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A Digital Life: I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I want a car

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Millennials aren’t supposed to want cars anymore.

At least, that’s what a lot of the market research says. In 2012, a report by the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found that between 2001 and 2009, the “average annual number of vehicle miles” traveled by people ages 16 to 34 dropped by 23 percent. And earlier this year, a Zipcar report on millennials and technology found that millennials say the use of transportation apps has decreased their driving frequency by 25 percent.

Zipcar's "Millennials & Technology" report, February 2013
Zipcar’s “Millennials & Technology” report, February 2013

I live in Manhattan — where owning a car is not only unnecessary and expensive, but often a hindrance. I sometimes want a car, but the fact that I’m embarrassed to admit that probably reflects the ways in which anti-car culture has permeated my generation.

I grew up in a tiny Connecticut town where nothing was in walking distance and cars meant freedom. In high school, if my friends and I didn’t have anything better to do, we’d drive around. A big night might include nothing more than meeting up with a few other people at the Mobil, then caravanning to Wendy’s. The guys showed off for the girls by driving really fast and doing donuts in parking lots. It was lame, but those nights held a real sense of excitement. Something always might happen.

I’m 29 now and don’t still get a thrill out of drinking in somebody’s basement, but I’ve retained the association between “car” and “escape.” Most of the places I want to “escape” to, though, are just as boring as a gas station. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a car so we could REALLY stock up at Costco? Or, just think, if we had a car, we could go to the Lowe’s in Brooklyn where the Christmas trees are super cheap!

NYC, please let the startups in

But let’s face it: having a car in Manhattan is a drag, starting with the fact that nobody except a couple of Real Housewives actually has their own driveway. Street parking is usually free, but it’s hard to find. Garage parking is expensive — at least a couple hundred dollars a month in our neighborhood. Car insurance adds a couple hundred dollars more to the monthly bill. And then there’s the fact that I’ve never bought a car before and have no idea where to start. So maybe what I want isn’t actually my own car, but better access to them.

Companies like Zipcar (s ZIP), Car2Go, RelayRides and Getaround can solve some of these problems. On-demand car services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar can solve others. But New York City has hardly been progressive in allowing these companies to operate in the city.

Zipcar is here, but since it has to park most of its cars in indoor parking garages, its hourly rates in the city are higher than they are in other places. The closest Zipcar to my apartment costs $12.50 per hour on weekdays and $14.75 per hour on weekends.


Zipcar is also now owned by Avis Budget — which has led some users, including me, to fear that the service is about to get a whole lot crappier. Other big car-rental companies, like Enterprise and Hertz, have rolled out their own hourly rental programs to compete with Zipcar, but the one experience I had with Hertz OnDemand was so dreadful that I vowed never to use the service again.

Smaller startups have a harder time entering this market because of New York’s tough laws. The car-sharing service RelayRides was forced to stop operating in NYC earlier this year. Getaround, a car-sharing startup based in San Francisco, hasn’t launched in NYC, nor has Car2Go, which rents two-seat Smart Cars by the minute and, unlike Zipcar, allows for one-way rentals (so you can drop one off wherever you like). Some on-demand services like Uber, which compete with taxis, have faced problems in New York, too.

There’s hope: Mayor Bloomberg’s “We Are Made in NY” initiative aims to help startups launch and thrive in NYC. Bike-sharing program CitiBike launched this summer. A one-year pilot that allows e-hailing of taxis was finally approved in June — and it’s been a lifesaver since I moved to Harlem: Yellow cabs are harder to find there than in midtown, but now that I can hail them from smartphone apps like Hailo and Uber, I’ve never had to wait more than a couple of minutes for one. I hope these initiatives are just the start, and that the budding transportation renaissance in New York expands to include cars as well.

Memo to worried car companies: You can help

If auto manufacturers fear that young people are never going to buy their product, they need to look at the ways that this age group does want to use cars and think about how they can fit in. I would love to see these companies supporting the car-sharing services that young people are already using.

