There May Never Be a Better Time to Go Car-Free
With used car prices through the roof, it’s time for cyclists to put our money where our mouth is
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There’s more slack in the global supply chain right now than in the drivetrain of a poorly-maintained fixie. As a result, shortages and price anomalies are increasingly becoming the norm. For example, bicycles and components have been in short supply, meaning some cyclists have been forced to ride the same carbon fiber bike for two seasons now! Another area in which you can observe supply-and-demand wackiness is used car prices, which are surging as automakers struggle to build new ones to meet demand due to the microchip shortage.
Recently, I was having some work done on my own vehicle when another customer whose lease was expiring asked the garage owner if he should buy back the car. “Absolutely!,” the owner replied. He explained how lease buyout prices are currently much lower than used car prices, which puts lessees at a considerable advantage. This particular customer had a Toyota RAV4—the best-selling small SUV in America—meaning the buyout price would no doubt be a screaming deal for him in today’s market. He could even turn around and sell it and pocket a nice chunk of change for himself if he wanted. Plus, we live in the 21st century; as the garage owner explained to his elderly customer, “Carvana will bring a check right to your house.”
This got me thinking. Like many bicyclists, I have a fraught relationship with cars. I appreciate motorized vehicles as machines, I love ones with wheels that go fast, and I’d be dead inside if I didn’t relish the feeling of depressing the accelerator on a stretch of open highway. At the same time, cars can be expensive to maintain and burdensome to own in a city like New York, where we have the worst traffic in the nation. Not only can driving be miserable here, but the sheer deluge of cars can make life miserable for everyone else, too. So it requires considerable cognitive dissonance to ignore the fact that, if you own a car, you’re a part of the problem.
In recent years I’ve thought more and more about getting rid of my car. I live a bidon’s toss away from a subway station, a commuter train, several bus stops, a national car rental agency, and who knows how many Zipcars. Also, I own like ten bikes. All of this is to say that I should know better. So I looked at the seven year-old car with less than 50,000 miles on it that I own outright (I’m not saying what kind it is, but it’s pretty much what every middle-aged bike dork with a family drives) then pulled up the Carvana site on my phone. In a matter of minutes I had a quote, and it was substantial enough that, like any responsible adult, I immediately found myself daydreaming about what kind of custom bike I could get with that money.
Cars are like cigarettes—everyone likes to badmouth them, but people keep firing ‘em up anyway.
Here in New York, we demonize driving more and more with each passing year. In 2019, we were going to “break the car culture.” When the city closed down in 2020 and the streets were empty, The New York Times imagined a “future without cars.” As 2021 proves especially deadly, “Ban Cars” has become a social media rallying cry. Yet, even in transit-rich New York City, where less than half of households own cars, I’m far from the only pedal-pushing car skeptic who keeps one anyway. Cars are like cigarettes—everyone likes to badmouth them, but people keep firing ‘em up anyway.
Of course, we self-hating motorists are always just a spoke’s breadth from getting rid of our cars, but in the meantime we convince ourselves that we’re somehow different from everybody else. We drive responsibly, unlike all those lead-footed louts. Our compact SUVs are slightly more efficient than other people’s full-sized SUVs. We only drive to leave town, we ride bikes or use transit whenever we can, and we totally support congestion pricing and paying market rate for the street parking we’ve gladly accepted for free all these years. Because it’s only fair, right?
What we don’t do is admit that a car’s a car, and that it’s taking up the same amount of precious urban space regardless of how conflicted you feel about it or how progressive your politics are.
Well, if you’ve ever seriously considered divesting yourself of your vehicle, now’s the time to put your money where your mouth is. Advocates swooned when they heard that France would give people 2,500 Euros for their cars so they could buy electric bicycles. Why couldn’t we do that here? Well, the free market is doing those self-righteous Euros one better—we may never see a used car market like this again. Now could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to perhaps sell that recently acquired vehicle for more than you paid for it, or in my case, recoup a stupid amount of money on a car you’ve driven for years. Not only can you buy the car-replacing cargo bike of your dreams and put all those insurance premiums and registration fees and maintenance costs to better use, but you can also criticize car culture with the confidence that you’re no longer a part of it.
But what if you don’t sell? Does that make you a bad person or a filthy hypocrite? Do you need to abandon your conviction that cars aren’t always the answer and that we should continue to strive for safer, healthier, and more efficient solutions? Of course not. But it’s time to come to terms with the fact that, like it or not, you’re a motorist. It means acknowledging that you’re no better than all those other motorists out there, and that their reasons for driving are just as valid as yours. Most crucially, it means recognizing that there’s a difference between telling people what they could be doing and telling what they should be doing. If you’re not ready to move on from car ownership it’s unreasonable to expect the same from someone else. Instead of hating your car and yourself, maybe you should learn to appreciate both it and your good fortune.
And no, I didn’t sell the car, even a few days later when Carmax outbid Carvana by a whopping three grand. How could I? I’d just had the oil changed.