Off the road

Here comes the 'mobility' beat

In 2012, carmakers and dealers spent $14.8 billion on advertising, the second most of any sector. Newspapers have cut staff and pages and lowered their ambitions, but they’ve kept their auto sections because they still make money. Despite needing a government bailout four years ago, the automotive industry remains a force in American society.

But beneath the business-as-usual fa├žade, an important shift is under way in how Americans think about and use the automobile. As Micheline Maynard, a veteran reporter with a record of prescience on matters automotive, describes in our cover story, a combination of economic, environmental, and social changes is fueling demand for alternative ways of getting from here to there: bike and car shares, public transit, walking. Total miles driven in the US has dropped 5 percent since its peak in the mid-2000s.

Much of transportation coverage, meanwhile, remains stalled in the 20th century. We cover Detroit as though it were 1993, not 2013. A story about transportation infrastructure typically means the sorry condition of bridges and roadways. In 2011, published a “How-to” column about covering transportation that could have been written 30 years ago.

There are exceptions, of course. The San Francisco Chronicle has its Bay Area Transit blog; in Portland The Oregonian’s Joseph Rose covers “the science and culture of traffic, transit, and bicycling”; and New York’s WNYC has Transportation Nation. At the national level, The Atlantic Cities site regularly reports on many of the issues that comprise the emerging “mobility” beat, and in August NPR broadcast a monthlong series on the changing relationship between Millennials and cars. So the story is out there, but it is sporadic and diffuse.

It’s tempting to point to the recession that began in 2007 and ended, officially at least, in 2009, to explain what’s happening; people tend to drive less when money is tight. Indeed, over the latter half of the last century, the US economy repeatedly grew its way out of trouble. And the broadly rising tide kept the looming reality of deep-seated problems—the folly of fossil fuels, the cost of healthcare, the endangered supply of fresh water—abstract and distant for the public, their elected officials, and the press.

This time it’s different. For one thing, the notion that the US economy is going to outgrow the problems we face is at best wishful thinking. For another, the reality of man-made climate change and what it will mean for our way of life—for our children’s way of life—is becoming clear to more and more people.

Most important, though, is that the 80 million men and women in the Millennial generation—which is bigger than the Boomers—just haven’t fallen in love with cars the way their parents and grandparents did. These are readers and viewers that media outlets are desperate to attract, and their interest in personal mobility couldn’t be more different than their counterparts in American Graffiti, the iconic film about teens and cars that turned 40 this year.

The media mostly reflect, rather than guide, the public conversation. And they still take too many of their cues from the top, rather than the bottom. So the narratives are shaped by the White House, Congress, and Wall Street—an unsettling thought given the recent dysfunction and shortsightedness on display therein. The transportation story is coming from the bottom up, driven in part by innovative mayors and other city officials, but also by the changing behavior of people who imagine a more sustainable way to live.

We built a huge nation around the automobile. That isn’t going to change quickly or completely—automakers, in fact, are already investing in car-sharing operations. Newsrooms can’t ignore the traditional pillars of the transportation beat, but the beat needs to evolve with the story, no matter how much money car ads bring in.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.