The Growing Trend Toward Going Car-less

More and more hipsters are taking to bikes. While at a stoplight the other day, I watched a hipster on a bike call out to another hipster on a bike across the street. I thought they knew each other, but then I realized they were acknowledging each other the same way people with the exact same car may wave or nod to each other. We live in an area where many people bike to work or the store, but I’m used to seeing them dressed in fancy gear. These two people were wearing flannel shirts (devoted to their look because flannel isn’t typical summer fashion), skinny jeans, and one had heavy rimmed glasses. They both looked perfectly awesome, yet the whole scene made me laugh.

The younger than me generation isn’t attached to owning cars, preferring to avoid the hassles of car ownership and often delaying obtaining a driver’s license, too. My grandparents didn’t drive, cars meant freedom to my parents’ generation, I need a car and missed mine when I didn’t live in California, yet I loved the convenience of a maintained subway system, and next, probably my kids, may not even own their own car.

I remember studying urban infill in college and seeing it in action in San Francisco, and now along the Peninsula where upscale apartments are going in near CalTrain stops, or even Santana Row, where the pricey housing, shopping, and dining are all one. People in their 20s and early 30s wonder if everything is within a short distance, why bother with a car, associated expenses, and hassle (parking in an urban area is a headache)? I knew many families who lived with only one car when their kids were young – either mom and kids stayed close to home, or they dropped a parent off at work, while the other stayed with the kids and car – but that gets so much harder as kids get older, activities increase, gear increases, and everyone has tight schedules in spread out locations.

No surprise, this trend is significant to car companies, but the surprise is that Ford is moving with it. I’d expect major car companies to fight this, almost like a tobacco company, trying to push car ownership on a group who didn’t feel it was necessary. While some companies may be panicking, Ford doesn’t seem to be one of them. Ford’s approach appears to be two fold: 1. growth is happening rapidly in developing countries, which has its own concerns and demands different to those in the U.S.; and 2. the model of temporary car services, like Zipcar, may be the future. Even hipsters on bikes need a car sometimes. San Francisco blocked big box stores for a long time, but that meant people had to drive to Daly City for Target or Home Depot.

Millions of people in developing countries continue to strive for car ownership. They’re where the U.S. was decades ago, when a car meant freedom and greater opportunity. But, as any serious world traveler knows, gridlock in some countries can be unreal. As the population grows, so do the number of cars, and moving around an urban area can become an emerging human rights issue, according to Bill Ford, company CEO. We’ve all heard the stories of traffic jams lasting hours, a few times even days, which seems unfathomable. And I complain the rush hour begins at 3 p.m. on the 101. At least it moves.

The Zipcar model will likely have a big impact in urban and suburban areas. I would have loved Zipcar when I was younger. Zipcar is now near me in the burbs, but I have two kids with a lot of stuff, and a house not near schools, work, or stores. I am the anti-hipster. We own two cars and need them both. When I was younger and lived in San Francisco, things would have been different. I hated moving my car – really my parents’ old car – often for street cleaning, I hated hunting for parking, and mostly I hated the insecure feeling of leaving my car parked outside in the city (I had a window smashed once, so the fear wasn’t unfounded). The first car that was mine in San Francisco was a Ford Bronco II (the smaller Bronco, not the OJ one), which was a five speed and hell on San Francisco hills. If I had access to Zipcar, these wouldn’t have been my worries. Parking only would have been a temporary issue, generally because a car would have been needed to leave the city, not to stay in it. I see the appeal in group ownership. The younger generation is on to something, which in a way, feels like we’re coming around full circle, back to when my car-less grandparents lived in the city, near work and plenty of things to do.

I did have one disappointment when hearing about future trends. Being from Silicon Valley and married to someone focused on artificial intelligence, I had hoped to hear more about computer driven cars. Ford is doing great things with computer assistance (hello hands free parallel parking!), but seems to be wary of fully automated cars. This is the future, without a doubt, and I’d love to see Ford, as an American automobile company, be on top of this. The technology isn’t there yet, but it’s coming, and it will be the solution to many issues, including global gridlock.

Disclosure: Ford paid for me to attend Go Further with Ford, its annual trend conference in Dearborn, MI in June. I found the event extremely informative and I was deeply impressed by company’s thoughtfulness on the environment, green technology, emerging business models, fuel economy, and more. There were no stipulations about any sort of coverage. All opinions are my own.

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