburbia emphasize the love of cars. The single-family home would be incomplete without a garage. As homes increased in size over the decades, so did garages. The pattern of driving out of the garage at the beginning of the day and back in at the end with minimal neighborhood interaction may not characterize every home but is common enough. Many suburban single-family home are located along residential streets that are plenty wide and can handle cars traveling at decent speeds. The fast food restaurant would not be possible without cars. What is more American than going through the McDonald’s drive-thru in the midst of another suburban trip? Think of the many commercial strips all around America with fast food restaurants and strip malls (they may even not be considered aesthetically appealing by some suburbs). Similarly, the big box store – Walmart, Costco, Ikea – and shopping malls would not be possible without cars. In these spaces, hundreds of separate drivers can congregate in massive parking lots for unparalleled choice and prices. Numerous industries, let alone the automobile industry, depend on cars, vehicles, and roads.

The suburban car is part status symbol, part lifeline to the outside world. What vehicle you have matters and judging from the vehicles around me, the suburban family life is impossible without an SUV or minivan. Not being able to drive is a huge problem (sorry teenagers and some seniors). The largest category of trips involves drives between suburbs, particularly for work as jobs are spread throughout suburban regions. Additionally, the image of soccer moms persists as kids need to get to all of their activities.

It is difficult to predict how exactly cars fit into the future of suburbs. Driverless cars may mean fewer people need to own their own vehicle (those garages can then be used to store more stuff!) but being able to relax or do work rather than drive may mean people could live even further from cities. Millennials have less interested in car ownership and driving. Numerous suburbs are pursuing denser developments, particularly along railroad or transit lines, and this could limit car use in those areas and create more walkable spaces. Yet, it is hard to imagine the American suburbs without many cars and the ability to travel from a single-family home to all sorts of places.

We bought a Toyota Echo for $6,600 in December 2006; sold it for $1,500 eleven and a half years later

Our family recently bid adieu to our 2000 Toyota Echo with its manual locks, manual windows, cassette deck plus CD player, and over 163,000 miles.

ToyotaEchoMay18.jpg

Despite its features that were outdated even when we bought it, it served us well:

-No major repair issues.

-30+ MPG. Not quite the Geo Prizm or small Honda Civics but good for commuting.

-Obtaining decent all-season tires provided much better traction in winter and handling.

-Decent size inside, particularly for headroom.

-Low insurance costs plus some resale value twelve years later.

There are not too many of these early Echoes left; this probably has less to do with their reliability and more to do with their limited sales in the first place.

Fighting smog not by reducing driving but by insisting on more efficient cars

Smog and air pollution due to vehicles is a familiar sight in many large cities. Yet, Crabgrass Crucible suggests the fight against smog in Los Angeles did not target driving itself but rather automakers:

The ban on fuel oil easily found favor among antismog activists. After all, like the steps with which smog control had begun, it mostly targeted the basin’s industrial zones. Harder to swallow in Los Angeles’s “citizen consumer” politics of this era, even for antismog activists, were solutions that might curtail the mobility associated with cars. Consonant with national trends noted by automobile historian Thomas McCarthy, there was a widespread reluctance to question orthodoxies of road building and suburban development. Even the “militant” activists at the 1954 Pasadena Assembly only went so far as a call to “electrify busses.” By the 1960s, as motor vehicles were estimated to cause nearly 55 percent of smog, there were suggestions for the development of an electric car. Yet Los Angeles smog battlers of all stripes raised surprisingly few questions about freeway building. For many years, Haagen-Smit himself argued that because fast and steady-running traffic burned gasoline more efficiently, freeways were smog remedies. So powerful and prevalent were the presumed rights of Angelenos to drive anywhere, to be propelled, lit, heated, and otherwise convenienced by fossil fuels, that public mass transit or other alternatives hardly seemed worth mentioning.

Once pollution controllers turned their sights to cars, they aimed not so much at Los Angeles roads or driving habits or developers as at the distant plants where automobiles were made. Probing back up the chain of production for smog’s roots, local regulators and politicians established a new way of acting on behalf of citizen consumers. Rather than pitting the residential suburbs of the basin against their industrial counterparts, in an inspired switch, they opened season on a far-flung industrial foe: the “motor city” of Detroit. The APCD’s confrontations with Detroit car makers had begun during the Larson era, but quietly, through exchanges of letters and visits that went little publicized. In 1958, after the nation’s chief auto makers had repeatedly shrugged off Angeleno officials’ insistence on cleaner-burning engines, the Los Angeles City Council went public with its frustration. It threw down the gauntlet: within three years, all automobiles sold within the city limits had to meet tough smog-reducing exhaust standards. Because its deadline had passed, a 1960 burst of antismog activism converged on Sacramento to push through the California Motor Vehicle Control Act. The battle was hard-fought and intense, but the state of California thereby wound up setting pollution-fighting terms for its vast car market. (232-233)

This helps put us where we are today: when the Trump administration signals interest in eliminating national MPG standards for automakers, California leads the way in fighting back.

Ultimately, this is an interesting accommodation in the environmentalist movement. Cars are significant generators of air pollution. Additionally, cars do not just produce air pollution; they require an entire infrastructure that uses a lot of resources in its own right (building and maintaining roads, trucking, using more land for development). Yet, this passage suggests that because cars and the lifestyle that goes with them are so sacred, particularly in a region heavily dependent on mobility by individual cars, the best solution is to look for a car that pollutes less. This leaves many communities and regions in the United States waiting for a more efficient car rather than expending energy and resources toward reducing car use overall. And the problem may just keep going if self-driving cars actually lengthen commutes.