What's Leading Us Away From Our Love Of Cars

There are a number of signs that Americans are rethinking their century-long love affair with the automobile.

While it was arguably a more minor occasion than the launch of the first moving assembly line, another world-changing event took place outside the old Ford Motor Co. plant in Highland Park, Michigan, 100 years ago, when Henry Ford himself dug out a spade full of dirt on what would soon become the first mile of concrete roadway in America.

At its peak, there were more than 500 miles of rail lines running through the Motor City and its suburbs, but trolleys last ran in 1956, a situation repeated in cities across the US as more and more Americans abandoned mass transit for personal transportation, a dramatic transformation fueled, in part, by the Eisenhower Administration's Interstate Highway Act that spurred the growth of the nation's suburbs.

Within the next year, however, a spade full of dirt will again be turned on Detroit's Woodward Avenue, this time to begin the process of laying a 3.3-mile stretch of trolley line. It's not much, but it is a sign of the times. Across the country, more and more cities are building or expanding their mass transit systems. Chicago just launched a new bike rental program, much like a wildly successful one in New York City. Meanwhile, there are a number of signs that Americans are rethinking their century-long love affair with the automobile.

Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

Whether by choice or through financial reality, the number of American households without a car has doubled over the past two decades and is now approaching 10 percent. The impact of this trend could be significant for, "While the recession was in large part responsible for the latest spurt, the trend was already clear," says CNW's research chief Art Spinella. "A growing number of Americans felt they didn't need or want a personal car."

The growth of the nation's motor vehicle fleet has come to a screeching halt.

That's backed up by a number of other recent studies. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, for example, points out that the growth of the nation's motor vehicle fleet has come to a screeching halt, even with the post-recession revival of new car sales. The cars, trucks and crossovers Americans are buying this year are barely covering the vehicles heading for the scrapyard.

In fact, a separate study released by R.L. Polk this past week found that the age of the average vehicle on the road climbed from 11.2 years in 2012 to 11.4 years – even with the automotive market rebounding so fast that manufacturers are struggling to overcome capacity shortages. That's a record, and a big jump from the average 9.7 years Polk reported a decade ago.

Still skeptical? Consider these other tidbits:
  • Millennials are taking longer to go through that rite of passage, getting a driver's license
  • Once they do, they're less likely to own a car, though that trend also is becoming apparent among older Baby Boomers
  • We're also, as a nation, putting on fewer miles when we do drive
As noted, it's the newest generation of motorists – make that potential motorists – who seem to be most disinterested in getting behind the wheel. Why? There are a variety of factors. For one thing, they seem much more interested in technology, particularly devices such as smartphones that allow them to socialize by text or voice without actually having to leave home. An iPhone is a lot cheaper than a new car, another factor to consider in an era of high youth unemployment and staggering college debt.

For many... the act of driving is no longer much fun.

"My kids have no interest at all in cars," says Ken Gross, one of the nation's most well-respected automotive journalists and industry historians – who also serves as a senior judge at such classic car shows as the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

For many, autos have become little more than appliances, and the act of driving is no longer much fun. Should that be a surprise considering the endless traffic jams that snarl much of America?

While the focus is on Millennials, however, CNW research shows that a growing number of aging Baby Boomers – the generation that helped define America's love affair with the car – are also going carless. A growing number are moving into urban or retirement communities while others are opting for car-sharing services or simply reducing the number of vehicles in their household fleets.

Will the trend continue? That's a matter of intense debate.

Will the trend continue? That's a matter of intense debate. Certainly, the next few years, as the country continues to rebound from the Great Recession, will be telling. A critical measure will be how many from Gen-Y finally get a license and, perhaps, actually get a car. Another big question is how many of the nation's hip, new, young urbanites will move back to the suburbs or simply shell out for a parking lot once they start raising families.

"It's not because their preferences have changed. It's because of their needs. The income isn't there. The jobs aren't there. They grow older, that changes," contends General Motors Chief Economist Mustafa Mohatarem. During a speech at the annual Management Briefing Seminars sponsored by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, Mohatarem argued that what we've seen in recent years is "not a permanent withdraw from the market, it's more of a delay."

Americans no longer have the unbridled passion for the automobile that defined the nation in decades past.

They'll have a lot of catching up to do considering the percentage of Americans of driving age who actually were licensed fell to just 86 percent in 2011, a 30-year low. As recently as 1992, the figure stood at 90 percent. That led the US Public Interest Research Group to headline a recent report, "the driving boom is over."

