Lyft isn’t just a ride-hail company nipping at the heels of its rival Uber. It also fancies itself a think tank with big ideas about the future of transportation. The company’s co-founders, John Zimmer and Logan Green, have released policy papers predicting the end of personal car ownership in major cities by 2025, and calling for more people to carpool by charging a fee to those who don’t.
This evening, Zimmer is holding a “fireside chat” at CES where he plans to stake out his next big position: households in the US should sell their second cars. The idea of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” has been synonymous with American prosperity since Herbert Hoover used it as a campaign slogan in 1928. Since then, it’s an idea that’s been modified to include a few additional cars, especially with the birth of the US highway system and advent of the suburbs in the 1950s. The number of households with two or more cars increased substantially during the latter part of the century, from 31 percent in 1969 to 59 percent in 2009, according to US Census Bureau.
“Americans are moving away from car ownership.”
Recently, that trend has started to shift. “Americans are moving away from car ownership,” Zimmer told The Verge in an interview, citing a new report that suggests hundreds of thousands of Lyft users got rid of a second car in 2017 because of the availability of ride-sharing. “And so the fact that we’re seeing these types of statistics I think is very encouraging, and I will be encouraging people to ask themselves: ‘Do we really need that second car?’”
Zimmer’s right about Americans moving away from car ownership. Despite year-over-year increases in the number of vehicle miles driven by Americans (3.22 trillion miles in 2016, up nearly 3 percent over 2015) and record sales by the auto industry, recent research shows that car ownership and miles driven have declined significantly per person and per household since peaking more than a decade ago.
After peaking in 2006 with 2.05 cars per household, car ownership decreased steadily for the next seven years, reaching a low of 1.927 — a level not seen since 1992, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. On a per-person basis, 2006 was also a zenith with 0.79 cars owned by the average American, only to fall each year (except for an uptick in 2011) until 2013.
Losing that second car could save us all a ton of money
Losing that second car could save us all a ton of money, too. If every two-car household in the US ditched one of its cars, we would save over $1 trillion in car ownership costs, Zimmer says. “You know the average American household spends $9,000 per year per vehicle,” he said. “But most people just think about their $200 car payment.”
Thanks to some recent research, we have a better understanding of what people do in the absence of ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft. Last year, a study compiled by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and Columbia University, focused on Austin, Texas, where ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft pulled services in 2016 due to a local ordinance. The study found that 41 percent of those surveyed turned to their own vehicle to fill the void left by Uber and Lyft; 9 percent actually bought an additional car for this purpose.
Rounding out the respondents, 3 percent switched to public transit, and 42 percent switched to another, smaller transportation networking company. After the vote, informal community efforts sprung up and 12 app-based ride services entered the market. Many were short-lived, but some are still in business. (Uber and Lyft have since returned to Austin.)
To be sure, car ownership is baked into the American psyche
To be sure, car ownership is baked into the American psyche. We hear a lot of predictions about the future of cars and car ownership, especially from tech executives like Zimmer with skin in the game. But car ownership has for a long time symbolized freedom, independence, and upward mobility. Those who expect us to simply sell off our cars and board up our garages because of the emergence of new industries like self-driving cars and ride-sharing may be disappointed in the strength in which we cling to our steering wheels. Auto sales may have peaked, but they are still stronger than they’ve been in decades.
Zimmer says Lyft’s own data suggest that Americans may be more ready to sell their cars than most people assume. In a report to be released later this month, the company surveyed 30,000 passengers and 37,000 drivers in 52 major cities. The findings are surprising:
- In 2017, nearly a quarter-million Lyft passengers got rid of a household vehicle, thanks to the availability of ride-sharing
- Fifty percent report using their car less because of Lyft
- One in four Lyft passengers says owning a personal vehicle is less important to them now
- Eighty-three percent of Lyft passengers would request a ride in a self-driving vehicle when the service is available
- Twelve percent Lyft of passengers are over the age of 50, and 30 percent of those older riders do not own a personal vehicle
“This is a pretty large behavior change,” Zimmer said. And Lyft is hoping to accelerate that change by pushing more riders into fewer cars — and soon enough, self-driving cars, too. “It’s on us to build the right set of products,” he said. “We’re talking about investing in Lyft Line to make it both more convenient and more affordable for people... If people are making their decision based on the economic trade-offs and the convenience trade-offs, all the things we do — whether it’s Lyft Line, shared rides, autonomous vehicles, improving the product — all of those are around those two aspects and AV is certainly one of those.”
In some respects, the desire to see Americans abandon their second cars can be viewed as a bit self-serving. Former transportation commissioner and policy expert Bruce Schaller released a study recently that captures the impact of ride-hailing services on Manhattan traffic. In an op-ed in the Daily News, he writes:
These ride services did not exist a decade ago, but my research shows that combined with yellow cabs they now make up 50 percent to 75 percent of traffic in Manhattan. Over 10,000 Ubers, Lyfts and yellow cabs roam Manhattan central business district streets between 4 and 6 pm, double the number just four years ago. Their rapid growth is a big part of plummeting Midtown Manhattan traffic speeds, now averaging 5 mph during the day.
That’s pretty mind-boggling, especially when you consider that part of the pitch of Uber and Lyft is an increase in efficiency and a reduction of traffic congestion. Another study released last week seems to back that up. The Rocky Mountain Institute found that Uber and Lyft cars contribute fewer miles per person to traffic than personal cars making equivalent trips. That’s true even after accounting for the miles that ride-hailed drivers spend waiting for fares and going to pick up passengers.
More efficiency, but also more congestion and slower speeds. It’s easy to see why Zimmer likes to think of Lyft as more than just a transportation company. These are huge problems with no easy solution. “We do not like congestion. We do not like pollution,” he said. “And we believe that Lyft as a platform can virtually eliminate both of those things long term.” Let’s hope he’s right.