Opinion: Post-pandemic traffic is weighing on me

Posted by on June 11th, 2021 at 1:22 pm

North Rosa Parks Way near Albina this morning.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

There was a Pedalpalooza ride this week called World Without Cars that started at 4:00 am with one goal in mind: to ride Portland streets when there are very few cars on them. Other Portland traditions to ride on New Year’s Day and during the Super Bowl are done for the same, low-traffic-loving reason.

As mask requirements have loosened and vaccinations have surged, it feels like more Portlanders than ever are hopping in their cars.

And do you recall how surreal and serene the streets were at the height of the Covid lockdown? I certainly do. And while I knew those conditions wouldn’t last, I was hopeful we’d seize the opportunity to make sure we never went back to normal. After all, every single one of Portland’s adopted plans and values lines squarely up with a drastic decrease in driving.

But we didn’t do that. In fact, it feels like the pendulum has swung the other way. As a daily bike rider in the same neighborhood (Piedmont, near Peninsula Park in north Portland) for 17 years now, I have a sort of sixth sense for traffic patterns. And lately our streets seem busier. There’s a heaviness and stress to the experience of walking to the park and biking my son to school that has gotten worse in the past few weeks. As mask requirements have loosened and vaccinations have surged, it feels like more Portlanders than ever are hopping in their cars.

When I go to cross streets, the platoons of cars seem longer. And the queues at intersections seem bigger then they were a few months ago.

When I shared these thoughts on my personal Twitter account today (a highly unscientific source I admit), I heard similar feelings. “We blew it,” said one person. “I was shocked at how no one cried or threw a tantrum when they converted all the parking spots to outdoor seating. Clearly we missed our opportunity to claim bike and bus lanes en masse,” said another.

It’s not like we didn’t do anything.

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After being harangued for months, PBOT and then-Commissioner Chloe Eudaly launched an open-streets program. Hundreds of signs went up on side streets that proclaimed “Local Traffic Only,” but those — when they weren’t simply shoved to the curb — don’t seem to have actually reduced traffic. PBOT’s highest priority during the pandemic was keeping food businesses afloat by permitting patios in the streets. Now we’re blessed with hundreds of these spaces citywide and they’ll likely stick around for a long time. That’s a good thing.

To their credit, even under extreme duress and staffing challenges, PBOT kept working. They did bus lane and bike lane projects and even managed to move carfree bridge projects forward. Those too are good things. But they weren’t nearly enough.

The low-car lifestyle nearly every Portlander adopted during those few months of lockdowns were a very rare opportunity to encourage and cement new behaviors. It was also a chance for us to have the same urgency for safe, climate-friendly mobility that we had for safe, business-friendly dining.

Don’t get me wrong: How people decide to get around is wrapped up in much more than what PBOT does or doesn’t do. We have leaders in City Hall, advocacy and community leaders, a local media that can influence narratives, and of course we have our own individual choices to consider.

Could we have been more ambitious with temporary, pop-up road diets and bike lane networks? Did we miss a perfect political moment to fundamentally alter peoples’ perceptions of street potential? Did we fight off one virus, only to allow another — the congestion and catastrophic climate and community-destroying consequences of car abuse — to re-infect us?

We can still get this right. TriMet and PBOT celebrated the completion of the new bus-only “Rose Lane” on Hawthorne/Madison today. And of course that entire stretch from Grand to SE 12th has been re-striped with a bike lane and less space for driving.

We must do more projects like that. And fast.

“I think we’re headed for traffic-pocalypse in the fall as folks go back to work in person,” one of my friends on Twitter said. “Maybe there is still time to shift how people move — no one wants to be stuck in a metal box, right?”

Right?!

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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FDUP
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FDUP

All through the pandemic they’ve been adding bus lanes and putting streets on road diets, and now that things are returning to ‘normal’ traffic-wise all the streets they did this on are even more congested than they were previously. You’d know this if you have any experience trying to drive east on or cross SE Hawthorne west of SE 12th, or if you use Grand/MLK as a north-south route.

Not requiring on-site parking for new developments and putting streets on road diets has done practically nothing over the years to reduce the amount of cars or traffic on our streets, it has only made the congestion worse.