While many would question this almost apocalyptic assumption, there seems little doubt that Americans no longer have the unbridled passion for the automobile that defined the nation in decades past. The auto industry should ignore this shift at its own peril.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      I love cars, I don't like a daily commute. I lived in NYC and loved riding the subway and walking. I read 10 or more books a year on the train. Driving for fun and travel is awesome, driving for necessity, in traffic, is drudgery. Also, there's an awful lot of good things that can be had in life if you don't have to deal with a large car payment, or gasp, two car payments.
      • 1 Year Ago
      While it was kind of touched on I believe that there are a lot of cities with acceptable public transportation services that are growing due to the revitalization of the city's urban core. In the 1950s everyone flocked to the suburbs because of the boom of the automobile and the highways, in some cities people are flocking back to downtown and I think this has a lot to do with the improvement of public transportation and the fact that it's now considered green and cool now. Places like Boston, NYC, Atlanta, D.C., Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco have all seen declines in population from the 1950s to the 1990s but recently have seen increases in population since the 1990s. All of these cities have some sort of train/trolley/subway.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Passion? You mean money. Automobiles are expensive, expensive and expensive. If you live in a big city such as New York, it is not only a drag to park or get anywhere in traffic, it is expensive to park, expensive to fill up, and expensive to insure. Bottom line, $20,000 for a reasonably priced car, may be reasonable compared to whats out there but it is still a lot of money for the average joe to lay out.
      Anton Shmerkin
      • 1 Year Ago
      This trend may have something to do with the fact that, although technologically automotive industry had gone through some major advances, the functionality of an automobile is limited to our perception of necessity vis-à-vis comfort. Which means that we'd stopped caring a long time ago about top speed (what's the difference if you can't drive on public road faster than 65 mph?) and don't give a damn about innovative design if its quirks simply block the rear view. In short, cars have progressed, we have not. And since our transportation needs have already been met, it'll take a long time before we will allow ourselves to be swept off our feet by something as trivial as car.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I think the reliability of the cars have become so solid across all automakers, that people are totally fine with buying new used cars. Most cars made in the past decade are a different breed compared to the used cars of the 80s-90s. On another note, I think big car companies like Honda, Toyota, GM etc. already have done research in the past that proves that the current market isn't looking for exciting, fast, and fun driving experiences, so they make their cars as neutral as possible. I know my enthusiast buddies have all grown up and they all drive the most neutral, trouble free, low maintenance cost, gas sipping 4 door cars they can find...
      • 1 Year Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      I'm not seeing where the data shows that households without cars has doubled. Data I found on Oak Ridge National Labratory's website seems to indicate that no car households have been relatively stable from 2000 onwards and is below the no car household rate of any prior decade. Table 8.5 http://cta.ornl.gov/data/tedb32/Edition32_Chapter08.pdf While certainly financials do factor into the equation. I would bet that the big factor for many younger drivers is that they are increasingly living in dense urban areas where car ownership is not an absolute requirement. In addition to the availability of new car-sharing services such as ZipCar or Car2Go that have nearly the same convenience as ownership with a fraction of the cost and no hassles of maintenance. I do enjoy driving and am a former BMW M car owner, but living in a dense urban area the cost and maintenance of ownership just doesn't make sense when looking at the opportunities to use it. When I want to get my driving thrills these days I hit the Karting track.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Europeans seem to be far more comfortable with public transportation, possibly because public transportation is both ubiquitous and safe. Yet, Europe seems to get the best cars made by the European manufacturers while they remain unavailable to us here in the U. S. Public transportation makes sense in high density urban environments such as the New York metropolitan area where i live and yet the car dealerships here are just as profitable as they are anywhere in the country. Americans may be rethinking their love affair with cars but that does not mean that we won't be driving great cars here. Americans will always vote with their dollar and companies that make great cars will thrive while companies that make junk will go belly up. Trouble is that the trend of stagnant wages for middle-class and working-class people while the incomes of the investor-class skyrockets makes for fewer discretionary purchases of goods and services, including cars. The Henry Ford principle has been discarded. As people decide where best to spend their ever more limited resources, buying cars moves further down the list of priorities.
        • 1 Year Ago
