The End of Car Culture? Not Exactly.
Happy Independence Day everybody! Its fitting that over the weekend, I happened to catch an article on the New York Times website written by their environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal that dealt with independence. The article, titled "The End of Car Culture", was a eulogy for American driver. The story implies that they're dying off in droves. (Figuratively, of course). You see, today's motorists, especially the younger ones, are driving less -or- they're not getting a driver's license. As a result, that means they're not purchasing a car to use for work, school, or to drive to the local Dog 'N Suds. Today's American citizen, Rosenthal says, simply doesn't find a car as much of a necessity as the previous generations did. They're making accommodations and their families are functioning in a different way than the past, and that allows them to carry on without the horseless carriage.
What are the reasons for this massive cultural shift, you ask? I have a few ideas of my own, but I'll save those for later on. First, let's get back to the NYTimes story.
Rosenthal does a good job of pointing out that Americans are driving an average of 9% less in 2013 than they were back in 1995. Our country's economic health could have played a role in this reduction of miles traveled. I'd agree with that assessment. But a little further reading uncovers a little more factual Mc Nuggets for us to consider. According to the University of Michigan's Michael Sivak, the number of cars per household actually started to decline before the "economic downturn" officially happened. This suggests, according to Rosenthal, that a larger sociological pattern has changed. We just don't need a car as much as we used to.
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We also aren't raising children to need a car to get to work or school. Rosenthal cites several cases where teens of driving age are not taking driver's education and getting a license. Today, 46% of 17 year-olds have a license compared to 69% in 1983. Instead of a car, today's teens are using technology more and more to achieve what they need. No more runs to Sam Goody to get that new Weezer CD when you can just download it on iTunes. Why run out to get pizza with your pals when you can use your Domino's smartphone app? Fewer teens are working part-time jobs these days, so there's also a falling demand for travel to and from work.
Its not all about the Millennials...its a much larger issue. The country itself has changed.
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That's great. But what do we do in the meantime between the promises of tomorrow (Walkable communities, improved public transportation, hybrids, alternative fuel.) and the needs of today? Do we keep doing what we're doing and hope that the oil keeps flowing and the roads are maintained? Or do we make huge adjustments to our lives? I don't have an answer for those questions, but I do have a few thoughts as to why our dependency on cars isn't what it used to be.
Reasons Why "Car Culture" Is Dying
1. People Ain't Got No Money.
The average age of a person's car in the US is 10.8 years. Americans are driving cars and trucks longer and putting more miles on them because they can't afford new ones. (Think of the Grapes of Wrath Hudson flatbed truck. That's what we're trying to cross the desert in.) Everything has become more expensive yet our wages haven't increased to match. In an age where a Ford Focus costs $24,000 and a new truck costs as much as the house Sarah & I live in, who can afford a car that doesn't need a lot of work? Speaking of work, read #2.
2. People Don't Know How to Do Anything Anymore.
In years past you could pick up a sweet ride for not a lot of dough...it just meant that you'd be breaking out the Craftsman toolbox and doing some work before you tooled on over to the drive-in. Or more likely, it meant you had to fix your heap before your girlfriend would even ride in it. Families could get a used station wagon so long as Dad could keep it running. Nowadays the complexity of the modern automobile hinders some of that. Mostly, we're just not that into working on things. We also don't sew, cook, do home repairs, or mechanics because we stopped offering shop class and told everyone to go to college. Thanks, everyone. Now I pay the plumbers $170 an hour and I make somewhere wayyyyyy south of that. At least I can change out a spark plug.
3. Kids Aren't Into Stuff Like They Used to Be.
If you grew up in the country or in the suburbs, you probably had a bicycle when you were little. If you did, you probably rode the wheels off that thing because it was your ticket to adventure. New places, new friends, and new trouble to get into. Today's kids can get all of that (they think) with an internet search and a flash video. I'm not a parent, but I think society's become so engrossed with protecting our offspring that we have built a safety cage around them and won't let them see what life outside is like. A bicycle may not seem like much, but its one of the first investments a young person has an opportunity to maintain. My 1985 Schwinn Predator was the first piece of hardware that I oiled, replaced brake pads and changed tires on. It taught me how to keep something up and take pride in it because it was such a key part of my adolescent life. Those life lessons followed with my cars, and now our home. You can bet I take care of things better because my Dad let me use his tools and his oil can to make that Schwinn roll down the road safely.
4. We Don't Ask Much of Adolescents Today.
There's no question that the demands of a young adult now are harder than they've ever been. Oh wait, I'm totally kidding. They don't have to work, they don't have to come up with spending money, and they don't have to run errands. Mom & Dad take care of all of that. Its only when it benefits the parents do they finally break down and purchase a safe Camry or Corolla for junior to drive. The days of "if you want money, get a job" are over. In all honesty, the money young adults used to make at a part-time job usually went to pay for their car...that they used to get to & from their job. The vicious cycle didn't make much sense. I forgot my point here. I just really wanted to throw in a cheap shot at today's youth. There it is.
If the collapse of the US economy has taught us anything, its that we can often do without the extras. We don't need a 7 bedroom house. We don't need an SUV and a '66 Mustang and a Miata in the garage. Many of us gearheads have had to thin the herd and sell off a few toys to make ends meet in the last 5 or 6 years. Its understandable that we're finding alternative ways to get to work or shuttle the kids around. Many of us also started to give a rip about the environment and started limiting our carbon footprint. This should be commended, but this die-hard car guy still has a hard time swallowing this bitter pill.
Don't loose faith, car culture isn't 100% dead yet. We maybe have 20-25 good years left before the party's over. We can rack up a lot of miles and deplete plenty of petroleum reserves between now and then! In all honesty, what do you think about our changing automotive landscape? I'd love to get a little discussion going and see how people view the future. Just hit up the POST COMMENT button below and start a flame war.
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That's about all the soap-box ranting I can do for now. Be sure to tune in next time when I'll tackle my 10 Reasons Why "Car Culture" Will Never Die...