Public transportation ridership is also way down and I see tons of brand new cars on the road all the time now.

hamiramani
Subscriber

As one individual who rides Hawthorne from the viaduct to 12th almost daily, I feel that the street is much calmer and not noticeably busier. In fact, it seems less busy to me and I’m riding that way during “rush hour” (I hate that term).

J_Wink
Guest
J_Wink

I would agree that traffic in the downtown area has not “recovered”; I ride between SW 4th and SE 12th on Hawthorne most evenings and it is not a busy as it was before. Most downtown streets are less congested as well, at least from my experience. The farther from downtown you get, the more traffic has rebounded.

drs
Guest
drs

Yes, but that’s because all the office workers that commute to downtown are still working from home.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

Yep, we won’t be back till September, but then it’s going to be mostly business as usual. I’ll be back to my much missed bike commute, but most of my coworkers don’t have that option.

Toadslick
Subscriber

Not requiring on-site parking for new developments and putting streets on road diets has done practically nothing over the years to reduce the amount of cars or traffic on our streets

[citation needed]

Personally, I love the bus lanes and road diets. I feel so much safer crossing Division or Foster than I did when they were four lanes wide. And I find the low-parking apartments to be very attractive. But hey, I don’t own a car, so I value things like walkable neighborhoods and timely bus schedules.

J_Wink
Guest
J_Wink

I feel like at least some of this is due to lower transit ridership. I bike or bus downtown and then take a bus to Tigard, and I know I’ve seen much lower ridership on the 19 and 12 than pre-pandemic, even with the reduced frequency of schedule. I have also seen increased traffic in the usual spots (Barbur Blvd to Ross Island Bridge, e.g.), although at about 80% of before-times levels. Not sure what the answer is, other than increasing bus frequency to previous levels, at least, and promoting the heck out of it with both would-be passengers and employers.

SolarEclipse
Guest
SolarEclipse

I’ve been a transit rider for the last 30 years, except for this past year I’ve been able to work from home.
Until TriMet starts making a serious effort to make the transit rides safe and pleasant it’s going to be a battle to get others to want to ride.
I’m an early morning rider, ~4:30 AM, and I never ever saw any security or fare enforcement at that time of morning and there were folks, not always pleasant folks, that knew that and took advantage.
I’ve been tempted many times to just abandon TriMet and drive/park downtown.

park
Guest
park

Transit ridership isn’t coming back, that is a fantasy cooked up by policy types who never did ride and certainly aint now that all the choice riders have fled to their cars while do-gooders whittle away what was left of code enforcement… “make it free”. There is no such thing as free transit you want to ride. But then again the goal never really was to spur ridership, it was to feel better.

hamiramani
Subscriber

This is a really sad reality. Those of us who walk or bike as our main mode of transportation feel the heaviness of car traffic to be sure. It really pains me to see my able-bodied, young neighbors get into their cars for essentially every trip. They clearly see my friends, wife and myself riding our bikes and walking to get around. But instead of taking the hint they perhaps compartmentalize what they see into the “that’s cool but not for me” part of their brain. We need our city leaders to show folks that walking, rolling, biking and transit are not just viable but necessary modes of transit if we are to have a chance at survival on this planet. And, ultimately, it’s not about us but the young folks who have full lives ahead; the youth protesting freeway expansions. I, for one, have resigned myself to the fact that I may be killed doing my best to further the cause but this can’t be how real change is implemented. I continue to implore our city leaders to have the political will to be bold and innovative.

SolarEclipse
Guest
SolarEclipse

Though I was a big bike rider in college (back in the dinosaur age) and would like to bike more, I can’t get past the danger that I’ve encountered when I’ve tried. To me my life is more important than biking. Sad to say but that’s what it’s become for me (even pre-COVID).
I was an avid walker in my neighborhood. Would go for walks in the morning, and walk to the store to buy groceries. Not any more. I’ve had too many close calls in my “quiet” little neighborhood that I’ve given up on that too.
So until the City can somehow improve the safety of the streets for walking and cycling (and other non-auto forms) then it’s a no go for me. I can only imagine those that never were into cycling/walking somehow embracing those forms of transportation. For them, hoping in their vehicles is the only safe option in their minds. It’s going to be a hard lift to get people to do differently.

hamiramani
Subscriber

Very unfortunate to hear. For the record, it’s not just about biking for me either. I walk and take transit as well. (My wife and I also own a car that we rarely drive.)

