Finding the price and usage at which to not own a car

Two researchers crunched the numbers and have some thoughts about when you should not own a car:

The decision for owning a vehicle or using mobility services is unique to every individual. If you purchase a highly efficient vehicle for less than $25,000 and drive it more than 15,000 miles per year until it falls apart, then you should definitely own a car if your goal is to save money.

But, if you drive less than 10,000 miles per year, face long waits in traffic, or place a high value on your time that would otherwise be spent driving, our calculations show that mobility services might be the cheaper option. Geography can also play a role—it’s not a coincidence that there have historically been so many taxi cabs in New York City, where the high cost of parking and slow pace of traffic consume time and money.

As noted before on this blog, owning a car can be a substantial part of middle-class expenses. With their physical layout, the sprawling suburbs probably then do not make much sense for not having a car. Yet, those denser suburbs for the older millennials and companies hip to them may be the true spots where suburbanites can ditch their cars. A combination of walkability, some mass transit, and car sharing in these denser suburbs could be enough to push people toward limiting car ownership.

On the other hand, perhaps driverless cars will render this all moot within a short amount of time. Within ten or twenty years, few of us will even need to own a vehicle if we just buy into a car sharing option.

Traffic deaths increased in 2016

Explaining the rise in traffic deaths in the last two years may be difficult to explain:

Cars may be safer than ever, but 37,461 people died on American roads that year, a 5.6 percent hike over 2015. While fatalities have dramatically declined in recent decades, this is the second straight year the number has risen. It’s too early to say why, exactly, this is happening. Researchers will need much more time with the data to figure that out. But here’s a hypothesis: It’s the economy, (crash) dummy.

“People drive more in a good economy,” says Chuck Farmer, who oversees research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “They drive to different places and for different reasons. There’s a difference between going out to a party in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar area and driving to work—that nighttime driving to a party is more risky.”…

Researchers have long known that driving deaths rise and dive with the economy and income growth. People with jobs have more reason to be on the road than the unemployed. But this increase can’t be pinned on the fact of more driving, the stats indicate. Even adjusted for miles traveled, fatalities have ticked up by 2.6 percent over 2015. You can still blame the economy, because people aren’t just driving more. They’re driving differently. Better economic condition give them the flexibility to drive for social reasons. There might be more bar visits (and drinking) and trips along unfamiliar roads (with extra time spent looking at a map on a phone).

The DOT numbers seem to confirm that drivers involved in traffic deaths were doing different things behind the wheel last year. The feds say the number people who died while not wearing seat belts climbed 4.6 percent, and that drunk driving fatalities rose 1.7 percent. Contrary to what you might expect, the numbers show distracted driving deaths dropped slightly, but experts caution against putting too much faith in such info. The numbers are based on police reports. They’re reflections of what cops are seeing at crash sites, but also of what’s in the zeitgeist at the time. It could be that first responders weren’t, for example, looking out for distracted driving last year because it wasn’t in the news as often.

Official statistics do not provide all the information we might want. In this case, the figure of interest to many will simply be the total number of deaths. Is an increase over two years enough to prompt rapid action? If so, I would imagine the regulatory structures regarding driverless cars might attract some attention. Or, do car deaths continue to be the costs we pay for having lifestyles built around driving?

The same LA bridges in many car commercials

One interesting set of locations is fairly common in car commercials: bridges in Los Angeles. This is not what you might expect: how many people know that bridges are even necessary in Los Angeles? (The Los Angeles River does exist.) This has a long history: a 2004 New York Times story suggests the presence of production companies in southern California plus good weather leads to many shoots in Los Angeles.

One of the past bridge locations was the Sixth Street Viaduct which closed in 2016:

According to Film L.A., the organization that helps the film industry book municipal locations, over 80 movies, television shows, music videos, and commercials are shot on or underneath the Sixth Street Viaduct each year. That’s partially because of the bridge’s swooping metal arches, perched on an art-deco concrete platform; and partially because of the river underneath and that access tunnel: if you want to film something set in Los Angeles that makes reference to the city’s automotive culture, or if you’re just looking for a place to shoot a car chase that’s cheaper and more available than a clogged freeway, the channelized, concretized bed of the Los Angeles River is your best choice.

Except that the bridge officially no longer functions that way, as of last week. It’s going away completely. And the river? It’s on its way to becoming a river again.

Here is a short montage of the bridge being taken down alongside iconic images from films.

