A Century of Private Car Ownership: Understanding Mobility (2008)

Chris Bradshaw’s Address to the T2M (Transportation, Traffic, and Mobility) 2008 Conference, Ottawa, Canada


I am an activist and an avid reader and writer.  I have focused on walking and automobiles for over 30 years.  I am here because I think history has much to teach us, but we have much to “teach” it.  I am trying to teach it by coming here to tell “mobility” historians that I want to change the way we relate to, and access, automobiles.  I want us to move from our one-person, one-car orientation (“OPOCO”) to a sharing of a common resource.  We share the roads; we must also share the cars that exist only to be used on them.  History is about the past, but it is for the future.

We have made many improvements in the technology of the car and we have spent lots of money on rapid transit and bike lanes and traffic calming, but still we seem no closer to untying the knot of “mobility.”  Congestion is still as bad as ever; ownership rates and user rates climb higher each year.  And more and more problems crop up: climate change, oil security and shortages, obesity/trauma/stress (health), the plight of automobile-have-nots, and the impending “arrival” of the populations of developing countries who are demanding either separate-but-equal transportation, or their own car, as if there is nothing between these two extremes.  Perhaps we should distinguish between “mobility” (distances covered) and “effective mobility” (trips completed).

What has history to teach me?  I have been reading over the past several years to find the history of OPOCO to see if I can understand better where we got the idea of shared roads and private, unshared vehicles.  I looked mostly at histories of the car, to see if they talk about alternatives to OPOCO.  They don’t.  I looked for histories of the alternatives that have survived until today: taxis, car-rental, ridesharing, and the newest, carsharing, the one I was involved for six years as an entrepreneur, but also found rather little.

I will now a) list the four reasons OPOCO is wasteful in a way a shared regime, which I call Metered Access to Shared Cars (MASC), is not, b) summarize what little I learned about MASC modes and ‘hybrids,’ and c) do a “speculative” history of the car over last 100 years since the launching of the Ford Model T, comparing how would have made things different today vs. OPOCO.

Why OPOCO (one-person, one-car orientation is wasteful):
1.    High fixed costs motivate owners to drive a lot that doesn’t require a car or to locate housing or job at too great a distance
2.    Lack of access to any other cars requires taking one’s own everywhere, 24/7
3.    Vehicles are oversized, since ownership/leasing requires picking vehicle that the  requirements of the most demanding trip(s), not the average trip;
4.    Owned cars provide “hyper-availability”: just a few feet away; no reservation or planning.
Historic Notes on MASC modes and “hybrids
[MASC modes: taxi, rental, ridesharing/pooling, carsharing, and hitchhiking, and delivery]:

The first automobile taxi fleet in the U.S. was in New York City in 1897.  It was a fairly successful effort to introduce the electric vehicle not as a private vehicle, but as a shared vehicles, to meet current demand in cities for hansom cabs, a means that recognized the city’s shortage of land for parking, and the rather small need for vehicular travel when things were dense and uses were mixed (Kirsch).   This was not mentioned, though in a taxi history (Gilbert/Samuels) which identified the first taxi fleet starting in 1907 by John Hertz of car-renting fame, in Chicago.  His taxi innovations were the more remarkable: cutting rates to half of the going rate, and manufacturing his gasoline-powered cars to ensure suitability for taxi work, the same thing that motivated the Electric Vehicle Company, ten years earlier in New York City.

The first car-rental business was started in 1916 by a Nebraskan, Mr. Saunders.  There is less to learn from this mode, since car-rental has always been an alternative to privately owned cars, as a “patch” for OPOCO, when a successful businessman or tourist has had left his car in another city, or in a garage for a repair. The only attempt to produce a special car for this market, introduced by none other than John Hertz, ended with failure.  Hertz found his Yellow Drive-it-Yourself Company customers cool to his bigger, heavier cars with their distinctive yellow exterior.  After he expanded into buses and trucks, GM bought him out in 1925.  Hertz Rent-a-car is the name of the company when he bought the rental part of the company 28 years later, just a year before he retired for good.