I also think that drivers have a false sense of security. As a neurologist, I’ve seen far too many folks suffer from dramatic and sometimes lifechanging injuries as a result of car crashes. I’m not saying this to inspire fear, but rather to show that we are made to believe certain narratives in society. US society happens to think driving is safe and efficient; it’s neither. I hope we can begin to change that narrative so that we can start shifting the paradigm.

soren
Guest
soren

“I, for one, have resigned myself to the fact that I may be killed doing my best to further the cause…”

This sentence is definitely not the best way to further the cause.

Tony Henrich
Guest
Tony Henrich

Can someone explain why the bus ridership getting lower when there are more and more people moving to Portland? My guess is that lower-income people are being pushed out to the edge of the city and people with money and cars moving in. A side effect of gentrification. I don’t see what the city can do about this.

It saddens me when I see buses running around with like 3 people in them. Bus ticket sales don’t cover the driver’s salary and benefits. The buses are running at a loss.

John Bravenec
Guest
John Bravenec

I am not trying to sound snarky, but almost certainly transit ridership has declined because of COVID-19.

Jessica Roberts
Subscriber

You’re both right:

1. Transit ridership is WAAAAAYYYY down due to the pandemic – 70-90% compared to pre-pandemic (global view: https://blogs.worldbank.org/transport/protecting-public-transport-coronavirus-and-financial-collapse and US view: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/01/transit-data-economy/)
2. Gentrification and displacement are one of the main culprits for longer-term falling ridership in Portland (source: https://transitcenter.org/in-portland-economic-displacement-may-be-a-driver-of-transit-ridership-loss/)
3. But don’t forget that Uber/Lyft, with their deeply VC-subsidized rides, has cannibalized walking and transit in downtowns across the country (one source: https://www.businessinsider.com/uber-lyft-having-devastating-effect-on-public-transportation-study-2019-1)

Jack slocum
Guest
Jack slocum

Wealthy people won’t ride the bus until it it becomes a more luxurious experience. When the seat is as comfortable as a Mercedes, with temperature and air controls for each person, air filtration systems, silent bus powertrain, much more room per passenger, no loud air brakes, maybe even a warm moist towel when you step on board and a real place to put down your things and take off your jacket. Pay for it with tolls on the roads, and make the bus free. You would truly improve the daily experience of the Portlanders that rely on the bus. And you would invite a whole new income bracket to ridership.

Steve
Guest
Steve

And wi-fi

J_Wink
Guest
J_Wink

I guess it depends on how you define wealthy, but my parents are upper-middle class suburbanites who used to live outside Seattle. They would regularly drive to the Link Light Rail park & ride and take the light rail to Mariner’s games, the symphony, and other destinations downtown. I think it just needs to feel safe, be clean, reliable, and convenient. Look at how many people ride Max for Blazers and Timbers games who probably don’t use transit otherwise.

Itgoesbothways
Guest
Itgoesbothways

I had a bus (44) to myself a few times that would often be standing room only plus foggy windows.
It’s nice but confusing. The windows are open, I’m vaccinated, masked and feel safe (some random things occasionally happen but that’s public transit life).

Yeah, it would be nice to bike into work (did that for over 2 years and was a nice coffee substitute) but Naito is a crapshoot and I enjoy my free yearly Tri-met pass from work.

It’s weird, I enjoy having a bus to myself but then I wonder why there is more car traffic than public transport users.

soren
Guest
soren

“My guess is that lower-income people are being pushed out to the edge of the city and people with money and cars moving in. ”

That’s the most likely explanation for the multi-year drop in transit use in Portland but this is a controversial idea for bike enthusiasts because many, if not most, are also de facto advocates for economic displacement (e.g. YIMBYism).

https://transitcenter.org/in-portland-economic-displacement-may-be-a-driver-of-transit-ridership-loss/

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Toadslick
Subscriber

I’ve been attending the World Without Cars ride for years! I’m in no way thrilled about waking up at 3:30am, but it is totally worth it for the sublime joy of biking around on the gentle inclines of major arterials without the noise, stink, and stress of car traffic.