The Fourth Street Bridge is also home to a number of shoots and features Art Deco columns as well as views of the downtown skyline. Here is a Google Street View image:

FourthStreetLosAngeles

Are viewers of car commercials more likely to purchase a vehicle if it is shown in Los Angeles compared to other settings? Los Angeles has its own aesthetic which may or may not match with many other places. (In urban sociology, Los Angeles is often held up as the prime example of decentralization. Yet, it also does have a downtown as well as numerous other scenic sites such as the hills behind the city.) In the Chicago television market, we see some car commercials shot in Chicago. Might this help viewers envision themselves driving a new car when they see it in a familiar location? It would be more difficult to do this for all of the metropolitan markets in the United States.

Here are some other common car commercial locations with several more in the Los Angeles area.

Vancouver reaches goal of 50% of city trips not by car

How did Vancouver reach its goal of limiting car trips ahead of schedule? Here is one explanation:

It all began back in the late 1960s, says the city’s former chief planner (and urban-Twitter celeb) Brent Toderian, when residents rejected a proposed highway that would have torn up the dense urban core and separated it from its famous waterfront. Vancouver is still the only major North American city without a freeway running through it. The open waterfront became the location of the hugely successful Expo ‘86, which was themed around the future of transportation and featured the debut of the elevated SkyTrain, a swoopy automated light rail system. A new extension that opened in December allowed SkyTrain to reclaim its title as the world’s longest fully automated metro system in the world (besting the similarly driverless Dubai Metro). The system also helped pave the way for the dramatic transformation of Vancouver’s waterfront a couple of years later. Hundreds of new residences and offices were built, unified by pedestrian thoroughfares and the city’s seawall—which is “routinely ranked as the best public space in at least Canada,” says Toderian.

The 2010 Winter Olympics encouraged more car-to-pedestrian street conversations, and peppering the in-between years were lots of smart decision-making, such as turning a stretch of Granville Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s and the city’s 2008 strategic shift to support cycling as daily form of mobility rather than pure recreation. A mess of new protected bike lanes have pushed Vancouver’s active-transit infrastructure beyond the downtown core: “24 percent of our bike network is now considered [appropriate] for all ages and abilities,” says Dale Bracewell, the city’s manager of transportation planning. A $2 billion plan to expand TransLink, Vancouver’s mass transportation network, was approved last month by the mayor’s council, and stands to bring active transit options to parts of the city that haven’t had them before.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Such efforts do not happen overnight. This explanation involves decades of consistent efforts to provide other transportation alternatives. Many American places could benefit from less driving but quick fixes are difficult.
  2. Related to #1, how many places could sustain such efforts over decades? Are certain places like Vancouver more predisposed toward such ideas? There could be multiple reasons for this. Perhaps different urban cultures enjoy less driving. Perhaps the government here was particularly effective in funneling funds and resources to mass transit rather than roads. Perhaps the housing in Vancouver is so expensive that it is unrealistic for a lot of people to also pay for cars.
  3. Vancouver is often said to have a very good quality of life. Would Americans made the trade of a better life overall for people versus the individual freedom they often value to drive around when they want?

The origins of Chicago’s residents-only parking

An article on rethinking Chicago’s residential parking permits system reveals how it all started in the first place:

The first residents-only parking signs were put up in 1979 to protect North Side bungalow-belt homeowners who were tired of fighting Northeastern Illinois University students for spaces. Since then they’ve proliferated across the city, with 1,466 zones currently on the books. Aldermen often don’t want to say no to residents who ask for a parking zone, fearing the political backlash.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It is not surprising that such a program might spread. What was intended for one particular problem suddenly appeared appealing to all sorts of people and before you know it, permits were applied everywhere. This is a good example of the ease of creating such regulations – they spread really quickly – but the difficulty of putting the cat back into the bag when such regulations become normal and institutionalized.
  2. Chicago is often touted as a city of neighborhoods but what this means is that a lot of people are able to keep cars as the neighborhoods have plenty of lower density residences as well as single-family homes. The underlying issue here isn’t necessarily whether there are permits or not; rather, how do encourage people to have fewer cars? Is this even possible in a city that wants people to be able to own detached homes?

Coming soon: more fully automated parking garages

Adding more automated parking garages could lead to more saved time and space:

Right now in the U.S., 22 garages already are using automated systems to store and retrieve vehicles, and it’s starting to scale up. Ground is breaking soon on a parking structure for a mixed-use development in Oakland, California, and it is claimed to be the newest such fully automated structure in the San Francisco Bay Area—and one of relatively few to allow public access (it will be visitor parking) and to be unmanned. The structure’s footprint is just 1600 square feet, the size required by seven surface-parking spots, yet it has 39 parking spaces over seven levels.

