Hoboken’s Corner Cars

I was intrigued by Hoboken’s Corner Cars program — essentially a Zipcar style car-sharing program, albeit with even more direct car access — as I had written a bit about here before, so when New York Times “City Critic” Ariel Kaminer said she was going to check it out, I gladly hopped along for the ride (and, maybe it was just lucky timing or something, but I traveled by subway/PATH train from Brooklyn to Hoboken and was there shockingly quickly, even in this age of diminishing service, with no need to brave the city’s legendarily bad parking, pay the tolls, risk my life to NYC’s quantifiably substandard drivers — three cheers for transit!). One interesting question raised by the article (and please note that’s the NYT identifying me as a “traffic expert,” not me — though who isn’t a traffic expert in this town?) is the psychic hurdle of getting people to move past car ownership (in an area, ironically, where many people rent their houses):

There is another obstacle to car sharing in New York, perhaps the biggest of all. Given the paucity of street parking, the expense of garage parking, the traffic, the insurance costs and the toll to vehicle and psyche, New York car owners who aren’t motivated by true need must be motivated by some very strong force of will. So strong, perhaps, that it is impervious to reason. Is there any dollars-and-cents argument that could persuade New York’s discretionary drivers to give up their cars?

“I asked that question back when I was in city government in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Sam Schwartz, the transportation engineer who was once New York’s deputy commissioner of transportation. “In the ’80s we did several focus groups and we tried to find out what made them drive. And a very common theme is that they felt they were smarter than the people down in the tube. They’re the Brahmins. They deserve it.” He added, “I never heard of it anywhere else.”

Not to mention the endowment effect; i.e., once people own something, they feel it’s more valuable than before (even if, of course, the very value plummets the moment you drive the new car off the lot). One question for such programs, and the reason some people buy a car to begin with, is the issue of peak demand for weekends — it’s hard for a spontaneous lets-go-apple-picking trip when all the cars have been rented weeks in advance. And I’m not sure what to do about the alternate-side problem. That’s as intractable as the sabbath, or some force of nature.


This entry was posted on Saturday, July 17th, 2010 at 4:59 am and is filed under Cars, Cities, Commuting, Congestion, Etc.. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Hoboken’s Corner Cars”

  1. George Says:

    For the last five years when I was working I took a bus to work. The bus “system” and my experience could have been a lot better.
    But until I experenced a bus breakdown I did not think about the car maintainance problem that I was avoiding.

    Yes I had to wait 15 minutes for the next bus but after that, the event was over. Think about the last your vehicle “broke” and all the time and money you had to use to get it working again.
    I used that 15 minutes to introduce myself to some of the regular bus riders that normally would not be possible.

    Also I like the idea of driving a different car each time I rent.
    If you own a car you get to drive the same old car over and over again.

  2. Brent Says:

    Brahims. I’ve wondered about the psychology of subways, the idea that you have to crawl into a hole, disappear from the earth and the sun, and travel with no view or sense of progress, to get around a city. But subway stigmata is somewhat mitigated by being able to disappear quickly into the hole — with bus stops, you always have to worry whether some snooty acquaintance in a fancy car will see you waiting.

    The ownership issue has been much discussed in the music business, and finally resolved in favor of the result rather than the thing. Not too long ago, college students could have found some status measured by the stack of CDs sitting in their dorm rooms. These days, though, downloaded songs don’t present any physical indicia of ownership, they’re just ephermera sitting on a hard drive. Cars are a harder case, because despite all their trouble, they still convey mojo and what-have-you. But maybe if we made car owners drive underground…

  3. Peter Smith Says:

    I think the ‘Brahmin’ problem is interesting — though, I don’t know if I buy it. I think the whole mode choice question is very simple and even quantifiable. Hopefully, there’s a grad student somewhere working on that quantifiable factor.

    I’m with Robin Chase — “Infrastructure is destiny.” So, in a sense, the ‘Brahmin’ stuff is only partially true — like those partially-true phrases — ‘people love their cars’ or ‘people will never give up their cars’ or whatever other nonsense. People love to get around conveniently, in comfort, with their dignity intact — and that can only happen by car for many folks, which is why they hold onto their cars, and ‘love’ their cars.

    i don’t doubt, though, that cars are the second best separators of class in NYC. you could argue one’s house/living arrangement has even more status in NYC, but for much of the rest of the country, cars are neck and neck with housing in terms of placing you in a class — and everybody sees you in your car, whereas nobody knows where you live. cars are necessary to enforce class separation and distinction — Enrique Penalosa has made hints of remarks like this.

    as soon as people have a real option to get around by bike — you’ll see a lot more people going without their cars. bikes take care of the whole ‘impulsive/unplanned trip’ thing. we don’t have a working conventional rail system in most of America, but you guys up in NYC at least have something, however limited. as NYC continues to get real bike infrastructure, we’re going to continue to see an exponential growth in biking. if we put some real, nice transit on 34th street — like a nice streetcar/tram — instead of crowded, nasty, bumpy, jerky, polluting, loud buses, there’d be a better chance that more people would give up their cars for that and other dignified surface transportation. decent motorized surface transportation is not going to happen now, though, that the BRT folks have won the debate, so bikes are our only hope. traveling underground is for termites — not humans — so subways are out, especially nasty subways like the NYC subway. we need more transit planners who are concerned with quality instead of quantity.

