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Listen: Millennials Are Buying ‘COVID Cars’

How the pandemic is changing how we move—and could alter cities permanently

Is it just us, or are a lot of people buying cars right now? On the latest episode of the podcast Social Distance, James Hamblin asks staff writer Robinson Meyer about “COVID cars” and what they could mean for the future of cities.

Listen to their conversation here:

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Some highlights from their conversation:

James Hamblin: Are people getting COVID cars?

Robinson Meyer: It’s funny, I started looking into this because between June and August 1, I had friend groups where every person or every couple in them bought a car. And then I started looking for data. And I’ve come to think the answer is yes, not just because a ton of friends of mine have bought cars in the last few months, but because I have also bought a car in the last few months—

Hamblin: Wait, you?

Meyer: Yes, I got a car. I got a car because cars are kind of this ultimate form of [personal protective equipment]—and we can talk about whether that’s true—but they’re at least perceived as a form of PPE. But also just because, if you live in the city, there’s not a lot to do right now. What you can do right now is go to the beach or go hiking or go hang out outside. D.C. has a great public-transit system, but it doesn’t have an amazing transit system to connect you with hikes that are an hour out of town. And always in the past, I’ve just rented a car if I want to go hiking. But renting a car feels a little dicey now because you don’t know who’s been in it in the past. I don’t know; you can tell me if this is an accurate concern or not, but I’m mindful that there could be … they were sick and didn’t know it or something and the virus could be in the HVAC or something … It’s like basically a room that you’re borrowing from other people, and you don’t know who else was in that room before you.

Hamblin: Yeah, I think it’s a low likelihood, but not unreasonable. But certainly, when people are doing ride-shares or riding in cars with, you know, people who are not in their bubble for any reason, that is not a good situation.

Meyer: Yeah, so your view is that renting is low risk … and ride-share is not the best?

Hamblin: Surfaces are easily sanitized. Air should not be lingering from the person who was in there a few hours before. And I would always be driving with the windows open and fan on if you’re riding with anyone. I think the issue comes when you’re in a car with people outside your bubble and the windows are up and the air is not on, or the AC’s on and recirculating things, where you really are in extremely close quarters. Not just not social distancing, but you’re closer than you would be—

Meyer: Right, you’re like sharing a single scuba tank?

Hamblin: Yes, exactly. I think that is not good. I guess the solution is that everyone wants to avoid having to catch a ride with people, having to do a ride-share, having to take a cab … so they’re getting their own freedom-mobiles. Is that right?

Meyer: Yeah, that’s right. There are two data points here. The first is, back in the early summer, there was this interesting phenomenon where car sales on the whole were down, but car sales among 18-to-35-year-olds were up. Relatively young adults like you and me, who live in cities where we haven’t needed cars or where a car has just seemed like more expense than it’s worth, are suddenly deciding to get cars.

The other data point is that people are buying a lot of used cars in a noticeable way. Carvana, which is this online-only, no-in-person national dealership, has basically said it’s inventory-constrained. In other words, it is not able to obtain used cars as fast as it’s selling them.

I think some people are buying cars because they are afraid of contracting the virus. And I’ll be honest, that’s certainly a reason I bought a car. My parents live in New Jersey and during nonpandemic times, I would just take Amtrak to see them. But the idea of taking Amtrak, taking the metro or the subway during a pandemic, especially if one of the things that I’d be doing is visiting a potentially sick person already, that wasn’t that appealing to me. What’s your sense of how risky or low-risk taking public transit is?

Hamblin: Well, that’s obviously a very broad term. We’ve talked a little bit on the show about airplanes, which at first seemed like very bad situations. The reason we don’t see outbreaks of things like flu on airplanes—and we haven’t seen outbreaks of coronavirus on airplanes—is because the airflow in there is really good. And actually, this mechanical engineer messaged me after we talked about this on the podcast and he’s been calling for opening the windows on subway cars and all that. I would feel very safe doing that. As it is, I don’t know what precautions are being taken in different places. I’m sure they vary.

