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US Car Culture Pumps the Brakes

More Than Just Millennials Forgoing Auto Ownership

Conner Newbold Nov 16, 2018

Life was good in the 1950s. Americans could finally shift their focus from war and economic depression to the new wealth of consumer goods. For the first time in decades, anyone with a good job could easily feed their family and buy a house in the suburbs.

At the same time, urban planners made use of the wide-open space unique to the states. Zoning codes divided where people lived, worked and shopped, making cars a necessity. By 1958, there were more than 67 million glossy new vehicles cruising the widening web of national interstate highways.

But cars weren’t just transportation. They were a symbol of their owner’s independence, style and personality. Teens toiled for cents an hour, summer after summer, to earn their gleaming, growling piece of freedom. Drive-in movies, cruising main, drive-thru fast food and acres of supermall parking lots all contributed to the culture of cars.

Six decades later, it seems car ownership has hardly slowed. More than 260 million cars are registered in the U.S. today — but change may be coming.

End of an Era

In a recent study, the U.S. Census Bureau found the number of households without a car increased. Not by much — just two-tenths of 1 percent since 2015 — but it’s the first time car ownership decreased since the 1960s. This could be the first indication that America’s car culture is pumping the brakes.

There are other clues. Teens no longer sprint to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a license the day they turn 16 — most wait more than a year. Cities worldwide are edging cars away from the curb, boosting space for bike lanes. Some are closing roads altogether in favor of pedestrian-only districts. A recent study found that American millennials are 16 percent less likely to commute by car, almost three times more likely to use public transit and are 23 percent less interested in owning a car than their parents.

Yes, car-free culture is more concentrated in urban areas, but studies say this isn’t just a coastal hipster trend. Only about 15 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, but the Census Bureau study surveyed the entire nation. The findings put Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico on the list of top 24 states that dropped the most cars — not the populous coastal states you might expect to embrace the trend.

What’s the Cause?

Some argue that the internet is the culprit. A smartphone or laptop frees people to connect with others, educate and entertain themselves and experience the world in ways people of the ’50s and ’60s never could have imagined. There is no longer the need to express individuality and independence with cars. It can be done with online personas.

Others say there’s no point owning a car when Uber or Lyft can deliver a chauffeur to nearly any door in America within 10 minutes. Or they cite environmental concerns, the rural exodus or lifestyle changes.

It’s impossible to pin the trend on a single cause, but one looms larger than the rest. In 2017, AAA estimated the average cost of owning and operating a car at $8,469 per year, not including a monthly car payment. Adding one payment — at the average of $523 — brings the total up to $14,745. All told, it’s not cheap to own a car.

And when you consider that millennials — automakers’ prime market and nearly a quarter of the total U.S. population — are pulling less income while spending more on housing and education than previous generations, it’s easy to see why auto ownership might be a low priority.

Not Dead Yet

The auto industry isn’t dying (or even slowing) yet, but trends are changing. While vehicle sales in the U.S. have seen fairly steady growth since 2010, auto manufacturers and rental services are scrambling for ways to appeal to the growing group of people living car-light or car-free lifestyles. It’s easy to guess why: People just aren’t connecting to their cars like they used to.

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