What it amounts to is virtually a dumbwaiter for cars. You drive the vehicle past a height sensor, then through a garage doorway and onto a platform—which itself is on what look like the tracks you’d find at an automatic carwash. Following instructions on a screen, you exit your vehicle, and visit a kiosk to get a ticket that you use to retrieve the vehicle upon your return. The system rotates the vehicle, loads it onto an elevator, and then stores it away on the appropriate shelf, potentially several stories up or down in a narrow-footprint building.

Retrieval, according to CityLift, the company behind the development, takes less than two minutes after inserting the ticket.

This summary is missing one key piece of information: how does this work financially? Putting more cars into less space should generate more revenue but this technology could be costly to purchase and maintain. In other words, how attractive would this option be to developers and owners of parking lots and garages?

I wonder how this might alter an experience I had in an underground garage in Chicago earlier this year. This particular garage was long and narrow with the lengthy side going away from the entrance. When we drove into the garage, it wasn’t much of a problem: we found the attendant and he had plenty of time to go find a spot further back in the garage. However, our return after a large sporting event concluded was more problematic. One side of the garage had cars stacked two deep, the other side had them stacked three deep, and the one attendant was running back and forth to bring cars up to the front of the garage. We were fortunate to be closer to the front of the line but I’m sure others behind us waited over an hour to have their car retrieved. Two minutes retrieval would be a significant help in this situation as would having fewer cars total in the garage (this helps with a rush of people coming in or out at the same time).

A declining number of American gas stations

The number of gas stations in the United States has dropped in recent years:

But gas stations have been in decline for decades. Between 1994 and 2013, the number of retail fueling sites in the U.S. fell from 202,800 to 152,995—a 25 percent decline. In 2015, the number had slipped to about 150,000. (See page 31 of this report from the National Association of Convenience Stores.) And with several powerful megatrends arrayed against them, there are signs that their numbers could shrink significantly in coming years.

Let’s start with gentrification. (And this is the good news.) In many urban areas, gas station owners are finding it simply doesn’t make economic sense to keep selling gasoline—for reasons having nothing to do with demand for their product. As America’s great cities revitalize and attract more wealth, land is becoming exceedingly expensive. In many cities, and especially in New York, a gas station falls far down on the list of the best things to do with a piece of land. Owners realize they can run their businesses at modest profits for years to come or sell out to developers for giant premiums. In Manhattan, where the best use for a gas station is a site for condominium or office development, the number of gas stations fell by a third between 2004 and 2014—to just 39. As the New York Times reports, “Today there is not a single operating gas station left on the city’s East Side from the southern tip of the island to 23rd St.” The conversion of gas stations into apartments and offices is also starting to happen in other land-constrained cities such as Boston; Washington; and especially San Francisco, where at least two-dozen gas stations have made way for other developments over the past six years.

Several other trends are afoot that will lessen the underlying demand for gas stations’ core product. Gasoline, which was pretty much the only transportation fuel for vehicles until very recently, is slowly being displaced by a couple of sources, neither of which relies on gas stations to deliver them. First, there’s natural gas. Cheap and abundant thanks to fracking, compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas are emerging as options—not so much for consumers and individual cars but for fleets. One of my favorite sites, NGT News, documents how operators of huge delivery fleets such as UPS or giant armadas of garbage trucks such as Waste Management are systematically switching their fleets to run on natural gas–based fuels instead of gasoline…

The other force is electricity, of course. The penetration of electric cars in America’s fleet is still very low. But every month, several thousand new cars hit the roads—Teslas, mostly—that don’t use any gasoline at all and will never, ever, ever stop at gas stations (unless their drivers need to make a pit stop for a Fresca or beef jerky). Sales of all-electric cars are running at about 6,500 month, according to Hybrid Cars. But there are signs of greater electrification. About 6,000 plug-in hybrids, like the one I drive, are sold every month. And there are many, many more to come. Tesla has already taken reservations for more than 370,000 Model 3s.

If this is indeed a declining industry, it will be interesting to see who is able to stay afloat the longest.

Two additional thoughts:

  1. While it is widely accepted that Americans like driving, it is less discussed how many other industries and firms depend on this. Gas stations exist because people regularly need to fill their vehicles and then a set of practices arises around stopping for refreshments and the restroom (they become convenience stores), getting a car wash, being able to take road trips, etc. What happens to drive-thrus if self-driving cars take over? What about big box stores and shopping malls? Less driving means not just fewer cars but a changed way of life.
  2. The paragraph above on gentrification hints at this but all that land formerly occupied by gas stations represents a significant opportunity. Imagine Shell goes out of the American gas station business. Who takes over all that prime real estate? The market might be limited for such land (just how many fast food chains can there be) even though it is often located at busy intersections.