A host of services now enable people who don't own cars to still use them. Is that just as bad?

Brian Fung has a provocative piece over at The Washington Post arguing that services like Uber and Zipcar in fact may reinforce the "car culture" that they theoretically aim to upend. Uber (or Lyft or Sidecar) and Zipcar (or car2go) are very different services, the former built on paying for rides from other drivers, and the latter on paying for short-term rental cars to drive yourself. Fundamentally, though, they (and any number of other hybrid services in this space) enable people to get around without owning private vehicles of their own.

This is where Fung sees the contradiction. OK, maybe car ownership is declining as a result, alongside the share of young people signing up for their first driver's licenses. But, he writes, "by embracing these on-demand services, our reliance on cars isn't so much eroding as being renewed by a different means." Car culture, he suggests, will endure even among people who hate to drive so long as we still rely on cars – regardless of who owns them, or who sits in the driver's seat.

This is an interesting argument, but it raises the broader question of what we mean by “car culture” in the first place. Or, more to the point: Exactly which elements of it are worth trying to curb? Is the real problem that people feel they must own cars? Is it that cars remain necessary (or preferable) to get around? Is it that any reliance on cars demands infrastructure to accommodate them?

Fung's issue appears to be with the cars themselves, not the social value placed on owning one. And if car ownership isn't a prerequisite for participating in car culture, then a decline in ownership rates doesn't look all that significant:

A shift to Uber won't mean the end of car culture. It just means displacing the burden of driving onto somebody else — a trend that'll grow even more pronounced as self-driving cars enable the efficient delivery of goods as well as people.

More broadly, car sharing still relies on a two-ton hunk of metal that burns old dinosaurs to get people from one place to another. These machines require that cities be built in certain ways to accommodate them. Even in a future where autonomous Uber deliveries become the norm, those vehicles will need a curb to pull up to, or a parking lot to stop in, or large highways to reach their destinations — all of which we take for granted but none of which are particularly beneficial to pedestrians and cyclists, who (thanks in part to bike sharing programs nationwide) are probably contributing to the decline in car ownership.

I agree with Fung that the heart of the issue lies with the infrastructure, the parking garages and highways and curb space that we turn over to cars at great expense. But I think something else happens in the process of displacing the burden of driving onto somebody else. Owning a car is not the same as owning a Zipcar membership. And that's because when you don't have your very own car parked right out front at all times, the hurdles to driving (or catching a ride) are much higher.

People use cars differently when they own (or lease) them than when they have to pay by the ride, like they do with Uber, or when they have to book a Zipcar a day in advance, or when they have to ensure that the car2go out front hasn't been claimed by someone else. You don't use these kinds of services to travel a mile to the store for a roll of toilet paper. You wouldn't spend $7 on Uber to run to Starbucks for a $4 latte.

But these are things that we do with the cars we already own. We behave this way because it's convenient. We behave this way because we feel like we've already paid for the car – so why not use it, even if just around the block? I'll admit that I think this way all the time.

I have never seen any data on this, but I would bet that a group of car owners travels far more vehicle miles in a week, or a year, than a comparable group of people who periodically use or buy rides in cars that don't belong to them. This is why declining car ownership matters, even if it coincides (not coincidentally) with the rise of alternative car-use models.

If the ultimate problem implicated by "car culture" – assuming you use that phrase with a sneer – is the ubiquitous infrastructure we've built to support cars, then any decline in just-running-around-the-corner car use means we might need less infrastructure.

If no one in my apartment owns a car, then we don't need a parking garage on the ground floor of our building. And that remains true even if everyone in the building has a Sidecar membership. If I regularly take transit to work, but use Uber cars to get home from the bar on Friday nights, I'm not putting the same demand on road capacity as someone who drives to work alone every day. If one car2go is used by 10 people in a single day, then that's nine cars that didn't spend most of that entire day sitting, unused, in a parking spot somewhere.

In other words, there's something in between the auto-dominated world where every two-driver household has a three-car garage, and the unrealistic utopia where no one drives at all. In this middle world, cars continue to exist, but we use them more efficiently. Car infrastructure is still necessary, but we need less of it. And, fundamentally, services that enable us to get around without owning our own cars encourage (or force) us to treat car rides more like a scarce resource than the easiest, cheapest, fastest, most convenient way to get everywhere.

If "car culture" is synonymous with the latter thinking to you, then this is a positive development.

Top image: A Lyft driver in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

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