Although some organized efforts took place during the Second World War, in the face of wartime cutbacks, it didn’t get launched in earnest until the 1970s oil crises, when U.S. federal legislation provided funding, but only until 1981.  Some programs were retained by municipalities smothered by congestion, often funded by special local taxes, as ridesharing was popular with voters, even if that support came mostly from drivers who expected other people to use it.  Although the original goals was to get average car-occupancy up to 1.5 persons during rush-hour, the reality is that, in Southern California, the occupancy has continued to decline to 1.09 persons.  One proponent claims that it would take only a 1.3-persons occupancy to eliminate road congestion.  In the U.S., sixteen percent of commuters use such schemes.

The first attempt failed, the San Francisco experiment, STAR (Short-term Auto Rental), a project of a residential high-rise developer.  Another short-lived one was Mobility Enterprise, a Purdue University experiment lasted from 1983 to 1986.  However, in 1988, ones based on an open-ended market model began operating in older mixed-use areas near the centres of Berlin and the larger Switzerland centres (respectively Stattauto, “instead of a car,” and Mobility Carsharing). By 1994 it migrated to Quebec City in Canada, and by 1997 to the U.S. cities of San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland All operate the same way: a) rental periods to the nearest half-hour, b) charges are by time and distance, and include gasoline and collision insurance, c) membership is required, d) cars are at scattered locations to reduce walking distance, and members are trusted to let themselves into the car (via membership “key”) and to record odometer readings after each use, e) payment is via monthly invoices, and f) cars are not cleaned by club between uses, as members pick up after themselves.  The service is seen as being environmental, as small cars are relied upon, thanks to the in-town nature of most driving.  A 2005 ABC news poll showed 25 percent of respondents willing to use carsharing – if it were available in their area – to replace an only car, and 32 percent willing to use it to replace a second or third car.

This is in decline although it could play a significant role, requiring only a willing driver and a person ahead of him indicating his need to get a “lift.”  The decline is due to its image of danger for both parties, the increasing speed of driving (making it harder to “size up” the other party), the fact that most long-distance driving occurs on roads that ban pedestrians, and the continued growth in car-ownership. (Wald & Berger 1979)

Perhaps the oldest form of sharing vehicles is the informal kind, where neighbours loaned various pre-automobile means of travel to each other.  Today, in the era of the “personal car,” this might have to include spouses sharing a single car, although 2:1 ratio is not anywhere nearly as frugal as that which formally organized ones create (nor as good at avoiding scheduling ‘misunderstandings’).  One example in Berger (1979) was a quote of a car dealer suggesting half of the cars sold were sold by a test drive in a neighbour’s car.

One of the ways cars and trucks traditionally differed is that the former were for personal pleasure and mobility, while the latter was for making money providing services to others.  The traditional truck delivering to individual homes has given way to customers using their car to pick up items.  Into the breach has come the document delivery and warranty/catalogue trade that provide business for “couriers,” cutting back the market for traditional post offices.  More than one commentator has suggested that large-format retailing has provided free parking as a thank-you to customers who have saved the stores big delivery dollars by driving, vs. the costs of getting the products and services to homes and to smaller neighbourhood outlets that would be close enough for walking.

If the MASC modes grow, they will probably merge somewhat, with various “hybrids” forming.  Some hybrids have appeared: a) “slugging” combines hitchhiking and ridesharing where drivers wanting to gain access to HOV lanes pickup riders at a set point; b) FTA’s Job Access and Reverse Commute program tries to help low-income people reach jobs via using vehicles from the carsharing company for ridesharing. c) and transit hybrids have been tried (marketing carsharing membership bundled with annual transit passes, dial-a-bus, a hybrid of taxi and transit, or even using car-share vehicles located at transit stop for people missing the last bus).  Hybrids could actually occur sooner in smaller towns, where the market for any one of the services isn’t great enough, but through time-sharing, or even vehicle sharing, all could be provided, bringing patronage to those threatened main streets.

