A substantial number of people always seem to long for a past that exists only in their minds; at best, that past selects positive, warm memories but excludes the overall reality. It’s that human trait that drives the vintage and antique auto market: You can purchase something now that you passionately wanted but couldn’t afford decades ago, when it was new, or maybe something you believe was an automotive work of art, from an era when one believes that engineering was superior to today. Most of us constantly strive to get back to where our happiest memories of youth live.
And we do the darnedest things to make a memory a reality — and enhance it. For example, today one can buy a beautifully restored 1969 Chevy Camaro on eBay Motors starting at $45,000; our family owned one when it could be purchased slightly used for $2,400. Trust me, it wasn’t all that and you don’t want to listen to Led Zeppelin on the single-speaker AM radio that came with that car. Not that you can find an AM station that plays that music anymore, but eBay also offers a slew of working 8-track tape players and Led Zeppelin tapes to play in it. (Consumer Note: No one will call you an avant-garde audiophile if you buy an 8-track for your overpriced antique Chevy.)
Ironically, today your iPhone has more computing power than the Apollo and lunar lander did. Those space vehicles first put men on the moon, yet no one has invented an app that lets an iPhone do that for its owner. But there is an app for Lyft, another Internet taxi company that hopes Uber messes up again badly one day and Lyft can become top dog.
I say that because The Verge ran a story on Lyft’s two founders during the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Turns out those two kids, John Zimmer and Logan Green, aren’t just Internet visionaries; they also consider themselves something of a two-person think tank here to save the world. To that end they have put out policy papers. One of those, which predicted the end of personal car ownership in major cities by 2025, also called on people to carpool instead. For incentive, they think, cities should charge a “fee” for those who don’t — i.e., a Tax.
At this year’s CES, however, Zimmer took his automotive logic to an extreme. Marveling at the brilliant technology coming down the pipe in consumer electronics, he suggested to his audience that things would be better for us if we got back to where we were in 1969. That’s right, John Zimmer believes that every family should sell its second car; as he pointed out, in 1969 only 31 percent of all households owned two cars or more — increasing to 59 percent in 2009 — and like 50 years ago traffic congestion would magically disappear. Cool.
Zimmer boasted that Lyft users have reported to his company that because of ride-sharing, some have been able to ditch even their primary cars.
Andrew Hawkins, who wrote this article, suggested this might already be taking place by pointing out that “car ownership and miles driven have declined significantly per person and per household since peaking more than a decade ago.” Impressive. I wonder whether Hawkins noticed that 79 million Baby Boomers, the first of which hit 65 almost a decade ago, retired and often those households sold one vehicle to economize. And sometimes a retired couple loses one partner, and the household no longer needs two vehicles. Does that play a part in the declines in car ownership and miles driven? Probably.
But let’s go back to Zimmer’s premise that in 1969, a mythically happier time, only 31 percent of households owned two cars, so there was little traffic congestion. First, the population of metropolitan areas such as Dallas/Fort Worth was a third as large as it is today. Also, according to an Exxon road map from 1970, Loop 820 from just west of I-35 north was not completed; the missing link extended around West Fort Worth and reconnected at today’s Hulen Mall. Interstate 20 across the entire southern Metroplex didn’t yet exist.
Forget all of Dallas and Fort Worth’s northern and southern regions, because they didn’t exist at the time, either. The Metroplex’s 2.2 million residents all lived much closer to each other; in 1969, many on Fort Worth’s West Side worked at General Dynamics, so on days when the wife took the family car to run errands, it wasn’t much of a stretch to carpool.
But, as Zimmer pointed out, 59 percent of households had two cars instead of one by 2009, creating the traffic congestion no one can stand. Granted, that increase may have made things worse; but a DFW population that grew from just 2.2 million residents to today’s 7.2 million probably is to blame for much of our region’s current traffic congestion. Even constant road building would have had a hard time keeping up with that kind of expansion. Likewise, in 1970 the Greater Los Angeles region’s population was just 9.9 million people and today it’s 18.7 million. That also has created greater traffic congestion — even if no one had added a second family car.
But inexperienced people writing “think tank-like” papers often wield statistics without ever looking at the factors that created and changed them. For instance, take the Metroplex’s growth from 2.2 million individuals to over 7 million. That meant that we had to start building suburbs much farther away from city centers and certainly from large industrial factories and major corporate offices.
