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The Death of Cars Was Greatly Exaggerated

Throw your driver’s license out the window. Better yet, don’t get one at all.For nearly a decade, that’s been the message from buzzy transportation companies. In 2011, car-sharing company Zipcar touted a study claiming millennials believe car ownership is difficult. The same year, Zimride, founded by the guys who would later cofound Lyft, was touted…

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The Death of Cars Was Greatly Exaggerated

Throw your driver’s license out the window. Better yet, don’t get one at all.

For nearly a decade, that’s been the message from buzzy transportation companies. In 2011, car-sharing company Zipcar touted a study claiming millennials believe car ownership is difficult. The same year, Zimride, founded by the guys who would later cofound Lyft, was touted as a startup challenging the “old model of individual ownership.” Former Uber head Travis Kalanick boasted that his driver’s license had expired and that his 1999 BMW M3 convertible—his only car—had a broken alternator.

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Municipal officials joined the chorus. Earlier this month, New York City banned cars from busy 14th Street, in favor of bus-only lanes. San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency voted on Tuesday to transform Market Street, its main downtown artery, into a place for bikes and scooters and buses—and definitely not personal cars. Similarly, some real estate developers tout apartments without parking spaces but with built-in Uber pick-up spots and leases with monthly ride-hail credits. Cities and companies say such moves can help take emissions-spewing cars off the street, make it easier to get around by foot or by bike, and unburden riders (if not the drivers) from the drudgeries of car maintenance. And Census data suggests that the number of households without cars, and those with fewer cars than workers, has grown.

But here’s the funny thing: Personal car ownership in the US has actually increased in the past 10 years, even in the frenzied urban places where Uber and car-share have become verbs. According to research from former New York City transportation official Bruce Schaller, the number of vehicles has grown faster than the population in some of the cities where ride-hail is most popular: Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Moreover, some services targeted to the aspirationally or actually car-free have hit the skids. Car2Go, the car-sharing company now jointly owned by Daimler and BMW, said earlier this month it would pull out of half of the North American cities where it operates. (The company, which allows users to pick up and drop off cars at regular street parking spaces, says it will focus its firepower on its remaining North American cities: New York, Montreal, Seattle, Vancouver, and Washington.) BMW-owned ReachNow, a wide-ranging experiment in ride hailing and car rental, folded in the US this summer. The scooter-share folks at Lime last month killed their experimental LimePod car-share service in Seattle. General Motors wound down its Maven car-sharing service in eight of its 17 North American cities this summer. Uber and Lyft, now public companies, are losing gobs of money, and the services’ most popular times are Friday evenings, which seems to indicate less that people are ditching their personal cars than ditching their personal cars while drinking. (Still a worthy goal!)

“The roller coaster induced by the recession and recovery has leveled off, and now the rate of car ownership is the same as it was before,” Schaller says.

Researchers suggest a number of reasons for the gap between hype and reality. It is no mistake, perhaps, that the peak of “no more personal cars” occurred in the years following the recession, when car ownership still felt for many like a luxury, and profligate spending on gas felt even more so. Since the recovery, the US has seen some of its best annual car sales numbers. Gas prices, meanwhile, have generally fallen, making it cheaper to swan about town on four wheels.

Millennials, the city-loving generation that was supposed to break the wheel of car ownership, are growing up, and recent research has suggested that their recession-related decisions to delay starting families may have contributed more to their lower rates of car ownership than an aversion to the personal automobile. “We can’t tell if millennials aren’t owning cars until they start having children, and especially until their second kids hit school age,” says Robin Chase, a former Zipcar executive who’s now an independent consultant. That’s when not owning a car, even in a dense American city, becomes the biggest pain.

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Car sharing, meanwhile, has proved to be a difficult place to make money, especially in cities that aren’t dense enough to ensure that riders will quickly and easily be able to find their next ride. “Car sharing is so capital-intensive,” says Steve Banfield, who stepped down as head of BMW’s ReachNow ini

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Automotive

The Former Soviet Union’s Surprisingly Gorgeous Subways

At the height of the Soviet Union, just 30 in every 1,000 Soviet citizens owned a car. Even the scrappiest lemons cost a fortune, so instead of driving to work, lots of people took the subway—which, turns out, was a bit more glamorous than you might imagine.Chris Herwig rode the rails for his new book Soviet Metro…

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The Former Soviet Union’s Surprisingly Gorgeous Subways

At the height of the Soviet Union, just 30 in every 1,000 Soviet citizens owned a car. Even the scrappiest lemons cost a fortune, so instead of driving to work, lots of people took the subway—which, turns out, was a bit more glamorous than you might imagine.

Chris Herwig rode the rails for his new book Soviet Metro Stations, a whirlwind spin through 15 subway systems in seven countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. The stations are surprisingly gorgeous—less like the dank, pee-doused tunnels you find beneath New York or San Francisco and more like the ornate museums and posh hotels above them.

“They’re some of the most beautiful things in these cities,” Herwig says.

Like good collectivists, the Soviets limited automobile production and prioritized mass transit, with Stalin approving plans for Moscow’s first 13 stations in 1931. More than 70,000 workers (many from the famine-wracked countryside) constructed them, using pick-axes and shovels to move 81.2 million cubic feet of earth. When it opened, trains ran slower than in New York. But the palatial architecture—soaring columns and arches, patterned ceilings, dazzling chandeliers—seemed fit for a czar. It gleamed with marble, bronze, and gold, plus no end of patriotic art meant to fire up the proletariat (and now, Instagram). Stalin associate Lazar Kaganovich called it “a symbol of the new society that is being built,” containing “our blood, our love, our struggle for a new man.”

That struggle extended thousands of miles across the Soviet Union, and the metros followed. Over the next five decades, while the United States built the Interstate Highway System (its 47,000-mile love letter to the automobile), the Soviets opened 14 more subway systems in cities as far-flung as Novosibirsk, Siberia, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Their budgets were smaller and the stations often simpler, but their originality sparkled. “There was a lot more quirkiness, individuality, and creativity that went beyond things that were very blatantly trying to grab attention or show off,” Herwig says.

Originally from Canada, Herwig began trekking around the former Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s, when it was “cheap and fun” and “you could see operas and ballets for a buck or two.” The region’s unique metros caught his eye, but so did its eccentric bus stops. He shot those on and off for 17 years, driving 30,000 miles to find them, before switching to metros in 2017. Documenting those involved 250 hours riding the lines and getting out at each station with his Sony a7iii, not bothering with a tripod since the camera alone rattled some authorities. They shut him down more than 30 times. “Obviously, there’s a tradition of controlling information,” he says.

Herwig’s photos subvert that tradition, breaking the underground open like a geode to reveal the intricate world within. Each station seems more imaginative than the next, with some hearkening back to ancient Egypt or Greece and others looking ahead toward a space-traveling, futuristic utopia. That utopia never came, but to Herwig, the metros offer a small taste of it—”what one would have hoped from a socialist society that actually worked.”

Of course, the metro was only the grandest form of Soviet mass transit. Most cities were too small to merit one, and even Moscow’s carried a minority of all passengers. The majority packed into older trams and buses aboveground—dreaming, perhaps, of the day they could finally buy a car.

Soviet Metro Stations is out from Fuel on September 24.

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