  4. Nate Briggs Says:

    Of the first 3 comments, only Peter is seeing things clearly.

    Cars are a symbol of status, independence, and (if you happen to be of the male gender) sexual potency.

    The automobile is threaded through with so many cultural memes, media images, and shared memories that – in the end – there is very little rational about it.

    We want it because we want it. It doesn’t matter what the numbers say. And borrowing a car is not the same (although I enjoyed my ZipCar experience a few months ago).

    In response to the question that was asked, I’m assuming that the Hoboken people are keeping an eye on demand fluctuations. After about a year, one could assume that they will know much more about patterns of demand that will help them in their decision-making.

    – Nate (SLC)

  5. Seena Says:

    Sure wish you’d come to Berkeley, CA do some research on why the denizens of this (supposedly) progressive city are so deeply & vociferously attached to parking spaces that they vehemently, viciously oppose creating bus lanes!

  6. DoctorJay Says:

    I’ve lived in Hoboken for the past 15 years and spent the first 10 without a car. When I moved here from the suburbs of northern Virginia I sold my ride because I could tell it’d be too much hassle. Public transit here is great and my girlfriend and I would rent a car every couple months to take trips out of town. I was proud to be carless, but once I had my second child things changed.

    It wasn’t cost effective to rent when we were wanting to take more frequent weekend trips. There are so many events and places to see with kids in other parts of NJ and we felt it was important to take the kids out of town every couple weeks, if not every weekend. It’s difficult to do that with multiple train changes with 2 kids. So we got an old Volvo wagon and make do trying to find parking in Hoboken.

  7. Kelly Says:

    This is a problem that I have thought about for a while, I absolutely agree that Brahman status is why most people refuse to use public transit. Most Americans are very motivated to climb the socioeconomic ladder and they do not want to brush elbows with poor people, ever. (Unless it is in some sort of charitable capacity.) Think of the daily life of a middle class American, between their home, their job, their neighborhood supermarket, and the restaurants and shops they go to, they never have any meaningful interaction or shared experience with anyone outside of their class. Unless they ride the bus. I think the only way to get middle class Americans to use public transit is to separate it into classes. Each bus or train could have separate business and economy classes, perhaps separated by a curtain. If a typical fare is $2, have the $1 economy section and the $3 business section. The business section can feature nicer seats and amenities, but the real reason people will pay for it is so that the person next to them will be of similar socioeconomic status.

    Just a theory, what do you guys think?

  8. DoctorJay Says:

    I always thought the Brahmins in NYC were the ones who took taxis and livery cabs.

  9. Kevin Love Says:

    In my opinion, the way to remove the status from cars is to reallocate public space on the principle of “The City is for people, not cars.” This means reallocating road space from cars and to fast, convenient and direct bicycle lanes. Bicycle lanes with physical protective barriers so parents feel safe with their children cycling to school.

    Then we see cyclists zipping past cars mired in car congestion. Nothing says “low status” so much as being passed all the time.

    To see how this works, check out the following article from The Toronto Sun at:

    An excerpt:

    “The speed limit on city streets might be 50 km/h but don’t expect to go that fast on Spadina Ave. in rush hour.

    Ditto for Adelaide, or Richmond, or Dundas, or Yonge, or Dufferin, or … you get the point.

    According to a transportation ministry traffic report, the average speed of a car travelling south on Spadina between Bloor St. and Lake Shore Blvd. during the evening rush hour is just 11 km/h.

    On Adelaide St. between Bathurst St. and Yonge St. in the late-day rush, the average speed of a vehicle is just 13 km/h. The crawl-like rates of, um, speed, are highlighted in the ministry’s 2008 Travel Time Study”

  10. Auntiegrav Says:

    Kelly, I think you’ve got some of it. Most of the choices people make these days are at the cash register or the car dealer/gas station. After that, it’s all just talk, not choice. Social status vs. price.
    When the price of a car includes the cleanup and the cost of highways (gas taxes don’t reflect ‘stimulus’ money), as well as the cost of climate change, then perhaps the ‘convenience’ of that high price will be more appropriately priced, compared to the ‘inconvenience’ of bicycles or even car pooling. When combined with telecommuting, homesteading, etc., the future (if there is one) looks different than what the car people believe. This predicament is often one of ‘choosing’ a mode of transportation (“a trip to the apple farm”) when the thought of not going someplace just doesn’t occur to folks.

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