jeep dealership
Jeep Dealership in Florida, photo courtesy of the Consumerist

Something should be fairly obvious right now, Americans are buying a lot fewer new cars now compared to the peak of the bubble a year and a half ago. Sales have fallen 46%, and the auto-industry is understandably worried. The Treasury Department – the Federal Government will soon own 60% of GM and already owns nearly 10% of Chrysler – thinks cars sales will continue to slide for the next years and doesn’t expect car sales to return to the peak any time soon. It’s an interesting piece, but here’s my favorite paragraph:

“It just became too expensive to have a car,” Ms. Emminger said. Now, she volunteers at City CarShare, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, in order to earn free use of its vehicles, which normally rent to members for $5 an hour plus 40 cents a mile. Otherwise, she takes public transit.

Lifestyles have changed, too. As many people move back to cities from suburbs, they are swapping three-car garages for a single parking space. Public transit use is up.

Apparently you need to walk 10,000 steps a day to stay fit, and driving keeps most people down to just 1,000. 10,000 is quite a bit of walking, you can see how far you’d walk based on your stride length here. Also, apparently living in a walkable neighborhood makes you 7% less likely to be obese (what’s my excuse?). For years now, experts have noted how car-oriented environments make us fat and how neighborhoods built before 1950 help you stay fit, and they’re even good for kids.

Maybe the combination of fewer cars and less driving will mean a fitter nation? Certainly we are watching a moment where the US is turning into Japan or France, but maybe something more along the lines of Canada or Australia. It’s going to be interesting to see how this turns out.

33 Replies to “Americans and Car Buying and Health”

  1. The public radio show Marketplace Mony has been following a woman’s spending for a month – having her write down every penny she spends and trying to learn lessons from her spending patterns. Last week’s show was the end of her month and she was very surprised that her largest expense wasn’t groceries – it was her car. The quote was something like “I don’t understand, my car’s paid off. I guess it’s because of the high gas prices.” Of course gas prices are actually way down from last year – it’s just that owning and driving a car is really expensive.

    1. I could see how she’s surprised. People have no idea how much cars cost. If they did, transit would be much more popular than it is.

  2. Any chance of selling of the overstock to Cuba? I understand that they are still driving old American cars of the 1950’s or so. Maybe the Cubans are ready to upgrade.

  3. My favorite part is the couple in San Fransisco that realized they don’t actually need cars anymore. “When he needs transportation, Mr. Allen either rides his scooter or borrows a car for a few hours from a local car-sharing service.” That’s what half the people in Seattle could be doing soon.

    Maybe the other half could set up some sort of community car sharing framework–any lawyers in the crowd?

    1. Yeah, the legal stuff is tricky. I looked into the possibility of sharing my roommate’s car in the event that mine finally gives out and the legal hassle of having two unrelated people on the same insurance policy is crazy and expensive. Unless we were to fraudulently claim to be in a same sex domestic partnership! lol

  4. I remember in my New Urbanism studies about the effect that household spending on cars had on the materials used in new home construction. An example such as hollow-core interior doors comes to mind…

  5. Two years ago, we got tired of putting $95/week into the gas tank of our Taurus, so we bought a Prius. It was then that I realized that we would never again buy a new vehicle with “conventional” technology.

    If we need a certain type of vehicle (minivan, pickup, etc.) that isn’t available as a hybrid or better, then we’ll just make due with a used one.

    New vehicles will always be expensive, and it doesn’t make sense to put 5-digit sums into 20th-century technology, not with 21st-century technology here and improving so quickly.

    1. How much per week do you put into the gas tank of the prius?

      I’ll tell you one thing about prius, they are good-looking cars, which has got to be another huge part of the appeal.

      1. And they’re fun to drive, thanks to the instant feedback graphics. My father has one, and I borrow it when I visit. I find myself always playing the maximum fuel efficiency game. Last time I made it a full half hour without having to kick on the engine (the road was mostly downhill).

    2. It’s still a $20K+ cost that you made that doesn’t make you money. Figure that the car lasts you 10 years, and you just spent at a minimum $2K a year, plus the lost interest on the money had you invested it…(ok I know that it’s a recession but bear with me.) Figure 3% interest on a “safe” investment, and it’s another $600. That’s without insurance, another $2K a year, plus tires, batteries etc…

      If you have a lifestyle that lets you use a Zip car, it’s generally more economical to not own.

      1. Yes, we’re now paying our Taurus’ gas money to the credit union, but at least we’re getting something in return — the car, a hard asset for the family — rather then seeing it go down the drain, to ARCO.

        With lower gas prices, we put less than $20/week into the Prius. But, alas, gas prices are inching up and this weekend it took $24 to fill for the week.

        Yes, Zip Cars are fine in concept, except they removed them all from SE Seattle with the takeover of Flex Car.

        Don’t ignore the bottom line of my earlier post: Don’t buy new cars with old technology!

      2. If you have a lifestyle that lets you use a Zip car, it’s generally more economical to not own.

        Given the changes to the program it almost makes more sense to use a traditional car rental or a taxi depending on the trip.

        If you figure between all the various costs owning car probably runs in the neighborhood of $4000-$8000/per year that is a lot of one-day car rentals and cab fare.

      3. It’s not a guess. AAA computes it each year and 2008 AAA Cost of Car Ownership starts at $4232/year for a small sedan. This is similar to the per-mile reimbursement rates the IRS or many companies use.

        All that said, if you can afford to have and maintain a car it’s certainly more convenient than using zipcar or renting when you do head out of town.

