The Car is Dead, Long Live the Car…?

The emergence of disruptive modes of transportation in recent years has fueled much discussion around the future of transit, including commuting patterns and parking requirements for office tenants

In my hometown of San Francisco, ridesharing providers Uber and Lyft, private commuting service Chariot and eScooter companies Bird and Lime emerged seemingly overnight in recent years to enthusiastic reception from local residents.

In a geographically constrained, economically booming city such as San Francisco, parking rates are high, prompting residents to seek out other, often more convenient and less expensive modes of getting around – both public and private. The city is also the home base of many of these disruptive providers and traditionally an early adopter of modern technologies. According to recent research from ULI and Green Street Advisors, the number of auto trips in single occupant vehicles in San Francisco declined from 62% in 2009 to 50% in 2015, and is projected to decrease to 40% by 2019, in part due to the growth of these new modes of transportation.

So, does the meteoric rise these types of services mean that the traditional solo car commuter is a thing of the past? Overall, the answer is no. As discussed in our U.S. & Canadian Mobility 2018 report, 85.7% of U.S. commuters still traveled to work in a car in 2016, down only 40 basis points from three year earlier. Furthermore, 76% of workers commuted alone in a vehicle as of 2016, on par with the corresponding share in 2013. In other words, in most of the country, parking is still a necessity for office tenants.

What is clear also from the data, though, is that there are significant differences in commuting patterns and preferences across the country. The New York-Northern New Jersey, San Francisco-Oakland, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Seattle-Tacoma metro areas have the lowest proportions of workers commuting via vehicle among the markets we studied, ranging from 57% to 79%. These markets also had the largest decreases in workers commuting via vehicle between 2013 and 2016. In other words, the markets with the lowest usage rates of vehicles for commuting are becoming even less vehicle-dependent.

This is not to say that new, tech-enabled transportation options are the sole reason for these changes, but they likely are part of the story. These markets have many mutual characteristics that facilitate and encourage the use of other forms of transportation, including established or growing public transit systems, density, high parking costs and/or strong economic growth in recent years. Public and private shared transportation options, used individually or in concert, are often convenient, cheaper and preferable to a solo car commute in these locations.

But the same story can’t be told in all markets. In more spread-out metros like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, over 87% of commuters travel by vehicle. And in Houston and Los Angeles-Orange County, the share of commuters traveling alone actually increased between 2013 and 2016. Reflecting these trends, prevailing office parking ratios in these markets, particularly in the suburbs, are among the highest reported in our U.S. & Canadian Mobility 2018 report.

So what does all of this mean for office owners and occupiers? Well, the data indicates that the car certainly is not dead, but there are major differences across markets, in terms of both prevailing commuting patterns and whether or not a shift towards other modes of commuting is occurring. At the same time, transportation disruptors bear watching in all locations, even those where the car is still king today; although not expected to occur in the near term, the eventual rise of autonomous vehicles promises to upend transportation and parking as we know it.

Check out CBRE Research’s U.S. & Canadian 2018 Mobility report for additional analysis of parking and transportation data and trends.