A Speculative History of How Adoption of MASC in 1908 would have changed history:

1.    Each city would have had a fleet of vehicles for hire, with characteristics and quantity of vehicles being a combination of what the city wanted and its citizens needed.
2.    Rural population drop and farm consolidation would have been avoided by having cars shared by farm families whose homes tend to cluster along rural roads.
3.    Great amounts of land could have been used for parks and more housing and small businesses, as demand for parking would be only about 10 percent of what exists today.
4.    Most individual, faced with full-cost fees, the need to make a reservation and walk further for access, would naturally choose denser, mixed use neighbourhoods to live in, and would use their citizen clout to add these qualities to neighbourhoods without them.
5.    Road pricing could have been introduced by now, since the MASC fleet owners would naturally track fleets.
6.    Road congestion would not exist, as access to the smaller fleets would be moderated by natural peak-hour pricing.  With a large car ‘population’, there is no mechanism to avoid congestion.
7.    Bad driver behaviour – and road rage – would be a much smaller matter, as the fleet owner-tracking would also automatically violations that endanger others, and which can be translated into surcharges, rather than invoke the formal law-enforcement regime.
8.    The kind of cars demanded by “the car market” would have been much different.  Fleet owners look more for reliability and flexibility, than for styling and amenities.  Most would be smaller, lighter, and softer, since they would match the specific trip: smaller, shorter, slower than what OPOCO induces.
9.    The pollution control system would have been much better, with all cars having blackboxes that report continuously their engine’s operation, with problems corrected sooner.
10.    Cars and transit would have merged, thanks to on-board IT and users all having cell-phones, which would allow on-the-fly trip requests, with full routing choices, utilizing seats in many different moving vehicles, and costs, to be selected.


I found little about alternatives to private-car ownership, but the EVC omission in the history of the taxi industry shows a bias of all historians: they emphasize the “winners” of history, on the assumption that, “beaten once, beaten for all time.”  I leave it to the T2M community to set me right on this – and to help me with additional historical sources.  For instance, I feel that there was a great deal of informal sharing of vehicles that fall below historians’ radar, but which is accessible by going to the many periodicals of the early days of the automobile, and to private journals.  James Flick, author of three histories of the car that were more socio-cultural, in noting that the Rae’s 1965 book was “the first complete, authoritative treatment of the whole span of the automotive industry,” also remarked on the volumes that preceded it: “This lack of scholarly interest has meant that the most automotive history has been written by and for the automobile buff.”
As much as Rae, Flink, et. al. have looked more critically at the car and at the many social and environmental and urban impacts, there is still little understanding of the nature of the hold cars have over us individually and as a society.  Despite a great deal of sarcasm, Kenneth Schneider’s Autokind vs. Mankind is, in my mind, the best and getting at these factors, just ahead of Freund/Martin.

It might be better to read the forward-looking utopian, socialist/anarchist, and science-fiction literature of the last 100 years for a view of ideas that have been given consideration and might even have been put into action on such a small scale that historians have missed them.  The digitization of the personal and small-organization/small-company records and the popularization of information sharing by laypeople (e.g., wikipedia) might provide much additional information to allow history to help us weave our way out of trouble.

What bodes well for my belief that a major bend is ahead on the road of civilization are two realities: the environmental, social-justice/health/urban crises and the arrival of information technology in mobile settings.  The only recent one I found is by Moshde Safdie and Wendy Kohn, two architects, who laid out a vision for the “city after the automobile” and came up with the following: above-ground transit along main streets linked to edge-city stations, where cars are kept in garages built like large soda-vending machines, taking in and dispensing shared cars used by people accessing the trains that assist the longer trips through the denser car-free urban area.  I sensed that they palpitated at the thought of not having to literally build around huge volumes of cars, especially at ground level, which should be the domain of the human on foot.

What the automobile has done to our sense of connection and inter-accountability doesn’t have to be lost with MASC.  It is too bad that back when we did have strong local communities and ties of interdependence between us we should have seen the car as simply a small bus, which, yes, can be driven by one of the travelers rather than a specially trained employee, but which didn’t need to be owned and maintained by that traveler.  By taking the path of treating the car as a consumer product, rather than a smaller form of public transit, we allowed the atomization to occur.  Putting Humpty Dumpty together again won’t be easy.

