It’s hard to exaggerate North America’s love affair with the car. Most major cities were built on the assumption we’d all have personal vehicles, and getting a driver’s license remains a key cultural marker of adulthood. Hell, just saying “DeLorean” or “Aston Martin DB5” conjures up entire pop culture mythologies.
But the car’s cultural significance may finally be on the wane. The use of ride-sharing services is swelling at an exponential rate (it took Uber six years to mark one billion rides in 2015, but just six months to get to two billion), and Lyft recently boasted that nearly 250,000 of its customers have given up on owning a vehicle entirely. After a century-long relationship with private car ownership, we’re now feeling ready to get spicy and open things up.
So why the change? Is our choice to ride-share simply a matter of convenience or affordability? Or does it point to a broader shift in how we view the role of the cars in our lives?
Maybe it’s our never-ending desire for new identities and experiences. “Car sharing produces a philandering subjectivity that gives individuals the freedom to have lots of different types of cars, and therefore relationships with each of them,” writes researcher Catherine Simpson. So under our new car-sharing regime, we can identify as someone who drives a station wagon when we’re shuttling the kids around, and when it comes time for a weekend getaway, we’ll feel more like a bright red convertible.
Our predilection for novelty and self-expression may explain why young people are more likely to use car and ridesharing services—and why those that do are also less attached to specific brands. Only 21 percent of ridesharers in a PWC survey said they’re in a “committed partnership” with their chosen transit app, compared to the 33 percent of millennial car-owners who say they’ll always purchase from the same car brand.
Rising rideshare statistics offer plenty of fodder for utopian predictions of a car-free, community-focused future. But just because we’re using these services doesn’t mean we’re ready to give up on our own set of keys. According to market research firm Parks Associates’ consumer data released in 2016, 27 percent of millennials intended to buy a car within the next year, compared to 26 percent of Generation Xers (an age group that’s much more likely to be able to afford one). And surprisingly, millennials who use Uber were more likely to “strongly intend” to purchase a vehicle within the next year than their non-ridesharing peers.
Instead of a sign of changing cultural values, our choice to forego car ownership may be a strictly economic one. The 2008 recession struck when many millennials were teens and tweens—prime car-idolizing time. “Maybe they missed that moment as teenagers when you deeply fall in love with cars, or a car,” writes Wharton management professor John Paul MacDuffie. “And they are forever going to be more on the pragmatic car-as-commodity, car-as-appliance part of the equation.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by sociologist Mimi Sheller, director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University and author of Automotive Emotions: Feeling the Car. Rather than a more community-centric zeitgeist, she points to economic conditions, rising student loan debt, and the lack of affordable housing in urban areas as the driving forces behind millennials’ preference for low-commitment, short-term rentals.
“Some of the original car-sharing organizations were more like community clubs,” said Sheller. “They were non-profits, and intended to move away from the individualistic nature of car ownership.” Comparing these to today’s commercial service providers, she said, is “like comparing couchsurfing and Airbnb.”
In other words, renting someone's apartment in Barcelona for the weekend is not going to stop you from buying your own house in Burnaby, nor will it make you suddenly see your place of residence as a free-for-all for internet strangers. Lyft’s claim that waves of users are abandoning their cars is further conflicted by research finding that people are mainly just substituting ridesharing for taxis or public transportation. According to Shellery, “they’re using these services for trips they might not even have taken. It’s created an overall increase in [traffic], and it hasn’t taken a lot of cars off the road.”
So while we may want to play the field with a flashy sports car on an impulsive night out, it doesn’t mean that we’re ready to give up monogamy for good. For most of us, we’re grateful to have our faithful old hatchback to come home to.