Data dive: Practicality drives student vehicle choices

Our world is built around transportation. Even though Vassar is officially an arboretum, the school is not an exception to this paradigm. A person’s car, like a bedroom or a computer desktop, can say a lot about a person. What do Vassarians’ cars say about them?

I collected and analyzed a survey of cars for their makes and home states in the South Lot. While this doesn’t capture all Vassar cars, one interesting finding was that compared to nationwide averages, Vassar has a very high population of Subarus, and brands like Jeep, BMW and Mercedes are rarer.

Subarus have been popular with certain demographics of people since the ’90s. Subaru made all-wheel drive standard across its fleet of vehicles, which enticed five categories of buyers: educators, health-care professionals, IT professionals, outdoorsy types and, believe it or not, lesbians (The Atlantic, “How Subarus Came to Be Seen as Cars for Lesbians,” 06.22.2016). In fact, Subarus are four times more likely to be owned by a lesbian woman than than the average consumer (Priceonomics, “How an Ad Campaign Made Lesbians Fall in Love with Subaru,” 05.23.2016). The high proportion of Subarus at Vassar, then, would seem to support such a trend: It is not a surprising idea that we would have more educators, outdoorsy types and lesbians relative to national averages.

What about the other most common brands, like Toyota and Honda? To get a more fleshed-out narrative explaining why we opt for these brands, I interviewed a car owner of each brand.

“I decided to bring [my Toyota Prius] to campus this year to be a motivator for experiencing the area,” Merrick Rubinstein ’22 said. “It’s nice to have the option once you have the time and the ideas to actually follow through with it.”

Ethan Nurick ’23, the owner of a 2005 Honda Accord Hybrid, has had similar experiences. “You make a lot of friends because a lot of people want to use your car,” Nurick commented.

Car ownership on campus isn’t a walk (or drive) in the park, however. Owning a car entails keeping the gas tank full, changing the oil and making sure it’s parked correctly. There’s also the trip from home to Vassar. The data indicate that Vassar cars are from the Northeastern states, but some hail from farther regions, like California and even Washington. New York State cars only accounted for about a third of the car population.

The popularity of makes like Honda, Toyota and Subaru, known for their everyday appeal, isn’t unique to Vassar. Country-wide, affordable brands like Honda, Toyota and Ford see the most sales, according to data from Statista. More than demographic-specific car selection, cars that are convenient and low-maintenance might be the bottom-line criteria for how we choose our cars. Or, as Rubinstein puts it, “The bigger the car or the fancier the car, it’s much more of a hassle.”

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