I will close with a quote from Petr Kropotin (1902) from Mutual Aid: “
. . .if we resort to an indirect test, and ask Nature: “Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?”  We at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.” p. 6


Barrett, Paul (1983) The Automobile and Urban Transit: The formation of Public Policy in Chicago, 1900-1930
Berger, Michael (1979) The Devil Wagon in God’s Country: The Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893-1929
Berger, K.T. (1994) Where the Road and the Sky Collide: America Through the Eyes of its Drivers
Bradsher, Keith (2002) High and the Mighty: SUVs, The world’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way
Brandon, Ruth (2002) Auto Mobile: How the Car Changed Life
Brilliant, Ashleigh (1989) The Great Car Craze: How Southern California Collided with the Automobile in the 1920s
Downs, Anthony (2004) Still Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion     Dunn, Jr, James A. (1998) Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility
Engwicht, David (1993) Reclaiming Our Cities and Town: Better Living with Less Traffic
Flink, James J. (1975) The Car Culture
Flink, James J. (1988) The Automobile Age
Freund, Peter and George Martin (1993) The Ecology of the Automobile
Gilbert, Gorman & Robert E. Samuels (1982) The Taxicab: An Urban Transportation Survivor Goodman, Paul (1964) Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals
Grahame, Kenneth (1908) The Wind in the Willows (novel)
Gruen, Victor (1964) The Heart of Our Cities: Urban Crisis: Diagnosis & Cure
Gruen, Victor (1973) Centers for the Urban Environment: Survival of the Cities
Hayden, Dolores (1984) Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life
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Jackson, Kenneth (1985) Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States
Jacobs, Jane (1961) The Death & Life of Great American Cities
Jacobs, Jane (2004) Dark Age Ahead
Kay, Jane Holtz (1997) Asphalt Nation: How the Car Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back
Kirsch, David (2000) The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History
Kropotkin, Peter (1902) Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution
Langdon, Phillip (1994) A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb
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Millard-Ball, Adam (2005) Car-Sharing: Where and How It Succeeds (TCRP Report 108)
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Safdie, Moshe with Wendy Kohn (1997) The City After the Automobile: An Architect’s Vision    Schneider, Kenneth R. (1971) Autokind vs. Mankind: An Analysis of Tyranny, A Proposal for Rebellion, a Plan for Reconstruction
Shoup, Donald (2004) The High Cost of Free Parking
Sperling, Daniel (with contributions from Mark A, Delucchi, Patricia M. Davis, & A.F. Burke) (1995) Future Drive: Electric Vehicles and Sustainable Transportation
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wikipedia for “hitchhiking,” “car-sharing,” Enterprise Car-Rental,” “taxis”


Noted automobile historian John Rae (The Automobile Industry, 1984, p. 178) said that by 1929, the American car fleet had enough seats to accommodate the entire population.  That might also be an indication that there was already enough roads and parking space for the population at that time; society should have stopped providing for more and more automobility.  Or it also might mean that car-overproduction was at its peak, which helped create the conditions for the Great Depression (James B. Flink, The Car Culture, 1975, p. 167).  It took 20 years before the industry produced as many cars as in 1929.

[Sperling: “The problem with our transportation today is threefold: all vehicles are expected to satisfy all purposes; all roads are built to serve all vehicles; and all rules are designed for the standard vehicle of the past.”]

[Richards: “Within city centres, conventional ownership of private cars may in the long term be largely replaced by car clubs, with smart cars reducing car-ownership in cities.”]

[Shoup: “Regardless of how fuel-efficient our cars are or how little pollution they emit, we will always need somewhere to park them, and the average car spends about 95% of its life parked.”]

[Brandon: In the view of planning theorist Melvin Webber, the only viable option for public transport in a city like Los Angeles is ‘a transit system which is like automobiles – if we could make an automobile into a transit vehicle for those that are carless we could meet the real costs of it.  And the way to do that I think is by using all of this new high tech communications technology, to communicate between people who want rides and people who have got rides.” p. 363]

[Freund/Martin : “Generally, cars are too big, transport too few people, and use too much fuel to operate engines that are overly powerful for the tasks they perform.  Thus, autos are as appropriate for transport needs, to use Wolfgang Sach’s hyperbole, as a ‘hainsaw is for cutting butter.’ [Die Liebe Zum Automobil (Reinbeck bei Hambug: Rohwohlt, 1990), p. 150], pp. 17-18]

Special to you, Juergen: [Freund/Martin : “In an auto-dominated culture bicycles tend to be viewed as second-class vehicles – used by poorer people, as toys by children, or for recreation.  As a result, bicycle technology is underdeveloped.  Bicycles that have some of the comforts, security, and multiple uses of the car have not yet fully evolved.  Recumbent bicycles, light-weight folding bicycles, bicycles that can transport goods, and bicycles that are usable by those with impairments, are a few of the possibilities.”, p 155]

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