If millennials are particularly worried about global warming — and the research suggests that they are — car companies should, in addition to building more electric and hybrid cars, make those cars easier for young people to try out. That might mean partnering with a car-sharing service: Zipcar, for instance, already offers some hybrid vehicles, but they aren’t widely available. So maybe a car company could sponsor discounts through one of those services, letting customers try green cars at a discount.

Car companies can also help by supporting the car-sharing startups that are having a tough time getting established. This may seem at odds with their primary mission, which is to sell cars. But companies might instead try thinking of these startups as a way for young people to test whether they want a car at all. We can’t do that if we don’t have access to the cars in the first place.

To read previous Digital Life columns, click here.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Gravicapa

8 Responses to “A Digital Life: I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I want a car”

  1. To William and Khurt — Thanks for the comments! I actually think that the lack of car-sharing services in many regions, not just NYC, is a problem, and I tried to make that clear in the piece. It’s definitely also a regional issue — NYC is obviously blessed with a strong public transportation system — but if you read about Car2Go usage in the DC suburbs, for instance, you can see how these services can work outside cities, as well.

    There are also definitely some differences in attitude by age group. The Zipcar research is pretty interesting, and if you Google “car ownership millennials” you’ll get a bunch more. It’s unclear, though, whether those attitudes will stick around as millennials get older. I think they will, but I could be wrong.

    • Frank A NYC

      Were the millennials surveyed city residents? I grew up in NYC and I always owned a car (i’m a car guy) I now live in a rural area. My informal survey of some kids in the town is they ALL want a car. The Just don’t want to pay for gas or insurance, and most can’t afford it. Sounds like my time growing up in the 70’s.

    • “..but if you read about Car2Go usage in the DC suburbs, for instance, you can see how these services can work outside cities, as well.”

      I live about 7 miles from ZipCar. There is no place in my zoned residential neighborhood to put a ZipCar or Car2Go location that would be in convenient walking distance ( think snow, ice and rain and the heat of summer in business attire ). The bus into the area close to ZipCar takes about 20 minutes. The ZipCar location is 30 minutes from the office. The office is located in a neighborhood which to put it plainly, ZipCar and Car2Go would never operate ( think low-income environment ).

      The commute from here to Manhattan is about 2 hours.

      Trust me when I say I’ve considered the available options SERIOUSLY.

      Until you take a step outside of your NYC environment and live in a NJ suburb you won’t understand. I’ve lived in Queens and commuted to Manhattan — a 2 hour one way commute at best. I’ve commuted from my current location to NYC — about the same as Queens. Grocery shopping in Queens meant walking to the grocery store and then pushing a cart back to home. Or … buying a car. Same as NJ.

      I think the article was more about a desire future state for a specific demographic — millennials who live in large cities in good neighborhoods.

      I’m not embarrased to own a car. It’s the only way to get to the office, grocery store, the shops, a restaurant , the local schools etc. without

  2. William Beem

    I don’t really get the point of this article. It isn’t about an age group, it’s about the fact that owning a car in NYC is expensive and impractical, except sometimes it’s useful. You’d like to rent a car, but you don’t want to use a traditional rental agency.

    The Global Warming thing is a feel-good red herring. If you lived back in your home town, you’d be driving a gas guzzling SUV like every other soccer Mom in town.

    That’s life in the rest of America where mass transit is usual insufficient.

    • Wow! You beat me to it. I was about to suggest that the author had used collapsed the idea of owning a car in New York City with how people all over the US live. I live in New Jersey. Good luck getting to work/school/shops etc without a car!!! I worked out how to use mass transit to travel the 10 miles from my home to the office where I work. It would make me 90 minutes from door to door. By car, it’s about 20 minutes. Biking? Sure. I would need to bring a change of clothes. All the dirt/grime for the wet roads in the rain or snow would ruin a business outfit.