How Uber could reinforce car culture

December 24, 2013

Americans are undeniably driving less. After decades of steady growth, the number of miles traveled by our cars and trucks every year fell sharply in 2008 with the recession — and never really recovered. Young people are increasingly putting off getting driver's licenses, with the most pronounced drop in license ownership occurring in 17-year-olds.

But just because we're driving less doesn't necessarily signal the end of car culture — that collection of values expressed in our infrastructure and land-use policy that has favored the automobile for decades. Even as more people flock to urban areas, we're still stuck with many Cold War-era artifacts of urban planning: strip malls that are as much parking lot as they are mall, or sprawling suburbs that grow into exurbs. Car-sharing services like Uber and Zipcar position themselves as an alternative to this culture. But that's not quite accurate. By embracing these on-demand services, our reliance on cars isn't so much eroding as being renewed by a different means. Car culture will endure — even if Americans grow to hate driving.

To grasp the distinction more clearly, let's think about car ownership for a minute. For a long time, we gobbled up cars as fast as we could. Now our appetite for vehicles is mostly stabilizing.

(Department of Energy)
(<a href="http://www-cta.ornl.gov/data/chapter8.shtml">Department of Energy</a>)

There's even evidence to suggest the tide may be turning. A third of people surveyed by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute this year cited the sheer cost of keeping an automobile as a major reason for not getting a driver's license. Sounds like a huge win for alternate modes of transportation: Cars are expensive to have around! But then the other shoe drops: In the survey, only 17 percent said they preferred public transportation to trips by car. In other words, there are a lot of us out there who may not like owning a vehicle but haven't committed to abandoning motor vehicles for the subway, bus or bike, either. Car culture is alive and well.

These attitudes also help explain the rise of car sharing. Uber has quickly taken over whole cities with its offer of limos on demand. It fights with cab drivers for business, and makes nice with regulators to grease the policy wheels. The company's strategy doesn't always work, to be sure. Even as it's surged to success in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Uber is still trying to make it in New York — where, as Kevin Roose points out, residents see the service as interesting but not exactly groundbreaking.

Why Uber takes off in some places but not in others speaks to how friendly certain cities are to drivers. In the Bay area, where getting to and fro generally demands some amount of freeway travel, private taxis are incredibly popular. San Franciscans in particular have grown obsessively fond of Uber in light of this year's multiple BART strikes. In the nation's capital, Metro track work and escalator malfunctions are a perpetual source of complaints, as were cab drivers' refusal until recently to accept credit cards.

Meanwhile, New York boasts a fast and functional subway. Its existing fleet of taxi cabs is iconic and ubiquitous. And much of New York is walkable in any case. All three factors combine to make Uber an unremarkable addition to a city that's already transportationally diverse.

In parts of the country where it's really taken off, Uber fills a distinct need (at least among wealthy, young urban types). And that's great. It advances the more efficient idea that owning will soon give way to sharing, a practice that's more sustainable in the long run and reduces the likelihood that an excess of something will be sitting around at any time. But as with the car ownership numbers we saw earlier, a shift to Uber won't mean the end of car culture. It just means displacing the burden of driving onto somebody else — a trend that'll grow even more pronounced as self-driving cars enable the efficient delivery of goods as well as people.

More broadly, car sharing still relies on a two-ton hunk of metal that burns old dinosaurs to get people from one place to another. These machines require that cities be built in certain ways to accommodate them. Even in a future where autonomous Uber deliveries become the norm, those vehicles will need a curb to pull up to, or a parking lot to stop in, or large highways to reach their destinations — all of which we take for granted but none of which are particularly beneficial to pedestrians and cyclists, who (thanks in part to bike sharing programs nationwide) are probably contributing to the decline in car ownership.

Of course, the whole idea behind Uber is that these urban dwellers will sometimes need a car, too, and it'll be there at the right time. In that respect, Uber has the potential to become a way for us to ease off our century-long fascination with automobiles in favor of a more sustainable future. Presumably, self-driving cars will produce efficiencies of their own that help mitigate the costs of our car-centric economy, which the Brookings Institution estimated at upward of $132 billion a year.

Yet even if we assume that car-sharing services portend a wider shift in transportation patterns, getting there will take some unlearning. As Fortune's Leigh Gallagher recounts in "The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving," cars encouraged us to build outward in a way that can't be easily undone.

"In solving one problem — the severe postwar housing shortage — we unwittingly created some others," Gallagher writes. "Isolated, single-class communities. A lack of cultural amenities. Miles and miles of chain stores and Ruby Tuesdays."

Start-ups like Uber fill a convenient gap in cities that lack robust public transit and other alternatives. But we're mistaken if we think that car-sharing is going to disrupt decades of bad habits in urban planning.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | December 24, 2013