Pedal power New York’s Citi Bike system hit seven million miles traveled in September, less than four months after it started. (Reuters / Gary Hershorn)
In January 2013, more than 5,000 journalists from 62 countries poured into Cobo Convention Center in Detroit, as they do every year, for the North American International Auto Show. They rubbed shoulders with colleagues from Car and Driver, which prints 1.2 million copies a month, shared by its nearly 10 million readers.
Spread among them were some of the 19 editors, writers, and reviewers from The New York Times’ Wheels section, and the 25 who cover the industry worldwide for Bloomberg News, including seven stationed in Detroit. Based on the media attention, it might have been 1960, when America’s Big Three automakers dominated the industry with a 90-percent market share. And four years after his administration’s $82-billion rescue of General Motors and Chrysler, President Obama is still touting the bailout as a signature economic accomplishment. “We saved the American auto industry,” Obama declared in a speech in September.
But the industry that Obama saved, and that all those journalists cover, has been shrinking from its dominant place in American life for nearly a decade, even though that reality has yet to really sink in.
Economic and environmental concerns, along with dramatic social shifts, have caused Americans to begin to rethink their dependence on automobiles. Driving, which has been on more or less an upward slope since the end of World War II, has dropped from the peaks of last decade. Teens, glued to their mobile devices and chauffeured by helicopter parents, show little interest in getting their licenses. Cities are racing to add bike-sharing programs in order to gain cachet with their growing populations of young residents. At the same time, communities both large and small are competing for the billions of public-transportation dollars that the Obama administration has been doling out.
Modern American society has been shaped around the car. The cities that swelled after World War I—like Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston—grew because automobiles let them. Cars have been the reason behind everything from our transportation infrastructure to our suburbs and shopping centers. The car, and the allure of the open road, came to represent the very essence of America: freedom, individuality, mobility. “What the automobile industry did was literally transform the way people interacted with each other, the way they viewed space and the way they used space,” says Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Northwestern University. “There was no need to build upward, because you could build outward.”
Rethinking all this is a massive undertaking, one that must contend not only with the practical and economic aspects but also the emotional and political fallout. Urban planners and transportation specialists, sensing that the 21st century will be their moment, paint fanciful and sometimes farfetched pictures of redesigned communities, built for pedestrians, with driverless vehicles guided by smart grids and charging stations plentiful as bike racks. That Jetsons-like utopia aside, there is real change taking place and momentum is building.
In Boston, always a pedestrian- and public-transit-focused city, only about half of trips from the metropolitan region now take place by car. New York’s Citi Bike system hit seven million miles traveled September, less than four months after it started. Detroit, whose identity is inseparable from the auto industry, has fought a determined battle to get federal money for a light-rail system. Meanwhile, investors are racing to pour money into Uber, the mobile-phone application that allows its customers to find the closest available taxi.
Media coverage of America’s transportation story, though, seems oddly stuck in the last century. We hear about chunks of concrete falling from aging bridges, sinkholes swallowing cars on city streets, and see heart-stopping footage of overloaded highways. Occasionally, a piece on electric cars or bike sharing will bubble up to the front page or pierce the comedy consciousness of Jon Stewart, whose June diatribe about the “dangers” of Citi Bike delighted transportation advocates, who were happy for the attention.
But this transportation revolution is unfolding mostly under the radar. There is no charismatic champion of alternative transportation among the hopelessly gridlocked policymakers in Washington who can provide regular hooks for media coverage. In fact, transportation proponents are regularly frustrated by the scant attention the infrastructure debate gets in Congress, which only acted to end mushrooming flight delays after last spring’s sequester when East Coast airports became bogged down.