      4. I have a 2003 Prius with 43,000 miles on the odometer. I don’t drive it enough to keep the battery charged, which is a problem. I pay $100/month to garage it, and I hate to say how much in insurance just for recreational use, plus AAA to come out and jump start it when I actually want to drive it somewhere. I got a Zipcar membership last month and am trying to take that final step of actually listing the car for sale. It’s surprisingly hard to do.

    1. Me too, almost exactly – infuriating, and I get a reasonable discount from my insurance company for being a bus commuter.

  6. I say this with all sympathy for the auto workers who are left because I spent some years doing consulting at GM and Ford.

    These companies needed to break up/go down or whatever a long time ago. While other parts of the country have been able to recover and turn to other economic drivers, eastern Michigan has continued to be held in thrall to big auto, which repeatedly laid waste to whole cities.

    It will be hard, but only Saturn has the basis to introduce a hybrid and continue to run as a modern company.

    I’d like to see a program of retraining and even relocation help for the auto workers…

    1. “It will be hard, but only Saturn has the basis to introduce a hybrid and continue to run as a modern company.”

      Back in ’95 college classmates of mine were involved in a Saturn-funded project to modify a Saturn to be a hybrid car. Imagine if the had followed up on this, all those years ago…

    2. “It will be hard, but only Saturn has the basis to introduce a hybrid and continue to run as a modern company.”

      I’m not sure what you mean by this. Saturn’s hybrid technology is the same as other GM products, such as the Malibu hybrid.

  7. PS Good reference to Michael Moore’s (I watched early run of Roger and Me in a community center in Lansing) letter on the demise of GM:

    http://publicola.net/?p=6964

    OT I took that train trip across the WHOLE country!! WOW. DO IT. Lots of pictures. Park service folks doing education along the way. Kind of interesting to see what ends up by the tracks and near the stations. Not what you’d call TOD..

    1. That’s the problem with Acela on the east coast. It’s over $100 to travel from New York to DC. Even the regular Amtrak is significantly more expensive than Greyhound. It’s fine for people with expense accounts, but not for tourists or people who want to visit somebody or see a show somewhere.

      1. I will admit the three days was more for the experience than any efficiency. But the line to Chicago was actually cost effective for folks like the Mom and two kids versus airfare. There were alot of people just in coach from Chicago to DC because the sleepers go up in price east of Chicago, but it’s still cheaper than most airfare, and tons more fun and comfortable on the train than a bus. There wer also a lot of people who bought the segment passes, and were just seeing the country.

        When talking DC to NYC, you are right that it’s competing with the airplane and they price on that basis. That makes me concerned about what happens when my favorite run of Seattle to Portland improves enough to seriously attract the business class.

        I’d suggest that a great vacation for families would be to get a roomette and just travel to Glacier Park. If Amtrak had done like the Canadians and built hotels — well imagine the ad campaigns.

        At the same time I was rather appalled to get off at Rockville and then take a cab to go to near Gaithersburg. The big hotel/Disneylandesque operation is miles from a Metro station and the housing developments out near route 108 with NOT EVEN BUS SERVICE are getting two new lanes added to the existing two lanes in either direction on the new main road, because ‘Gee it’s bumper to bumper from the time that school gets out.’

        These are friends and family who say it’s just old people and immigrants and gangs and all that ‘down there’ in the older burbs we grew up in, and forget about that transit development thingy at Wheaton. I told I this explains why they need the shiny McMansion built where a farm was a few years ago, so they can pretend they live in the country. Oh and then I meet people both at the family gathering and on the plane back who now live in Harper’s Ferry and commute 50 miles back and forth to work each day, because the housing prices are too high! Well, not really compared to the Seattle area unless you must have that 5000 sqft on a quarter acre. But, talk to the real old timers from Gaithersburg or Rockville and you get a whole different story.

      2. When I said “even the regular Amtrak”, I meant specifically the northeast line. But whenever I’ve priced the train to SF or Chicago, it’s always been more expensive than flying. “What’s slower than a bus, goes once a day, and costs more than flying?” And that’s supposed to give me an incentive to ride it? I do travel solo though; maybe it’s different with a family. I did take the train to San Diego and back in 1987, stopping in SF and Vancouver WA. And in SD I shared a train car with a woman who was impatiently minding three kids. She said they had all traveled from Philadelphia. No wonder they were getting on her nerves.

        The Amtrak Cascades is different because it’s subsidized by the state. You can get a good deal if you reserve a month ahead or go midweek. Like the airlines, they charge according to how full the train is.

        I don’t know the east coast that well. Rockville and Gaithersburg are in Maryland? Wheaton is in Illinois?

      3. Sorry. It’s all suburban Maryland. Rockville and Wheaton are where there are Metro stations. There is even a so-called Gaithersburg station, but it’s no where near old Gaithersburg. But, development happens around the I 270, and then further and further north.

        Just my whine about the Smart Growth laws not having any teeth to really stop auto based development, which got more appalling when I overlay the various transit maps on top of what Google images show.

      4. The railroad that built the Empire Builder route, The Great Northern Railway, did build 2 exquisite lodges at Glacier National Park, and Amtrak heavily promotes trips to the park.

      5. The Federal govt. forced the railroads out of that business during the ‘Progressive’ era. Unlike in Canada, the railroads were not allowed to own much of anything that could be considered non-railroad business. GN was forced to sell off its steamships, for example.

        This is, of course, an over-generalization, but it is likely that at least some of the US railroads would have been more like CP was in the the 50s – owning hotels, ships, and an airline, if it hadn’t been for legal issues.

      6. Part of the higher fares is because they can charge them and still be competitive w/ the airlines, and part is due to Amtrak owning the railway there and having to pay the full costs of maintaining the ROW. However, the load factor is often under 50% on some mid morning and mid afternoon trains, but Amtrak insists on having walk up and go hourly schedules which artificially inflate fares.

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