When An SUV Is Not An SUV

Today I slipped a way to the forbidding Trails Behind The Mall:

Which I accessed by means of a vintage bicycle:

As opposed to the hated SUV:

The number of sport utility vehicles owned by city residents rose by 21 percent between 2016 and 2020, from 974,359 to 1,180,722, according to state Department of Motor Vehicles data obtained by Transportation Alternatives through a public-records request. Over that same period, the number of sedans in the five boroughs dropped by 17 percent, from 971,908 to 807,482.

By 2020, SUVs made up more than 60 percent of personal vehicles in the city, up from around half just four years earlier, the data show.

So it’s no surprise then that SUV-caused carnage on city roads has risen as well. In 2016, SUV drivers killed 40 pedestrians and cyclists in the city and injured 3,103 more, according to Crash Mapper. In 2019, the last full year with reliable statistics, the numbers had risen to 70 SUV-caused pedestrian and cyclist deaths and 5,926 injuries.

That’s an increase in fatalities of 75 percent and an increase in injuries of 91 percent. The share of fatalities involving SUVs has increased 55 percent for cyclists and 47 percent for pedestrians compared to 2014, the first year of Mayor de Blasio’s tenure. The share of cycling and pedestrian deaths involving sedans declined 57 and 33 percent over the same period, Transportation Alternatives reported.

I was bloviating about this on Twitter earlier, but if you’re the sort of person who knows better than to look at Twitter, I’m afraid I’m going to repeat myself herewith.

I wouldn’t dispute the fact that vehicle bloat is a meaningful factor in all this maiming and mayhem–obviously those high hoodlines and apartment radiator-sized grilles seem purpose-built to annihilate pedestrians. At the same time, the term SUV is essentially meaningless at this point, and we use it to describe everything from this comparatively rinky-dink thing (Vehicle A):

To this cigar-chomping behemoth (Vehicle B):

Note that Vehicle B weights approximately twice as much as Vehicle A, and is close to five feet longer.

So why does this matter? Well, the article says that, according to DMV records, SUV ownership is up in the city, and that these vehicles are causing more injuries and deaths. But which SUVs are we talking about? Certainly I could be wrong, but if they’re basing this on New York State Department of Motor Vehicle data, I would guess they mean vehicles that fall under this registration category:

This “SUBN” category includes many of the higher-riding vehicles people generically refer to as SUVs. But it also includes this:

That’s a Subaru Impreza hatchback, hardly the sort of vehicle you associate with the gas-guzzlin’ phallus-compensatin’ SUV. Yet if you register one in New York State it’s classified under “SUBN,” which I know because there are two of them parked on my street right now and I just looked at the registration stickers in the windshield.

Now again, I may be wrong, and maybe Transportation Alternatives looked at more granular data from the DMV. But if not, all this data really shows is that the traditional sedan-shaped vehicle (which gets the 4DSD designation here) has been going out of style in North America for years now, which anybody who pays any attention to cars has understood for quite some time. Moreover, most of these cars aren’t being replaced with Tahoes and Suburbans–they’re being replaced with slightly puffier versions of themselves, which is what many of the cars we generically call “SUVs” are. For example, Vehicle A above is just a puffed-up version of this:

Furthermore, the best-selling “SUV” (though really just a puffed-up hatchback) in the US is this:

Which weighs almost exactly the same as this sedan from the same manufacturer, and is actually shorter to boot:

Granted, I’d rather be hit by the sedan than the puffed-up hatchback, since I imagine I’d be more likely to roll over the hood. Still, overall, I’m not sure the numbers in the Streetsblog article are reflective of anything more than we’re driving slightly differently-shaped cars than we were in 2014. See, in 2014 Americans bought about 428,000 of those sedans and about 267,000 of those puffed-up hatchbacks–but in 2020 they bought only 294,000 of those sedans, and a whopping 430,000 of the puffed-up hatchback–which, again, has much more in common with a sedan than it does with the Tahoe they use in the photo. Meanwhile, the article notes:

The share of fatalities involving SUVs has increased 55 percent for cyclists and 47 percent for pedestrians compared to 2014, the first year of Mayor de Blasio’s tenure. The share of cycling and pedestrian deaths involving sedans declined 57 and 33 percent over the same period, Transportation Alternatives reported.

Bearing in mind that “SUVs” might mean anything from a 4-cylinder hatchback on up, this could simply be mirroring the obvious fact that fewer people are buying cars with traditional trunks, which really doesn’t mean anything other than that most people find it easier to load groceries into a rear gate at groin level than into a compartment with a lid.

So why does any of this matter? For one thing, it matters because it gives me an excuse to bloviate. For another, the reflexive and reductive “SUVs are evil” thing not only ignores that fact that many of these vehicles are merely puffed-up cars and not the body-on-frame trucks of yesteryear (I mean obviously there are some, but they’re not the big sellers), but also all the other stuff that contributes to the state of affairs out there on the street. For example (and I’ve probably mentioned this, but maybe I haven’t), I recently drove a car made by a company that consumers tend to associate with “safety.” In order to operate everything from the radio to the climate control, you had to poke and poke and poke at a gigantic tablet that took up most of the console. Many car-makers are going this direction, even though car reviewers in particular seem to hate them and lament the loss of tactile controls that allow you to focus on the road. (Car reviewers love manual transmissions and knobs the same way retrogrouches love friction shifting and steel.) Yes, when you’re out there on the bike it’s hard not to notice how tall cars are today–but it’s even harder not to notice how many drivers are staring at the phones in their laps. (Somebody once pointed out that a 10-year high in road deaths came 10 years after the introduction of the first iPhone, go figure.)

Then there’s the tendency of bike advocacy types to blame everything on how selfish and stupid everybody else is. (Obviously I am guilty of that.) Yes, we are all selfish and stupid, but consumer preference for differently-shaped cars isn’t necessarily a reflection of that, nor would requiring people to drive Camrys instead of RAV4s be likely to change much of anything in and of itself. Everyone from advocates to auto journalists deride today’s puffed-up vehicles, but it’s useless to pretend they don’t offer the average person certain advantages: ground clearance, tire volume, and cargo access simply make life easier, and car companies have figured out how to offer those things in a relatively fuel-efficient and car-like package. Certainly preaching the utility of the bicycle and the pitfalls of car-dependence are important and noble, but this has everything to do with the virtues of the Almighty Bicycle, and little or nothing to do with what cars are shaped like this year.

All of this is to say that it’s probably more useful to take the time to understand why people make the choices they do then it is to simply declare that the choices they make are “wrong.” Shame is not a particularly effective motivator.

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