Washington Post: Have We Lost Our Passion for the Automobile?

Sorry, Ford: the honeymoon is over. Photo: ##http://www.loti.com/fifties_cars/The_1955-57_Ford_Thunderbird.htm##Loti##

The data tell us that young people are driving less; that Americans are driving fewer miles — and it’s not just because of the economy. Now the Washington Post asks a more transcendental question: Is the spark gone?

America’s fabled love affair with the car hasn’t ended, but like many a romance that gets off to a smoking-hot start, it has evolved over the years into more placid coexistence rooted more in need than pleasure.

There are a multitude of reasons: The roads don’t seem so free or open as they were when the affair blossomed after World War II. Congestion and the pillory at the gas pump have reined in some of the wanderlust.

Even the ad man who made muscle cars a status symbol, Jim Wangers, is quoted in the Post article saying, “In the 1960s it was absolutely mandatory that you had a swinging set of wheels. Now, personal mobility has been replaced by personal mobility on the Web.”

There are economic reasons and environmental reasons, as well as a culture shift away from the drivable suburbs of prior generations.

GM has hired MTV consultants to try to find out what makes young people tick these days but even their hired gun seems a little pessimistic about the auto industry’s chances of winning back this demographic. His prescient glimpse into the mind of today’s youth: “They think of a car as a giant bummer… Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”

Less than half of 16- to 19-year-olds even bother to get their driver’s license anymore (compared to 64 percent in 1998), and Americans under 35 drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001.

To illustrate the point, the Post story uses two anecdotes: 1) More than a quarter of DC residents don’t own an automobile, and 2) NASCAR fans are graying. (Corvette owners are, too.)

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed last week in which Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard asked readers, “Would you rather own a car, an iPad or a Facebook membership?” — as if it were a rhetorical question. But does everyone really want a car, Mr. Karlgaard? According to the research firm Gartner, 46 percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car.

To Karlgaard, though, there’s only one logical answer. “By 2050 the planet will have nine billion inhabitants and three billion cars,” he wrote, even while noting: “This will create huge demand for fuel and road access.”

Sure, we can keep building infrastructure for a car-choked future the data tell us isn’t coming, or we can ride the wave of diminished interest in cars to channel resources toward more sustainable forms of transportation.

  • Davistrain

    “America’s love affair with the car” is a cliche that goes back many years.  For many of us, it’s more a “marriage of convenience”.  We don’t lust after a “hot ride”, we just want something that’s reliable, comfortable, and economical to run.  Snob appeal and high performance are not selling points for the “appliance car” buyer. 

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a little factoid to focus on:  

    In 1988 the least expensive car on the U.S. Market, The Yugo, had a MSRP of $3995 which according to The Inflation Calculator would equal $7266 today (well, 2010 actually, but close enough).The least expensive car on the market today is the Nissan Versa 1.6 S with a MSRP of $11750.  That’s almost a 62% increase!Even the higher-quality (well, some did run over 100k miles) 1986 Hyundai Excel, made by a company still selling in the U.S. Market today, had a MSRP of only $4995, or $9799 today.  A 20% increase!

  • wanderer

    The car was supposed to be a tool for mobility, not an end in itself. To the extent that cars don’t work as well for that they become less attractive, especially if other means of mobility/access start to work better.

  • The Nav system in my car shows an average moving speed of 35mph and an overall average of just under 8mph. It’s a comfortable place to sit and listen to the radio, but for transportation it’s expensive and endlessly frustrating. 
    (BTW, the cycle computer I rarely bother using shows an average 14mph and I just cruise along).

  • Bravo!!!!  Looks like if anyone has their stuff together, it’s the young people!  I’m kinda getting back into driving.  I’ve been out of the loop for almost five years.  The van I got will just be for needed trips.  Pick up groceries and what not.  Getting behind the wheel after all those years of not behind the wheel, really opens you up to how wasteful it is to drive 2 tons of steel, plastic and rubber around to go a couple of miles.  Granted I got the metro station a half a mile away and does an awful lot in getting me around, but I’m seeing that it really is possible to get around with no car in LA county.

  • Tracy Mcdonalds

    The American passion for automobile will never die no matter how hard the banks try to kill it with some so-so bad credit car financing schemes. This is the very spirit that built America and we can’t afford to let this go.

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