Car-sharing on the decline

Phil Berg
Car Culture

More people are driving to work alone.

Car-pooling has declined from 19.7 percent of all workers in 1980 to 9.4 percent of all workers in 2013. In 1980, only 64.4 percent of workers drove to work alone; in 2010 that number had increased steadily to 76.6 percent of workers who drove to work alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Until 2005, the percentage of workers who commuted to work by car was on the increase, according to the survey. In the past few years that pace has leveled off, says survey author Brian McKenzie: Younger people and urban renters who walk, bike or ride the bus are leading the no-commute charge.

But for those who drive to work, the percentage doing so alone is at an all-time high.

In 1996, I did my own informal study of Metro Detroit commuting habits, and it showed me then that going solo is preferred, despite drivers consistently describing commuting as torture. So during one evening rush hour I counted all the cars that I passed and that passed me on my 40-mile trip between Birmingham and Ann Arbor. Of 1,310 cars, 12 had passengers in the rear seats. Two weeks ago I did the same traffic count, exactly 20 years later. This time I passed 2,462 passenger vehicles, and only seven had rear-seat passengers. Both trips took just less than one hour on exactly the same combination of freeways, two-lane roads and four-lane suburban boulevards.

There is a catch this year, however, that renders my study unscientific: rear-window tinting, which I noticed on more than half of all SUVs, crossovers and full-size pickups makes it difficult to see rear-seaters. But overall, the bulk of commuters drive in solitude, which seems to support McKenzie’s data.

My 1996 traffic count was done to support my own preference for two-door cars. I love coupes. I think anything with four or more doors ought to be labeled public transportation. For that rare instance I’m not making the kids walk to school, do I want to spend most of my driving time hauling two extra doors with their expense and weight and complexity? A vehicle door is one of the toughest things of the whole assembly process to make.

Earlier this year analyst company IHS Automotive reported only 2.6 percent of vehicle sales were two-doors in 2015, and the percentage is dropping yearly.

So our five- to eight-seat cars are more capable of hauling rear-seaters, but we’re not doing it. My 2016 traffic count showed me rear-seat passengers are so rare I had time to write down the model names of cars with them: two Chevrolet Traverses, one Malibu, one Suburban, one Kia Sorrento, one Cadillac Escalade and one Volvo XC90.

Car-pooling was most popular in the 1980s, and was that era’s economic necessity following the oil embargoes. We were all forced into car-sharing then, so it’s no surprise to me that car-pooling has consistently dropped significantly every year, hitting a new low in 2010, when the number of commuters driving alone peaked. Thinking it was following this trend in the early 1980s, General Motors introduced the Fiero two-seater as a personal commuter car that by its mid-engine design meant you couldn’t even squeeze a pet in back. The Fiero’s celebration of designed-in solitude was thought to be so necessary to Americans then that GM envisioned it would singlehandedly resuscitate the shuttered Pontiac Assembly plant. Sales declined so fast production halted after just five years.

Today we aren’t sharing the unused seats in our cars, even though Lyft and Uber are trying like mad to get us to. Commuting times are rising, as reported by the U.S. Census, suggesting more congestion and too many passenger vehicles. Urban and young folks are finding new ways to not commute, with hitchhiking apps, booming bicycle use and working at home; yet suburban and rural workers are driving longer distances than ever. What seems like an obvious need for car sharing and car-pooling is not being met yet.

Why so many empty car seats on Detroit’s roads? I’ll paraphrase a comment made by Bob Lutz, who was a top executive at Chrysler and GM: “Americans may never use the capabilities they have, but they want those capabilities because they never want to be told they can’t use them.”