If you live in a city, take a quick look around. Something crazy is happening right in front of your eyes: the personal car is disappearing.
For decades, the convenience of owning a car has been so powerful that we’ve literally built our society around it. But, thanks to technology, and rapidly growing cities, that’s starting to change.
The best steel umbrella money can buy
It’s not technology that has made the car so compelling. Most of us don’t really care what’s happening under the hood. What we really care about is the bundle of services wrapped up in that car-shaped package.
Your car is your grocery cart, your commuter bus, and your steel umbrella. It carries you to friends hundreds of miles away and to the store across town.
It’s also extremely expensive. After housing, transportation is the average American’s highest expense. We spend more money getting around than we do on food.
For decades, the convenience offered by this bundle of services was so irreplaceable that we basically had no choice but to fork over huge percentages of our paycheck for car payments, car insurance, car parking, car repair, and tank after tank of gas.
Is the car the new newspaper?
But, now we’re starting to see cracks in the personal car’s monopoly on American transportation.
However, this is not cell phones replacing landlines. The car is not being replaced by a single superior vehicle (until jet packs finally arrive!).
A better model for this disruption is the newspaper. Like the car, what made the newspaper so powerful was all the services embedded in it: national news, local news, classified ads, personal publishing opportunities (remember letters to the editor?), etc.
The shorthand of what happened next is that the internet killed the newspaper. The slightly more nuanced story is much more interesting.
New companies arose that peeled off each of the newspaper’s core services, one by one. Craigslist doesn’t give you the news, but it’s a better way to see classified ads. The Huffington Post might not know what’s happening in your community, but it’s a great place to get juicy gossip informative articles.
Here come the apps
New mobile-enabled transportation companies are threatening to peel apart the car in just the same way. It’s starting in cities, where the hassle of parking and traffic have signficantly reduced the car’s convenience.
You wouldn’t want to rely on any one of these new services for all your trips. But, when you put them all together, they create a transportation package for us urbanites that is faster, cheaper and more convenient than owning a car ever was.
Zipcar isn’t a great way get to work every day, but it sure is great for a big shopping trip. Uber is really bad at getting you out to the mountains for the weekend, but the convenience of having a car show up when you press a button—and then disappear when you’re done—is perfect for some trips around the city.
And it’s not just cars. Public transit is now more convenient, thanks to the countless apps that let you know when the next bus is coming. Bike sharing is taking off across Europe, and in American cities like DC and NYC. Oh, and (warning: self promotion to follow) you can now turn on a shared, vespa-style scooter with a tap of your smartphone. Buses and scooters aren’t great for all types of trips, but they definitely beat searching for parking every morning on an overcrowded city street.
“[Owning a car] was a rite of passage. Now the right of passage is a cell phone.” -Annalisa Bluhm, GM spokeswoman
“.. today young people don’t seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations.” -Toyota USA president, Jim Lentz
This isn’t just a theory. You can already see the fear in the eyes of auto industry.
In Europe, car manufactures are so scared of this change in the landscape that many of the major companies, like BMW and Daimler, have already started creating their own app driven car sharing services.
Meanwhile, recent studies have made it clear that even in car obsessed America, fewer young folks are buying cars and our overall miles-per-capita are dropping for the first time since WWII.
As a vehicle, the car isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. It’s just too useful. But, the software driven transition from car ownership to service subscription is already well under-way—unless you live in the suburbs. Then you’ll just have to wait for Google’s self driving cars….