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

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