Buying and Selling Vehicles in a Pandemic

As has been observed by both our research team and others, driving has taken a serious hit in popularity during the pandemic. A question on many people’s minds is that of “stickiness” – will people continue to get around by means other than driving (or simply travel less) as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides? Reducing car traffic has been a longtime goal of urban planners, and some optimistically predict that car use will remain unpopular even after the pandemic. In this post, we’ll be taking a look at car ownership trends among respondents to our COVID Future survey. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, some were already predicting the demise of the privately-owned car, with fleets of autonomous vehicles taking their place in the near future. Expensive to maintain, insure, and store, ditching personally owned cars is a desirable prospect to many. We’ll be looking at who is getting rid of cars (or buying additional ones), taking into account family and household composition, personal attitudes, demographics, and life situation factors such as recent moves or income.

Using the results of our COVID Future survey to gain some insight, we first asked the respondents themselves for the reasons they either bought or sold a vehicle during the pandemic. We directly asked respondents who bought or sold cars about their reasons for doing so, giving them the ability to select multiple options. The reasons for purchasing a car, from most to least popular were: replacing a vehicle (over 50% of respondents selected this), getting a good deal on their purchase, feeling safer in a private vehicle, changing jobs, and moving. For those who sold a car, the reasons from most to least popular were: doing so in order to replace it (matching up with the large portion who purchased a vehicle for the same reason), being concerned about finances, no longer needing their vehicle, having a vehicle crash or break down, and finally being concerned about the environment.

In order to gain further insight about our respondents, we grouped them into 4 categories: those who bought and sold a vehicle (n=263), those who only bought a vehicle (n=667), those who only sold a vehicle (n=155), and those who neither bought nor sold a vehicle (n=6510). From there, we examined employment status. Unemployed respondents were most likely to either only sell or not change their vehicle status. Another variable that we examined was the industry our respondents worked in. First, we saw that those who sold a vehicle were twice as likely to be employed in maintenance, manufacturing, farming, or construction than those who bought a vehicle. This could point to financial instability among those in those fields. We also looked to see if the respondent’s job had changed. A majority of those who both bought and sold a vehicle had a job change. Those who did neither were the least likely to have changed jobs. It is possible that those who experienced a change in occupation had to sell a vehicle from the previous job and buy a vehicle for the new one, while those who had no job change had no such reason to change their vehicle situation. Results from respondents’ jobs changing likely overlapped with them moving as well, since one of these events is often a cause for the other.

Our respondents reported moving as a common reason for buying or selling their vehicles, so we decided to look a little bit deeper into this. 32% of those who both bought and sold vehicles moved, compared to 21% of those who only sold and 18% of those who only bought. Only 8% of those who neither bought nor sold moved. Looking further at those who did move, those who bought and sold were two times as likely as those who bought only or sold only to remain in the same metropolitan area.

The final variable we decided to analyze was whether or not our respondents felt that society was overreacting to COVID-19. Those who bought, sold, or both were more likely than those who did neither to believe that society was indeed overreacting to COVID. Those who bought and sold were the most likely to think so. A possible explanation for this is that those who don’t believe society is overreacting are more concerned or worried about the future, and thus more conservative when making big decisions like buying or selling a car. Those who were less concerned were likely more comfortable making such decisions.

Surprisingly, the purchase and sale of vehicles did not show a meaningful trend when examined by income or use of different travel modes before the pandemic. Income and affinities for different modes of travel are common predictors of behavioral outcomes in the literature, so this is a notable contrast to prevailing ideas about decision-making and behavior.

There are many takeaways from this data. People who were employed full-time were more likely to buy a vehicle and job changes were associated with changes in respondents’ vehicle situations. Those who bought and sold vehicles were the most likely to have moved, especially within the same metro area, while those who neither bought nor sold were unlikely to have moved. Finally, belief that the response to COVID-19 was an overreaction was correlated with a stronger tendency to buy and sell vehicles.

Throughout the pandemic, people bought or sold vehicles for many different reasons. Most notably, job and location changes impacted how readily people changed their vehicle situation. What will be most interesting to see, though, is the aforementioned ‘stickiness’ of these changes. For example, if large numbers of people continue to relocate as has occurred during COVID-19, it is possible that more people will undergo changes in vehicle ownership. These findings may show what the future looks like when it comes to travel and private life for many people across the country.

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