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Car ownership isn’t going anywhere any time soon

I totally buy that autonomous vehicles will someday make our streets safer. What I don’t buy is that car ownership will completely evaporate, because I’m not convinced a car-free lifestyle works for everyone. So you can imagine my reaction when Kara Swisher, host of Vox Media’s Recode and Pivot podcasts, published a controversial New York Times opinion piece with the headline

“Owning A Car Will Soon Be As Quaint As Owning A Horse.”

On this episode of No Parking, Swisher joined Bryan Salesky and me to discuss that column and why she doubled down in her follow-up, “The Ups and Downs of Life Without Wheels of My Own,” in which it became clear I wasn’t the only skeptic.

“Many readers,” she wrote, “especially from suburban and rural areas, pushed back, saying there was no way a person living outside of a metropolitan area could pull off life without a car. And those people with kids, whatever their living situation—forget it.”

Swisher held firm about whether car ownership could really go away.

“A lot of people will have (cars),” she said, “and they’ll be interesting for people that are hobbyists and things like that. But I meant for the vast majority of people, car ownership doesn’t make any sense in terms of the insurance and everything else. There will be people in the rural areas and they will keep their cars, but in the big city, it’s painful now to drive a car.”

Right now, the major cities where residents have successfully pivoted to a car-free lifestyle are limited to those where geography, culture and policy intersect: places like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Helsinki, although Paris may be catching up.

Those factors rarely align in the United States, which is why I remain skeptical Americans will ever give up their cars, and Bryan and Guidehouse Insights analyst Sam Abuelsamid agreed our inaugural episode: “Ownership is not going away,” said Bryan, “at least not anytime soon.”

But with car sharing, transit and scooters already in the mix, Swisher said she’s convinced Americans can eventually be swayed.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, the car has this relationship to the American people. Lots of things had a relationship with the American people that went away. It’s such a mythology that we create around ourselves. Everyone’s like, ‘Everyone has to eat meat.’ You know what? Fish and other consumption is up. There’s Impossible Foods. These are myths about Americans and I think once you have an alternative that works well, people shift. Americans, one thing they do do is shift really quickly to things that work better.

“It will be eventually all autonomous,” said Swisher, “but I’ll be long dead.”
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On December 17, 1903, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first sustained flight with a heavier-than-air machine. The effort lasted 12 seconds for a total distance of 120 feet. Kara Swisher says it’s a story she tells all the time, because it says a lot about how people interpret forward progress. “Think about if you were that person on the beach in Kitty Hawk. … It wasn’t very impressive, but it was flight. You don’t want to be the person sitting on the beach and saying, ‘That was only two seconds and two feet off. What the hell? It didn’t fly 20 yards.’ What? You don’t want to be that person.”
(U.S. Library of Congress)

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