At the same time, acquiring more than one car per household stemmed from increased family wealth. That happened typically because women entered the workforce in ever larger numbers over the past 40 years; they too wanted the enhanced self-image that comes from being a person of compensated accomplishments.
Using car ownership numbers per household from 1969 as a basis for fixing traffic congestion today seems to ignore many important facts. But in hard numbers, using Census data from 1970, there were only 63.5 million total households — which by two years ago had grown to 126.8 million. That right, the number of households in America doubled from 1970 – 2016. So let’s test his theory that, if 59 percent of all households dumped their second car and started carpooling, this would solve all problems.
Doing so would take 74.8 million cars off the highways. OK, that could work —if you can ignore other real-world factors to reach the conclusions you drew in your presentation.
Still, what would really happen if we did that?
First, as stated in this column last year, the Clean Air Act of 1990 also mandated that non-attainment areas for air pollution had to force companies of over 100 employees to certify that 25 percent of them carpooled to work. And all those companies and corporations had to file plans stating how they were going to make this a reality. This went well beyond the concept of charging “a fee” if people don’t carpool to work; this was a federal mandate, albeit one that never was put into play.
Why not? Because, during the process of getting these corporate plans drawn up, officials quickly realized that there was no way they could make this utopian pipedream a reality, for the reasons stated earlier: Our metropolitan areas had already spread out too much. To do carpooling, the designated employee with the car would have to act as a transit driver, going all over town to pick up his or her three other riders. Even the huge Houston mass transit system claimed they would have to shut down, its authorities said, if 25 percent of bus drivers had to carpool to work. Federally mandated carpooling was about to be put in place almost 30 years ago, and was proven to be unworkable.
Zimmer’s other idea is ditch the family cars and use on-demand Internet taxis, like his, instead. Again, if you take away the 74.8 million second vehicles owned by 59 percent of households, you now need to add back at least … maybe 74.8 million Internet taxi cars to take their places — picking up people going to work and taking them home. And if you do that, you have made congestion even worse, because now those cars are on the road just to come and pick you up. That adds time to rush hours, so that’s no solution either. Of course, one day computerization would locate logical riders to join you on your morning drive by comparing homes and destinations. If you wanted to share your Internet taxi. Or if you aren’t worried about getting to your job on time.
Zimmer capped off his talk by saying that surveys of Lyft users prove his point and brilliance. According to him, 250,000 Lyft users have sold their cars because they only use Lyft. Half say they use their car less because of Lyft. (Does he realize just how inane that statement was? If they own a car and are taking that survey while using Lyft, 100 percent of his users are using their personal vehicles less. And that one surveyed ride proves it.)
A quarter of his survey respondents claim that owing a car is less important to them now. And 30 percent of people over 50 that use Lyft don’t even own a vehicle at all.
More information, please: What is the wealth of those individuals, where do they live, and did they ever own a vehicle before? Think of the 20.2 million people that comprise the population of the greater New York City region, many of whom don’t own cars to begin with, or don’t drive them to work with because driving and parking are an enormously expensive hassle; many of those individuals used the subway and taxis decades before Lyft ever came along. That’s a huge market for Zimmer’s company. But using New Yorkers and those who work in the city in this survey would quickly skew the overall statistics; in fact, the more of these individuals surveyed, the more skewed the total numbers would be.
Further, as it turns out, a recent op-ed in the New York Daily News pointed out that 50 – 75 percent of all traffic in New York City is now either cabs or Uber and Lyft drivers —over ten thousand of them, double the number from 2014. That’s why Midtown congestion now has cars driving at just 5 miles an hour on average. That means that in at least one major city of great personal wealth, even when families don’t own any cars, Internet taxi companies are making traffic worse, not better.
Maybe these youngsters should try to make money instead of writing policy papers using data out of context, not to mention distributing misinformation to those of us old enough to remember the past. After all, according to Recode, Lyft brought in $700 million in revenue in 2014 and lost $600 million doing so. However, that was better than in 2015, when they lost more than double what they earned. Given a financial performance like that, they’ve got more important things to do.
© Ed Wallace 2018; Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org