Monday, June 8, 2009

Building a Constituency of Car-free Weekenders

Several times in the past few years, both online and in person, I've been told by New Yorkers, "I wish I could get rid of my car, but I need it when I go away for the weekend." Now it's possible that that's just a convenient excuse, and that they're really afraid of giving up their middle-class status symbols, but let's assume that there is a significant number of New Yorkers who currently own cars but would give them up if they could get the same quality vacations without the car.

In 2008, the DMV reports that there were 1,751,505 cars registered in New York City, and there are probably a lot more registered in vacation homes and stored here. Imagine if we could get even ten percent of that number off the streets. First of all, taxpayer-funded free parking wasn't set up for the purpose of subsidizing middle-class vacations, and there would be a lot more parking available to people who might use it on a more short-term basis. Second, weekend getaway driving is a significant component of the pollution that New Yorkers emit, and of the petroleum we consume. Third, it contributes to human and animal carnage throughout the region.

Perhaps most importantly, weekend driving perpetuates a driving constituency that would not otherwise be there: a significant number of the voices demanding more roads and more parking - and consequently less space for pedestrians and cyclists, and less money for trains and buses - in the city, in the inner suburbs and in the vacation areas.

In upcoming posts, I'll discuss what can be done to reduce weekend vacation driving in the city.


Alon Levy said...

On the contrary, reducing weekend car use should be the last priority for city planners. New York City has 233 vehicles per 1,000 people; counting only cars, make is 209. Its suburban counties range from 629 cars per 1,000 people in Westchester to 801 in Putnam. The most important thing is by far to either move people from the suburbs back to the city, or to create walkable, car-free zones in large swaths of Westchester and Long Island, on the model of Arlington but on a larger scale.

BruceMcF said...

@ Alon ... those number (NYC has 233 vehicles per 1,000 people) suggest that improved opportunities for car-free weekend getaways is something that would be of immediate benefit to a substantial number of New Yorkers, with any transition to car-free households by "weekend car owners" an additional benefit on top of that.

Also, for getting VMT travelled down, the scale of the walkable zones may be less critical than their dispersion through the region.

Jonathan said...

Thank you for the intriguing post. Is the goal to reduce VMT or to build a larger car-free constituency?

First off, more exact research would be helpful. Just because people tell you they only use their car on the weekends doesn’t mean that they only use their car on the weekends. As a former aficionado of ASP, I can report that residents of a twice-a-week district like my Upper Manhattan neighborhood need to be prepared to move their cars three to four times a week. So to maintain my automobile in order to travel to my (notional) weekend home, I need to drive in the city about four to five times a week. It’s likely that I use the car for something else during the week, because I can combine the search for a new space with errands to stores with parking. Asking people to give up the weekend car also means asking them to give up the car that they are regularly using to shop at Fairway with.

Second, because of the rapid depreciation of car values and the high sales tax in NY, there is a strong financial incentive to keep a car you’ve already bought and paid for, rather than sell it and buy another one later. I bought my 2001 model car in 2006 for $10,000 and sold it this year for $5,000. That’s a $5,000 loss right there. If I bought a new car in 2011 for $10,000 again I would have to pay another $837.50 in sales tax. Keeping the car, on the other hand, gives me 100% access to the vehicle and saves me the sales tax as well as the depreciation, which I don’t have to book until I actually sell the car. Also, the insurance company will charge you higher rates later on if you have sold your car and cancelled the insurance.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, guys. The goal is not necessarily to decrease VMT, but to reduce pollution and carnage, increase efficiency, improve society and provide transportation for all. It's reprinted in the header for your convenience, and detailed in this post. Decreasing VMT may help, but you can have some movement towards those things without it, or you can decrease VMT and backslide towards those goals. Building a car-free constituency is only a means to those ends.

As to where car-free weekends ranks on the list of priorities for achieving those goals, I'm not sure. It depends in part on how easy it is to accomplish.

Anonymous said...

If there are so few cars in NYC, why is it so hard to find parking?

Well, anyway. If all these New Yorkers use their car for is weekend vacations, then wouldn't it be a lot cheaper for them to just rent a car each time? Assuming most people don't go away every weekend, that should reduce the total number of cars necessary in the city. Zipcar can make this even more convenient by not making it necessary to find a rental place; just find the zipcar nearest to you and go.

In other words, "car sharing" in one form or another is the answer.

Cap'n Transit said...

Resonance, you're joking, right? It's hard to find parking because those things are way too big.

Where would they rent these cars, anyway?

Jonathan said...

Resonance, I'm with Cap here. I found that at current rates, rental rates were more expensive than keeping my car if I rented 10 weekends a year or more. That takes into account neither parking (makes rental more attractive) nor necessity for early reservation (favors owning) or distance from rental garage (favors owning). Friends tell me zipcars (that particular brand) are too far away from home and too sparse for casual use. Plus for an entire weekend it's more expensive than a regular rental.