        That all depends on what your definition of "best cars" are. Arguably, the German makes bring over their highest end versions of their cars. We don't get 318d's or underpowered C-classes. We do get the highest performance models, though. While I'm a fan of the "manual-diesel-wagon - NOW!" chorus, I can understand why they don't offer those in the US. They won't sell.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I think if you are here, it is because you love cars. That having been said, I have a hard time not seeing this trend as healthy. Why? Cars aren't going to disappear, and modern Engineers have so many tools at their disposal they can LAUGH at new gas mileage and environmental restrictions. I remember when a 1987 Ford Mustang 302 made 225 HP and that was a BIG jump over just a few years before. Now, the "secretary" V6 makes 305 hp!!..and oh yeah you can get v8 with 400+ horsepower. Camaro? Same deal. Heck a WRX does 0-60 in about 5 seconds. To get the full use of a of these cars you have to take it to a track...and all the cars I mentioned are fairly blue collar, there are truly bonkers options for people with a lot of coin. The next mustang is going to offer you a lighter 2.3l turbo making more than 300hp on a LIGHTER platform (and yes a V8 will still be available!). WORST case scenario. A Chevy Volt does 0-60 in about 8.5, BMW i3? less than 8. These are really first generation EVs! Both have extended range options that let you go as far as you need. It is going to be trivial for engineers to get better performance from EVs in the next 10 years. A Tesla Model S can already go 0-60 in 5.6. If the UN, Obama and Pelosi are trying to take away the fun, they are failing...Miserably. Modern Engineers are too well armed. On the other hand, (and I'm a Texas boy) I went to visit a friend in Houston a few years ago, and there was NO way to walk from his gated apartment community to a 7/11 300 yards away! Bike lanes? Are you kidding? If the car was our girlfriend, at least in North America she's been a bit possessive for far too long. The "choice" of having a car isn't being taken away, it's just that the choice of getting around in some other way as a REAL option is being Reinstated. At the risk of using personal anecdotes, I live in a city where I can bike to work. There is at least one person at work playing Russian roulette with their health because of their weight, and at least half the folks are struggling along...their sedentary lifestyle is killing them, but they can't imagine walking to the subway because that would be too "low class" and "those stairs down to the station are a killer". How did their great great grand parents survived without elevators? It's taken about a year and half, but I've convinced two people in my department to start biking in, and they are pretty stoked. Two years ago the office didn't even have a Bike rack, now it's starting to get crowded every day. Giving folks the real choice to drive, or getting their slightly to really overweight butts in motion is progress, not the other way around.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Excellent post! I LOVE cars (and own 4 personally) But, many days, I'd gladly take the train to work if my city had a completely functional rail system. Likewise, when it comes to biking. If I lived closer (right now, I'm 50 miles out - round trip) I bike in a heartbeat. ESPECIALLY in the spring and fall.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I really do think the economy is the only reason why people aren't buying as many cars/driving them as much. I was born in 1991, and as we all now, my generation is screwed. I can't just go out and get a job like my mom did, and work my way to paying for a car, those times are over. Yes, getting a driver's license is harder now, but it's not impossible. The more money people have, the more they will spend. The cheaper something is, the more people will buy it. Pretty basic concept.
      • 1 Year Ago
      My actual reason for not enjoying driving as much: In some states there are controversies with administrative code regarding traffic tickets and their issuance. For example, the income from a ticket issued by state police goes to a state fund--makes sense--but income from a ticket issued by local police (county/city) stays local. This means any ticket issued by local departments will become additional funds for that department. This model is broken. The state police are the only police force actually promoting safety in dangerous areas or areas notorious for speeding. Other police departments, mostly county police and sheriff's department forces, can be seen on the most major highway or interstate within jurisdiction sitting in a speed trap or at the bottom of a 2-mile-long 10% grade all day. It's quite annoying that the local departments operate under the guise of "safety" when hustling the highways. However their hustling actually means financing more Chargers, hiring more redneck deputies, and making the sheriff's department one of the larger employers in a rural county. The same department will heavily emphasize the option to prepay a ticket. This usually means the court's judge will likely dismiss cases due to the court being overwhelmed by that particular police department's or just because the judge feels the officer/department is being oppressive. I respect the state police departments very much, but I cannot say the same about many local departments who seem to bully motorists.
      • 1 Year Ago
      People aren't disinterested but discouraged from getting cars. The growth in population is outpacing the expansion of roads. Driving in the bay over the last 15 years, I have noticed there are more cars than ever on the road. There is basically traffic at all times of the day, everyday of the week. And the number of cars outnumber parking spots in sf 10 to 1. My current solution is commuting of my Ninja 250.
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