The people who get it pop up in some surprising places. In January, Jalopnik, the unabashed car-enthusiast site (to which I have contributed), tackled the topic head on in a story called, “We May Have Already Hit Peak Car, And That Means We Are All Doomed.” The story was based on a finding from Quartz, the business-news site, which reported that driving was dropping not just in the US but also in a number of countries. For automakers, such a development was “potentially catastrophic.” And it certainly could be for the media, whose revenues and readership depend on attracting people who are enthusiastic about automobiles and the industry.
All those reporters at the auto shows—and the editors who send them—should take heed: For a growing number of Americans, the automobile is becoming fundamentally less central to their lives. Northwestern’s Boyle makes a salient point: “The wonder of this industry was that manufacturers managed to sell a product nobody needed, and a society built up around it,” he says. “Humans got along without it for a long, long time.”
Of course, it’s tempting to dismiss the shift as a byproduct of the Great Recession. Many auto industry officials believe that young cyclists and transit riders will join their parents in buying minivans and crossover vehicles as soon as they have their own children. Likewise, it’s hard for people who were raised to lust after powerful engines and shiny sheet metal to believe their kids won’t eventually be seduced. Yet everything I’m hearing from my college-age nephews, the undergraduate and graduate students I’ve taught, the people who submit their stories to Curbing Cars, and the conversations I’ve had in airports and at conferences tells me there’s definitely something afoot when it comes to attitudes about automobiles. We’ve seen people rethink many aspects of American society, from what they view on TV to gay marriage to climate change. Much of that happened gradually, with the media figuring it out only after the shifts were taking place.
In this case, the audience may be way ahead of the story.