Flu season always kills tons of people. This is a great time to overhaul those systems and just make sure that they have the sort of—they don’t have to have airplane-level ventilation—but the kind of thing where you know you’re not sitting in stagnant air. That’s so important to restore faith in public transit. For the climate, it’s important. And for people not feeling like they need to all try to buy cars, because what do people think is going to happen in New York and D.C. with all these cars? Where do they go? We already have 6,000 miles of road in New York City.

My solution to the pandemic was to open those roads: Open them to pedestrians and close them to cars. Because people need space to bike and run and hang out and get out of their apartments. And instead, people are buying cars and you’re going to need that road even more. Those parking spaces where we’ve also now located our restaurants are going to be even higher in higher demand. Do you see this changing the face of American cities?

Meyer: I think this is one of the really great open questions about the pandemic. Something I’ve been pretty disappointed about in D.C., that I think New Yorkers have also been disappointed about, is that a lot of the western cities, especially in the Pacific Northwest, have really taken this opportunity to reclaim the streets from cars. People need to social distance and they need to get outside. The way to do that is to pedestrian-ize streets.

I’m curious about what’s going to happen to people like me who are reluctant car owners, or who have cars for very specific purposes, who also want cities to open the streets and also want cities to end free parking so people have more space to walk around. Historically, car owners have kind of been this more monolithic bloc acting in their own interests, acting like they always want more parking. It’s actually really important during this time that cities and city planners and governments act forcefully to preserve all the benefits of being a pedestrian or cyclist or a scooter rider or an e-bike rider in the city because people are buying cars. And the tendency will be to revert to car-first planning and car-first decision making. And if cities don’t move forward during this time, then I think they’re going to wake up in 2021 or 2022, and they’ll have actually lost ground. People will just default to their cars a lot more. And cities like D.C. and New York will become less livable and more unhealthy places to live because people will be opting for cars.

Hamblin: And we should mention, too, that not everyone that lives in cities can afford a car.

Meyer: Yes, and we should also say that, certainly in cities like D.C. and New York, car ownership is an important issue to a lot of different kinds of people. Studies show that if you don’t have a car, and then you get access to a car, your earning potential does go up, because now you can drive to a lot of jobs that you weren’t able to get to before. It’s important that the way we move forward in transportation basically makes it easier and easier to not own a car and makes it possible so that you have access to all the same number of jobs and that there are good jobs for you without a car, as you do with a car.

The last 10 years congestion has gotten bad across the U.S., especially in the past three or four years. A lot of areas have really bad traffic that just did not have traffic before that. And we also know that air pollution in some places is getting worse, especially from cars. A lot of the blame here seems to be on Uber and Lyft because all these ride-sharing apps, instead of working on a taxi system, where basically taxis know where to go to sit for rides, Uber and Lyft have moved to this system where cars are sorted by algorithm and there’s just a ton of cars without passengers on the road at any one time, driving basically from the end of one ride to the beginning of another.

They have made congestion a lot worse. And something I do wonder … I used Uber and Lyft a lot before the pandemic. And to some degree, the cost of owning a car is more, but not that much more than I might have spent on Uber and Lyft. I bought an old used car and I was spending a lot of money on Uber and Lyft. And if people, after the pandemic, switch a third or a half of their rides on Uber and Lyft to their own private vehicle—a private vehicle that when they are not driving, it is just sitting in a garage somewhere or sitting in a parking space somewhere—it could reduce congestion and improve overall outcomes because if that took some number of Uber and Lyfts off the road, we could actually see congestion decrease.

Ride-sharing apps are really bad for congestion. They’re not very good for pollution. They’re bad for their workers. But they’re nice and convenient, I guess, for some. But I do wonder, if a lot of folks who are buying cars now have basically used Uber and Lyft in lieu of a car … if they started just using their own car, that could actually take some vehicles off the road.

Hamblin: Well, you know, what would get cars off the road is if you didn’t allow them on the road, because they were open to pedestrians (both laugh).