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A mobile lifestyle and owning a car don't mix
by Bradley B. • February 26, 2019

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Where Does Car Ownership Fit Into a Mobile Life?

For many Americans, the economic prosperity of the 20th century meant a predictable life. Middle-class workers could expect a single company to provide employment for decades—if not an entire career. At the end of a workday, you returned via car to a long-held family home. (You know, the white picket fence and all that.) An easy daily commute in your privately owned automobile was an integral facet of the good life.

But a couple of generations of technological advances and shifting demographics changed everything. Our previously scripted lifestyles are now characterized by change and mobility. With the shift, you are likely to move throughout your life between multiple jobs and cities.

And that car (or two) in your garage? It just doesn’t make sense the way it used to – not when so many flexible transportation alternatives are available.

Times Change

More and more of us earn a living as freelancers in the so-called gig economy. If you’re in that category, then you know the liberating feeling of not being tied to a single employer—and the freedom of avoiding a daily traffic jam. Without that rush-hour commute, the need for a dedicated, privately owned vehicle becomes a lot less necessary. Besides, freelancers with uncertain income realize the importance of eluding big, fixed costs especially for rarely used, depreciating assets like a car.

Whether or not you’re a freelancer, most of our jobs have been influenced by an economy and culture defined as nomadic. Even as a full-time employee, work-at-home policies (perhaps a day or two a week) have become the norm. With conferencing and collaboration tools, our meetings take place remotely and on the run. For better or worse, our professional and personal lives are spent on our smartphones.

The highly mobile lifestyle is here to stay. Strategy Analytics, a market research firm based in Newton, Mass., forecasts that the global mobile workforce will rise from 1.45 billion people in 2016 to 1.87 billion by 2022. According to Forbes, some amount of remote work has become the standard for at least 50 percent of the U.S. population.

Millennials famously delay getting a driver’s license—preferring the flexibility of access to a car or a ride when it’s needed rather than the hassle and expense of buying, fueling, maintaining, and insuring an automobile. But don’t think for a second that the trend toward greater mobility and a car-flex lifestyle only applies to Millennials.

Yes, nearly 75 percent of the workforce will be Millennials by about 2030. But all of us are now hyper-connected. As a result, the lines between work and life get blurred. Baby Boomers have quickly adapted to the new reality, and the digital natives known as Gen Z are now joining the workforce, further instilling the mobile lifestyle as the norm.

The fast-paced digital life means that we need to protect our time. The average American spends 335 hours annually behind the wheel. Getting stuck in traffic or wasting time finding parking is the enemy. In our mobile world, owning a car becomes less about freedom and more of a financial and logistical burden.

You Still Need a Car Sometimes

While some analysts believe that we have reached “peak car,” the jury is still out. It’s easy enough to go car-free as a young person living in a city. But when kids come along, sometimes with a move to the burbs, suddenly there’s a need for strollers, diaper bags, soccer gear, and all the paraphernalia of modern parenthood.

Sometimes a move carries you to cities that have more sprawl and fewer public transit options. All it takes is one or two times of needing a quick ride but waiting for 15 or 20 minutes for ride-hail service to arrive to suddenly see the appeal of a readily accessible vehicle with all your stuff.

So the new world of mobility is not about entirely eradicating the automobile. It’s a matter of having access to a vehicle for a certain flexible period of time. That’s where car-sharing and car subscriptions play a key role.

“Subscription car services make a lot of sense,” said Susan Shaheen, a University of California Berkeley expert on shared mobility, in an interview with Forbes. “We’ve already moved from an ownership model to the access model in mobile phones, movies, and music—and now cars.”

A shared car means you can choose the type of car you need for any specific trip. For example, a pickup truck is for a move, a minivan for a trip to Costco, or a cute, easy-to-park compact provides service for an errand in the city. And you only pay for the miles you travel. A car subscription similarly provides a predictable all-inclusive price for exactly the type of car you need at a certain time in your life—on a flexible, monthly basis.

Both alternatives allow you to shift to a different type of vehicle when your life circumstances change. If you need to move, you return the car and get going—without the penalties associated with quickly selling a car, terminating a lease, or paying to ship your vehicle. When you’re ready, you might go back to a no-car lifestyle, returning to reliance upon ride-hailing, carpooling, public transit, bicycling, walking, and shared scooters. The goal is to find the right, flexible transportation solutions for our mobile lives, rather than assuming you absolutely need a private car all the time.

Services Versus Sedans

Transportation specialists refer to flexible transit using the term “mobility as a service” or “transportation as a service.” RethinkX, a think tank, predicts that these services, especially when powered in the future by electric and autonomous vehicles, will mean the end of traditional car ownership. In a 2017 study, RethinkX said that in a decade’s time we should expect 95 percent of U.S. passenger miles traveled to be served by on-demand services. “We are on the cusp of one of the fastest, deepest, and most consequential disruptions of transportation in history,” wrote Tony Seba, a co-author of the study.

That future is a decade or more away. In the meantime, roughly 40 million Americans—or about one in seven people in the U.S.—will continue to move at least once a year. This population shift, as reported by USA Today, will immediately require a different approach to how we get around. Increasingly, that means a new and more flexible relationship between Americans and their automobiles.