This year we rode Division from SE 21st to SE 87th, then rode Stark and Burnside all the way to the new overpass at NW Flanders. The entire ride, we were passed by two busses and three cars at most.

No surprise, but much of our conversation (which was easy to hear, despite our brisk pace) was about the existing bike infrastructure or lack thereof. We talked about how much we preferred the increasing housing and business density of inner Division compared to how we remembered it from a decade ago. We talked about the utterly deplorable state of the sharrow-ed “greenway” on 87th/86th, with frequent potholes that could easily injure cyclists. We talked about the gravel-filled bike lanes that we didn’t have to ride in at that hour. We talked about how disappointed we were with the Hawthorne repaving. We talked about the adjacent greenways and how much more hilly and winding they were than the roads that we were currently enjoying.

We also talked specifically about the feeling that car traffic was worse now than pre-pandemic, and how we expect it to become much more visible once downtown offices require people to return to in-person work. But we also happened to ride past a few of the new pedestrian plazas, and you could hear the enthusiasm and admiration in our voices as we discussed how much we hoped that they would become permanent fixtures of the Portland roadscape.

Anyway, if you share these sentiments then I highly encourage you to join the World Without Cars ride next year. You’ll meet likeminded folks and get to enjoy an utterly serene ride together.

Suburban
Guest
Suburban

We all get to choose our own line:
Oakridge / Westfir. Population <4000. 415 Miles of mountain bike trail out your back door, All the wireless fidelity you deserve. Huck Yes, that's my kind of what-about-ism!
Portland is getting back to it's true traffic heaviness and stress self. See it, or ignore it, add a few beacon crossings or paint stripes; behind you a car revs it's engine.

Keith
Guest
Keith

To the point from SolarEclipse – I’ve wondered if people who gave cycling a try when the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030 was being created (adopted in 2010) gave up after having close calls or accidents due to careless motorists and/or poor facilities. Prior to Covid-19 our cycling mode split % was going down from its peak around 2014-16. Covid-19 was the perfect time to promote bicycling in a REALLY big way. Bike sales went up, but I haven’t seen the same increase in people actually riding. Although the city made some very positive moves, we basically blew it. I agree with Jonathan and the others that we’re continuing to head in the wrong direction. We need to get back on the trajectory of 10 years ago.

soren
Guest
soren

I’ve also been wondering what the 2020 Census ACS “commute to work” modal split will look like. On the one hand many working-class essential workers chose to use cages to avoid transit and on the other hand healthcare workers tend to have higher cycling mode share than the average population so I could see a low or high print. Either way 2020 will be a bit of an aberration.

One of the things that depresses me is that friends who were daily transit riders pre-pandemic have switched to driving AND/OR purchased SUVs/trucks/(cars). The sunk cost fallacy suggests that many of these people will continue to drive. I would not be surprised if the “commute to work in a cage” mode share increases in 2021 (2022 Census ACS). Hopefully, the cost of used cages continues to skyrocket up and some of these people sell and pocket their gains.

Bikeninja
Guest
Bikeninja

The traffic is going up but the patterns are different. Mondays and Fridays are much lighter than the rest of the week (Hybrid work schedules?). There is also the new phenomenon of the mid afternoon rush hour. This is when the work-from-homers jump in their cars and head out to do errands and drive around in circles. The daily in-to and out-of downtown traffic is still very light. I think rising oil prices ( which I think are going much higher than most people expect) will start knocking down some of the traffic.

soren
Guest
soren

“Maybe there is still time to shift how people move — no one wants to be stuck in a metal box, right?”

