The ’57 Chevy was still a year away when the launch of the interstate highway system kicked U.S. car culture into high gear. But six decades later, changing habits and attitudes suggest America’s romance with the road may be fading.
After rising almost continuously since World War II, driving by U.S. households has declined nearly 10 percent since 2004, with a start before the Great Recession suggesting economics is not the only cause. “There’s something more fundamental going on,” says Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The average American household now owns fewer than two cars, returning to the levels of the early 1990s.
More teens and 20-somethings are waiting to get a license. Less than 70 percent of 19-year-olds now have one, down from 87 percent two decades ago.
“I wonder if they’ve decided that there’s another, better way to be free and to be mobile,” says Cotten Seiler, author of “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America.”
Those changes — whether its car trips replaced by shopping online or traffic jams that have turned drives into a chore — pose complicated questions and choices.
TRYING ALTERNATIVES: Each day, about 3,500 people bike the Midtown Greenway, a freight rail bed converted to cycle highway in Minneapolis, where two-wheel commuting has doubled since 2000. It’s still a small percentage, but more residents are testing the idea of leaving cars behind.
A second light rail line opens in June. Street corners sprout racks of blue-and-green shared bikes. About 45 percent of those who work downtown commute by means other than a car, mostly by express bus. That syncs with figures showing Americans took a record 10.7 billion trips on mass transit last year, up 37 percent since 1995.
“There’s a lot of people who want the less-driving lifestyle, definitely,” says Sam Newberg, an urban planning consultant and transportation blogger.
They include Kimani Beard, 40, who used to drive for a package express company. Now he’s a graphic and apparel designer who walks or bikes to a coffee shop a few days a week, with its Wi-Fi providing an instant office.
“I don’t want to drive anywhere,” he says. “I’ve spent my time behind the wheel, but I think I’ve done enough.”
Meanwhile, some are rethinking the paradigm of vehicle ownership.
In the suburbs just north of Chicago, Eugene Dunn and Justin Sakofs live four miles apart, but met only because Dunn’s 2005 Pontiac broke down.
Dunn, 43 and a math tutor, takes a train to work. But getting to his second job, refereeing youth basketball on weekends, required a car he didn’t have.
Luckily, Sakofs, the director of a Jewish day school, had a Nissan he didn’t need from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, when his Sabbath observance precludes driving. They found each other through RelayRides, whose app pairs individual car owners with neighbors looking to rent.
“Right now, I just need (a car) to get back and forth and make money,” Dunn said.
TESTING THE BONDS: Car culture is about an emotional attachment that can be hard to measure.
A good place to start is Carlson’s Drive-In in Michigan City, Indiana, where a car hop arrives at the window before you turn off the ignition.
“It definitely takes you back to an older time,” says Barry Oliver, recalling teen nights driving the strip and stopping here.
Places like Carlson’s were destinations for Americans embracing driving as recreation. As recently as the 1990s, Indiana had nearly 60 vintage drive-ins. Today just five or six are left. Drive-in movie theaters, which numbered 4,300 nationally in 1957, have dwindled to just 350.
Where does that leave car culture?
“Gear heads live here,” says Todd Davis, a Lansing, Michigan native visiting the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum from Orlando. Away from Michigan, “it’s not like that.”
But Davis’ cousin, Sol Jaffee, isn’t convinced.
“Kids will always be interested in cars! I mean, cars are America, don’t you think?”
But at Wisconsin’s Oshkosh North High School, enrollment in driver’s education, no longer required for graduation or subsidized by the state, has declined 40 percent.
Like other states, Wisconsin eliminated funding for driver’s ed, raising the price of in-school programs. Today’s young people often rely on parents for rides, says driver’s ed teacher Scott Morrison. And then there’s Facebook and other social media. While most students still look forward to the freedom conferred by a license, a small but self-aware contingent says it can wait.
“I’ve never really needed” to drive, says senior Ashwinraj Karthikeyan. “It’s almost like a rite of passage for people to drive, but I know offhand probably about 15 or 20 people who don’t have their license.”
THE FUTURE: In 1939, General Motors captivated World’s Fair crowds with a futuristic vision of technology linking highways and cars. But in 2014, Debby Bezzina will tell you that future is fast approaching.
Bezzina, of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, has just begun to explain the technology inside her 12-seat van when a bend in Baxter Road interrupts, setting off a staccato beep that warns the vehicle to slow down. For nearly two years, 2,800 vehicle owners here have been participating in this federally financed bid to connect vehicles with their surroundings so they can join drivers in decision-making.
Meanwhile, on the institute’s second floor, a Nissan Versa wired to let drivers navigate a simulated cityscape will soon be reprogrammed to make it almost entirely self-driving.
There are bound to be complications as people turn over some control to their cars, says the institute’s director, Peter Sweatman. But imagine, he says, summoning a driverless car you might not even own, being picked up and dropped off at curbside, and watching it pull away.