Infrastructurist and Urban Omnibus recently posted an interview with the co-founder of Zipcar, Robin Chase. If you have the time, the full interview is an excellent read, but what struck me as particularly compelling was what Chase said about the cost of individual automobile ownership:"...according to the National Households Consumer Survey, across the nation it costs $24 per day on average that people are spending in America on their car, day in and day out. If I were to tell you that it was going to cost $125 a week to go to work, you would say, no way, I�m not going to do it. But we are doing it - we just don�t realize we�re doing it."In the early part of this decade, I worked as a union organizer for SEIU in the Silicon Valley and many of the low wage immigrant families I was working with considered car ownership an unaffordable luxury. In the current recession, and with gas prices starting to creep up again, I started to wonder if a significant number of Americans, despite a lack of practical public transit options, are having to give up on individual automobile use.
The most recent national statistic I could dig up on household car ownership was from the 2001 National Household Travel Survey, which found 8.7 million families in the United States did not own cars (8.1 percent of all households). But that percentage of car-less households is probably on the rise. Felix Salmon notes on his Reuters blog that car sales have dropped precipitously in recent months (see Figure 1 - via the NYTimes and Figure 2 - via PeakVt). Salmon explains:
"...for most of the past decade, every group of 1,000 people bought about 60 cars a year and ended up with about 3 more vehicles at the end of the year than they had at the beginning. So what happens when they�re only buying 35 cars a year? Even if they manage to hold on to their old clunkers for a bit longer than they otherwise might have done, the total number of cars per 1,000 people is likely to fall quite dramatically..."
I would argue that this decline in new car sales, as well as the choice of the 8.7 million households to remain "car-free," is based more on economic necessity than a desire to use green transportation. The National Household Travel Survey didn't provide household income or demographic data, but Smart Growth America estimates that African Americans households are about three and half times more likely not to own a car than white families, and Latino households are two and a half times less likely. As our economy falters and the price of oil continues to rise, car ownership may become an unaffordable luxury for even a larger number of Americans.
Chase's new project is GoLoco, a website that facilitates ride-sharing, She is enthusiastic about the project because it will help working families who are struggling to afford car ownership, but must rely on a car to commute to work. She says in the interview that, "Ride sharing is going to be significant while we transform our infrastructure to be less car-dependent. While we have such a high cost of car travel in such a car-dependent country, I don�t see another solution."
According to Complete Streets, in 2001 when the price of gas was closer to $2 a gallon, an average American family already spent 18 percent of their income on transportation. The relative cost for lower-income Americans was even higher - 36 percent of the income of the poorest fifth of American families went towards transportation costs.But let's not forget, even shared car ownership is beyond the means of many working poor in our country. In the audio clip "Struggle for Transportation" included with Barbara Ehrenreich' recent NYTimes Op-ed, Too Poor to Make the News, Ehrenheich describes how with the recession, even the cost of public transit has become too much for some working families, resulting in a larger number of late-night cyclists along major Los Angeles thoroughfares. (The larger article describes the recession's effects on the lives of America's working poor who were struggling long before the derivatives bubble burst, unlike the formerly wealthy and middle class "Nouveau Poor" that have snagged most of the hard knocks press coverage.)Like universal health care and a living wage, affordable public transportation should be accessible to all working families in our country. Government polices that promote individual car ownership over investments in public transit are not only bad for the environment, but they fail to serve working families to whom car ownership is a large financial liability if not an outright impossibility.