As weird as it seems to me or you, many people miss their SUV/truck/(car) commute,

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/07/admit-it-you-miss-your-commute/619007/

Clem Fandango
Guest
Clem Fandango

This atlantic article is interesting but I’d point out that it doesn’t claim that people miss a “car or truck” commute as much as any sort of boundary shifting commute time. I’ve been working at home for 15 years and the ritual I’ve developed to satisfy this need is a 25 minute ride to the park with my dog after work every evening.

soren
Guest
soren

In a 2001 paper, two researchers at UC Davis attempted to divine the ideal commute time. They settled on 16 minutes. To be sure, this was a substantial shortening of the study participants’ actual commutes (which were half an hour, on average). But it was not zero. In fact, a few wished for a longer commute. Asked why, they ticked off their reasons—the feeling of control in one’s own car

This feeling of control, or even of dominance, I think explains quite a bit of the the love affair ‘murricans have with their cages. And I suspect it also explains the desire of some cage users to frighten, humiliate, or punish those with lower perceived road status (the treatment of black people in crosswalks by cage drivers is one example of this implicit [or sometimes overt] bias).

MaxD
Guest
MaxD

There are 2 factors I believe are important but are not mentioned in the article or comments:
1. We have normalized ordering an unholy amount of goods from Amazon and similar services plus we get a ridiculous amount of food delivered. I suspect a significant amount of the traffic on our streets are people driving in their car with a package of Ramen in the backseat.
2. We are not taking care of our public spaces. If you can’t walk down the sidewalk, you are not going to take transit. Our sidewalks are blocked by massive homeless camps, cars are allowed to drive down MUPs like Going and Greeley. Max stations in transit stops four of overflowing garbage cans, needles on the ground and people having some sort of crisis.

James N
Guest
James N

I have been unable to return to commuting by bike. Recently both of our company vehicles have become inoperable. After 9 years of leaving our company vehicles in our parking lot they have been vandalized and damaged by attempts to steal them. Now I need to drive my personal vehicle to work in case I need to run errands for the business. I am very disappointed by this.

tom
Guest
tom

I rarely agree w/JM , but this time I do.

J
Guest
J

When I read “The low-car lifestyle nearly every Portlander adopted during those few months of lockdowns”, I think that mis-describes what happened.

During the lockdown, many people had nowhere to go. Not to the workplace, not to dine or shop, not to visit friends or see a movie. They stayed home. This was not adopting a “low car lifestyle” but rather a low mobility period. All transportation modes declined drastically: driving, transit, biking and walking. You remember how eerily empty the streets were, like a Twilight Zone episode? They were mostly empty of pedestrians, buses and cyclists too, not just of cars. Of the people who still commuted to work, some drove more than before since transit was fraught.

Now mobility is recovering fast – as shown in cellphone movement data, for folks who track such things – and people are going back to their old way of getting around. Well, mostly. Transit is lagging, with more people driving. New car sales are as high as disrupted supply allows, and used car prices are jumping. That is due to virus concerns, changes in commute volume, and changes in where people live. Some of that will be permanent, and transit is likely to have a hard time ahead. There will be more bus lanes on commute routes, but carrying fewer riders.

Personally, as one who continued to commute to the workplace every day during the pandemic, my experience was that at first, biking was better due to the empty streets. Then the excessive speed, distracted driving, and general disregard for road rules really picked up, and cycling felt less safe. When I see cars running lights and blasting down surface streets at 60 mph, often with no license plates, and know that there’s no police assigned to traffic enforcement, that nudges me toward taking the car. Now that conditions are more “normal”, I’m riding my bike more.

Thomas Klostersans
Guest
Thomas Klostersans

Hundreds of signs went up on side streets that proclaimed “Local Traffic Only,” but those — when they weren’t simply shoved to the curb — don’t seem to have actually reduced traffic.

Was anyone surprised by this? It felt like a performative / empty gesture even back then, when practically everything was shut down. The barrels are still there, some thirteen months later, a reminder of our awkward and disjointed pandemic response.

