- Nov 1, 2011
Is America's automotive love affair over? [w/poll]
"I just don't see why," she says, ending her sentence with the Valley Girl's upturned lilt. "I can always hitch a ride when I need it from my folks and friends. I have my bike. And I just wish more people would stop driving everywhere."
While it's easy to dismiss Jenkins as an oddball, the fact is she's anything but unique these days. A number of her friends at college have also put off buying cars and industry research says that's becoming increasingly commonplace.
"It's something we're watching," acknowledges Mike Accavitti, the head of marketing for Honda of America. "There is a trend with kids under 30 that they put more value in their cellphones than in the cars they drive" – or the cars they decide not to drive.
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The trend transcends national boundaries. A 10-year study by the Nikkei Research Institute of Industry & Regional Economy, titled Hoshigaranai Wakamonotachi, or "Young People Who Don't Want," found that a generation rejecting their parents' traditional values is especially turned off by the cars that clog the island nation's roads.
In Europe, researchers are noticing a similar phenomenon, especially in cities like Amsterdam where bicycles are becoming as commonplace a way to commute as driving.
In major European and Asian urban centers, the move away from the automobile might not seem that surprising. Traffic in many cities has hit gridlock. In Beijing, capital of what has become the world's largest national automotive market, authorities have instituted a registration lottery system to slow down the growth of the city's automotive fleet. Halfway around the world, London has enacted a stiff road usage charge for those entering the city center and other communities are considering either banning automobiles entirely or restricting access to just zero-emission vehicles or plug-in hybrids operating on battery power.
This year motorists have trimmed the number of miles they drove by 1.3 percent – the lowest number since 2003.
Here in the States, a study by the Department of Transportation shows that so far this year, motorists have trimmed the number of miles they drove by 1.3 percent, which translates into the lowest number since 2003. Now, there are plenty of possible explanations, including this year's near-record fuel prices and a lackluster economy that's left millions of unemployed sitting at home rather than commuting to work. But it might also suggest that Americans, especially our youngest generation of drivers, might simply be falling out of love with the automobile.
There is, of course, a growing sense of environmental responsibility among the Millennials who are rapidly becoming the next big American consumer wave, exceeding in size even the vaunted post-War Baby Boomers. So, even among those who embrace the automobile, more and more young buyers are opting for cleaner, more efficient (read: downsized, lower-powered and cheaper) products. And they're more likely to turn to their bikes – or even, *gasp,* walk – rather than drive to visit friends, go out for the evening or even commute to work.
Even among those who embrace the automobile, more and more young buyers are opting for cleaner, more efficient products.
There are, as Honda's Accavitti notes, more things vying for their attention and their dollars, like smartphones and video game systems. To some, it's more fun comparing the number of apps they've downloaded on their iPhones than bragging about the horsepower of their cars. And, even if they do have wheels, technologies like Ford's SYNC and Toyota's Entune are becoming bigger draws than performance.
And perhaps for good reason. "My daughter has no interest in owning a car," says a media colleague. "She sees it as nothing but a hassle and I can understand why." When he grew up, says this aging Boomer, there were plenty of open roads by his home in Orange County. Today, the orange groves have been replaced by endless tract housing and shopping malls. You can barely hit 40 mph before you reach the next stoplight and if you can find a place to open up you're just as likely to get a ticket as not.
There's also the issue of America's economic realities. "This is likely to be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents," short of those who grew up in the Great Depression, points out John Mendel, Honda's chief U.S. executive. The automobile has been a symbol of aspiration for those who lived the classic American dream. The Millennials, on the other hand, have to rein in their desires.
What happens if they accept the car as a basic appliance and not as a symbol of personal identity?
Bumming rides from family and friends is something young people can put up with. As they grow older, get more responsible jobs, start families, will they still feel the same way? Researchers suggest that they'll be more likely to accept the idea that one needs an automobile in American life. But what happens if they accept the car as a basic appliance and not as a symbol of personal identity? Perhaps that's already happening as we see the steady growth of the U.S. small car market.
Meanwhile, after a century of migration from farm and field, as well as city center, to the suburbs that long defined the nation, there is beginning to be a measurable return to urban living. That's reshaping not only traditionally vibrant cities like New York and Chicago, where there are viable mass transit systems, but even long-struggling metropolises such as Detroit. The Motor City is even getting ready to put in its first street car line in more than half a century.
Especially among the next generation of consumers, owning a car may become little more than a necessity they can take or leave.
While it's unlikely the U.S. will have a widespread mass transit network capable of giving its populace an alternative to the highway anytime soon, the slow expansion of regional rail and bus lines could play at least a small factor. And for those who don't find the need to park a car in the driveway there's the fast-growing alternative provided by carsharing services like ZipCar.
To say America has lost its love for the automobile would almost certainly be an overstatement. But we may be entering that stage of marriage where we lose the lustful infatuation. True, there will always be those who dream of 0 to 60 times and worship the latest trend in sheetmetal. And even for those who don't see cars as more than appliances, it's hard to give up on personal mobility. But especially among the next generation of consumers, owning a car may become little more than a necessity they can take or leave.
Special thanks to Andy Singer for his permission to republish the artwork at the beginning of this article.