In the current transportation landscape, do you still need to own a car?

Veronica O. Davis gave up her car about three years ago.

A big reason for that was the growing availability of Capital Bikeshare in all the places she needed to get to in and around Washington, D.C.

Of course, not everyone in D.C., or the rest of the United States, has access to bikeshare, but that is quickly changing: about 20 more U.S. cities in 2015 joined the nearly 1,000 cities around the world with bikeshare systems.

Further, about 70 million people in the U.S. rode a bike in the past 12 months, so as all this new bike infrastructure continues apace, more and more people are certain to realize how much better riding a bicycle– and commuting by one – is, compared to driving.

A question to contemplate: should I own a car?

Bikes may be among the most exciting trends in transportation, but it is far from the only option. Whether or not to own a car is a question all people should now be asking themselves. The average annual cost of owning a car, including insurance, gas, and taxes, is $8,485. If all those reasons aren’t enough to at least contemplate the rationality of car ownership, I’m not sure what else can be said.

Oh, wait. The traffic. Oh, the traffic. My back and neck hurt just thinking about it. In most places throughout the country, evening rush hours are typically about twice as long as they would be without traffic. We have learned to settle with being miserable.

The sharing economy is making it possible to ditch the personal car

“The sharing economy is changing transportation in that it’s giving people options,” Davis said. “With carsharing programs, I feel like I don’t have to own a car when I need to use a car.”

Indeed, major shifts are already happening in regards to car ownership. With the major migration into U.S. cities only increasing since the economy began recovering in 2010, more people are relying on public transportation and other means of daily movement rather than personal vehicles. More than 30 percent of households do not own a car in six of the 30 largest U.S. cities.

“I personally get around using pretty much every mode that’s possible in the District of Columbia. I use Metro rail particularly now, since I live [near it] and my office is a block from [it]. I also bus, I use Car2Go, I use Zipcar, I rent cars sometimes when I need a car on the weekend. I bikeshare. I use personal bike. Probably the only mode I don’t really use in the District is pedicab, but I would probably use pedicab if I hung around tourist areas more,” Davis said.

Ride-hailing app-based services like Uber and Lyft have been the most high-profile of the new transportation options. And with their ride-sharing services like UberPool and Lyft Line, people may be both beginning to rethink personal car ownership and performing societal benefits by decreasing the number of total car trips, thereby reducing emissions and congestion. Recent reports show these services haven’t increased traffic in New York City, as noted above, and are taking potential extra trips off the road in San Francisco.

A dedicated Zipcar space in Washington, D.C.

A dedicated carsharing space in Washington, D.C. (Design for Health, Flickr, Creative Commons).

These services, as well as Zipcar, Car2Go, RelayRides, Getaround, Bridj, Via, Split, and countless others that allow some form or another of car- and ride-sharing are providing options for people who don’t want to own cars or use their own less. One recent study found that around 20 percent of corporate Zipcar members reported that they sold a personally owned car after joining the program. In addition, another 20 percent avoided buying a car as a result of joining the service.

Public transit needs to strengthen itself as the backbone of our mobility

All of these new ventures should put pressure on public transit agencies to make stronger efforts at being comparably excellent. That would go a long way towards providing a core system that all these other auto-based services could flutter and flitter around, providing the ultimately connected transportation network that Americans deserve and could claim as a feather in our collective hat.

Freiberg, Germany, is an example where the government made some bold decisions and stuck to them in terms of limiting cars in the inner part of the city,” Davis added. “Now they’re seeing 70 percent mode split between public transportation, biking, and walking.

“I think it is going to take bold leadership from government in order to really begin to move and change the needle – particularly as it relates to expanding investment in public transportation.”

Davis noted that, in Brooklyn, New York, there are dollar vans in which passengers pay a dollar to ride with a bunch of strangers – who have sometimes created music videos during the drives. The existence of these services indicates agencies are not providing accessible transit options for residents.

She is, in fact, the founder of a similarly creative transportation outreach endeavor. Part of Black Women Bike DC’s mission is to teach people not only that they can bike to work, but also how to put their bikes on the front of the bus, or at certain times on Metro, to go home.

“I think there’s the assumption that if I use one mode, I have to come back on that mode. [We really want to help] people understand the interactions between modes,” Davis said.

This kind of creativity mixed with sharing-economy services is forming the basis of a powerful tool to persuade people – many of whom have never thought about these issues – to give up car ownership altogether. Better transit service for people is the key third rail of this equation.

Not owning a car can directly improve where you live

Beyond the immediately obvious costs of car ownership, there are hidden hyper-local benefits to consider related to personal decisions about car ownership. Shareable has noted that if a city could reduce car ownership by 15,000 vehicles, $127 million could stay in the local economy.

According to the Intelligent Cities Forum, of the annual cost of owning a car, only $1,390 (about one-seventh of the total) stays in the driver’s local economy. The rest is spent on non-local goods and services like gasoline and car insurance, which don’t directly benefit local businesses.

Factoring in the complete landscape of transportation options, as well as the various levels of costs of car ownership, Davis’ experience going car-free seems like a sensible choice. In the words of a recent Wall Street Journal article, personal vehicle ownership isn’t going away any time soon, but those people who still own cars – and those cars – will be considered true classics.

Mobility Lab video produced by Astro Cinema.

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4 Comments or Mentions

4 Comment(s)

Michael Lewyn

This is a question that is impossible to answer in the abstract. If you live and work in the District of Columbia, you probably have never needed a car since the dawn of time, and the sharing economy doesn’t change very much. If you live or work in a car-dependent suburb with no public transportation, you still need a car.


That’s the thing…. don’t live in a car-dependent suburb, or work to make your suburb less car-dependent. That’s the whole “Not owning a car can directly improve where you live” part of the article.


Working to make car-dependent suburbs less so is a good idea, but it’s a long term proposition and often meets resistance from the Everyone Must Drive Everywhere faction.

Paul Welsh

This will always be a mixed picture. In rural areas with no public transport private mobility is essential. For the elderly the bike often isn’t an option and public transport needs to be massively improved. For instance to teach at the local swimming club there is nothing available



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