Yet it’s very typical of PBOT: rehashing “Vision Zero” talking points while fatalities climb. Lowering the speed limit on 82nd without addressing the fact that there are no police officers assigned to traffic enforcement. Slapping some “20 is plenty” yard signs up and pretending that anyone will notice or care…

Barrelsandcones
Guest
Barrelsandcones

Like the vast majority, I drive because it is much quicker, safer, allows me to carry and converse with my passengers in a safe, quiet and dry space, allows me to carry the essentials I need for my trip, allows me to leave and arrive at a time I choose and is not chosen for me, allows me to wear the attire that I want and not have to change or carry the spare clothes wrinkled, allows me to change my destination or even route at a whim, allows me to carry food and drink if I want it, allows me to work from it, allows me to store and lock my things dry and secure, allows me peace of mind knowing it is not stolen when I park it. You get the point and I could go on forever. How about the big one…. I take my kids where they need to be safely and on time. And when it is pouring down rain and cold from November through May biking will not be the choice. Stop thinking there will be a car free society, unless Portland becomes a group of 20-somethings without kids. The more ways you prevent cars, the more congestion there will be, period. Create both car-free streets and car-only streets- that is the best solution today, because over time that will change. And yes, people won’t ride transit until the homeless, B.O smelling, obnoxious, violent, crazies do not dominate the experience. I bike for fun. Commuting15 miles by bike is not fun. “So Live where you work…”. I wouldn’t live downtown if it was free!! By the way, I do take transit and a park and ride.

JR
Guest
JR

This city was never poised to innovate dramatically under the current form of government. Heck, there’s hardly political will to do anything, let alone anything different. I feel like Portland is floating on a “lazy river” ride at a water park.

Daniel Rohlf
Guest
Daniel Rohlf

Making cycling safer, more attractive, and more convenient are necessary but insufficient steps. We also need much higher gas and/or carbon taxes, much more effective and efficient public transportation (and an end to the pandemic that makes people want to avoid public transit), and better land use decisions — even in Portland. In short, we need to transform our status quo in many ways. The U.S. has usually fallen woefully short of the resolve we need to make such systemic changes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep at it. Baby steps are better than no steps.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Baby steps are better than no steps.

Sometimes. The danger is that a “baby step” is viewed as the end of the journey. “We lowered the speed limit from 45 to 40, what more do you want?”

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Not quite Portland, but just over the county line on the SW edge of Forest Park, we’re doing our best to induce demand (look at Google Maps at the area around Sato Elementary)–and it’s working! Just after our WFH order last spring, I took to riding around various Germantown/Skyline/Springville/Cornelius Pass-ish routes in an attempt to maintain fitness and such, and most of my rides were very pleasant and de-stressing.

After various medical issues took me off my bike in February, I am just now starting to go for some rides again. On only about my second time out, I got a few close-passes and one (very) sustained horn-blast. Both the volume and hostility of “traffic” seems to have increased dramatically over last Summer; my rides now include significant portions that are both unpleasant and distressing.

In the case of unincorporated Washington County, I don’t know whether it’s a matter of failure to seize opportunities to reduce traffic by re-tooling streets, it feels more like a case of too many people being enticed to move to new developments and expecting traffic-free (or at least bike-free) “country” roads. It seems more than a little bit psycho-logical. Perhaps folks have been reminiscing about going out and about and have let the car commercial image of the total freedom of unfettered driving on empty streets/roads become an implanted memory. When “back to normal” means “back to the hassles of driving in traffic”, the disillusionment is too much.

Doug Hecker
Guest
Doug Hecker

One can reduce the traffic lanes but one cannot reduce the cars on the street. Does it seem worse but look differently due to new infrastructure? I think at this point Trimet needs to pay people to use their services.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

Jonathan, my response to your statement:
“And do you recall how surreal and serene the streets were at the height of the Covid lockdown?”

Well I think a lot of drivers were not really out driving that much AND definitely not on their normal A to B commute routes. So outside of their cul-de-sac they may not realize how the city functioned and felt (serene) during deep lock down.

Sadly, instead of a pivot point for Portland, Vancouver (WA), Honolulu it will likely more of a ‘hiccup’ into deeper autotopia….now that transit is less appealing (less socially distant) and perhaps not well structured for the burb-2-burb cross-spoke-trip vs the higher quality peak hour commute run (express etc.) spoke to hub. Perhaps someday – sadly – we will all point back to how the streets were for cycling then…like some of our parents talk about the great NYC blackout or a week long snow storm etc.

Itgoesbothways
Guest
Itgoesbothways

Keep in mind not all of us write a bike blog for a living and we are being asked to come back into the office.

And don’t you own a car?