What's Leading Us Away From Our Love Of Cars

Wreck of a classic car in a ghost mining town.

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.