It is a largely local and regional phenomenon, and while newspapers, television, and public radio have dipped into the topic, the coverage is led by specialized websites and blogs. Of course, daily journalism has never been that good at recognizing the signals that stories are reaching critical mass, and different sides of newsrooms are notoriously bad at sharing information that might turn smaller stories into big ones. With newsrooms’ staffing and ambitions curtailed by financial stress, “transportation”—broadly defined—is a neglected beat, while automotive coverage, which still brings in the ad revenue, remains strong.
That’s why I decided to launch Curbing Cars: Rethinking How We Get Around (www.curbingcars.com) with a successful Kickstarter this past summer. For me, the project, which looks at all the reasons why people are driving less and what it means to the auto industry, is the bookend to the conclusions I reached in my 2003 book, The End of Detroit: How The Big Three Lost Their Grip On The American Car Market, in which I warned that one or more of the car companies was in danger of going bankrupt. Unfortunately for the industry, and for thousands of people who lost their jobs, my prediction came true in 2009.
Since then, with the rescue of GM and Chrysler, car plants rehiring (albeit at much lower pay), and sales rising once more, the media’s perception has been that everything got back to normal. But the new normal, in terms of transportation, is swiftly becoming something very different than what this country has experienced since Henry Ford made it his mission to marry automobiles to the American Dream a century ago.
Many Americans, especially those whose pocketbooks are stretched to the limits, have embraced something the LivableStreets Alliance in Cambridge, MA, calls “driving light.” That doesn’t mean abandoning cars altogether, but using them when needed and choosing other options, like taking the bus, walking, renting a car, or relying on ridesharing as part of a transportation portfolio. For some families, that means eliminating a car from the family fleet. Others are getting along without cars completely, although that’s highly impractical for people in many parts of the country.
It’s a lot easier to get along with fewer cars, or just one car, when one member of the family works from home, as 20 million Americans do (including me). Transportation is the second-biggest household expense, behind a mortgage or rent payments, and relatively easy to nip. The average cost of a new car is now above $31,000, versus $12,750 in 1993 (the equivalent of $20,636 in today’s dollars). Cutting back has also been made easier because of the emergence of what experts call “collaborative consumerism,” or the sharing economy.
In 2009, I wrote a story for The New York Times that examined the fledgling driving-light movement, although it didn’t have a name at the time. I talked to people who had given up cars, and to some others who were testing out a new service called Zipcar, launched by an entrepreneur in Boston. It charged an annual fee, which let members rent cars by the hour. Back then, Zipcar had 300,000 members. Now it has 900,000 and is owned by Avis. Zipcar is far from the only hourly rental choice: nonprofit car-sharing programs have popped up in a number of cities, and major carmakers like BMW are making vehicles available by the hour.
These shifts are having a noticeable impact. Researchers at the University of Michigan and elsewhere cite statistics that driving (in terms of miles driven) has dropped 5 percent since it peaked in the US in 2006. Americans are taking fewer trips in their cars and driving shorter distances when they do get behind the wheel. Because the country is so big, it takes years for any social change to reflect itself in statistics. Just a plateau in driving would be a significant development, but an actual drop in driving by the owners of the country’s 240 million registered light-duty vehicles is potentially earthshaking for Detroit, for policymakers, and for urban planners.
Northwestern’s Kevin Boyle sees a bit of back-to-the-future in all this. “More and more people want to live in center cities,” he says. Toyota officials say they’ve noticed the suburbs-to-city trend in many cities across America. These reverse pioneers had enough of distant suburbs and surrendering their free time to long commutes. They also want to reconnect with people, rather than be alone in their cars. Boyle sees this as exactly the opposite of his parents’ generation, who escaped cities in droves after World War II. “In some ways, they want to return to the 19th-century model of cities like Chicago and New York,” he says.