On Declining Auto-Ownership

The declining trend of car-ownership in the United States has been getting some attention in the media lately. And of course, there are plenty of narratives to describe why it's happening:

And the overall drop in car ownership has prompted speculation that the long American love affair with the car is fading. Analysts cite such diverse factors as high gas prices, the expansion of many municipal transit systems, and the popularity of networking websites among teenagers replacing cars as a way of socializing.
These are all logical explanations, but the first two fail to account for the reasons why car culture developed as strongly as it did in the first place. People didn't fall in love with cars because fuel was historically cheap, it just helps that it was. Transit, if anything, has become worse over time, especially in recent years, in many cities; although in other cities new capital projects and transit-oriented-development have made it better.

How about this for an explanation: driving simply isn't very enjoyable anymore.

(from Wikipedia)

After all, the activity of driving can be exciting, just as long as the conditions are right. If I had miles and miles of open road and I could drive as fast as I wanted whenever I wanted, even I would probably buy a car and fuel, no matter the cost. But the reality is very much different. My drives would be on crowded streets and congested highways. There would be with many traffic signals. I wouldn't be able to drive fast. A few months out of the year the weather would be terrible. Most of my drives would occur in the morning (when I'm groggy) or in the evening (when I'm exhausted). To sum it up in one word: unpleasant.

That's not to say that driving was ever as great as the idealized fantasy, but undoubtedly it has changed over generations. I think that reality is finally starting to catch up with auto sales.


    your view, which i assume is shaped by the fact that you don't drive (it is, is it not) seems to hinge on the assertion that people drive because it is fun to drive? i think most people drive because it is much more convenient than taking public transportation. as a car owner who has taken the bus in cleveland, a few times when i've had to leave work sick precludes me from standing around waiting for a bus to take me home. there is also a socio-economic aspect to driving versus taking public transport that i care not to comment on at this time. perhaps someone else will.

    On January 17, 2010 Anonymous said...

    You're fundamentally right.

    When there's congestion, driving stops being as convenient as public transportation. Unless, of course, the public transportation is terrible.

    Previous generations tried to "build their way out of congestion". But it doesn't work. After you fill up two-lane roads, road widening doesn't help with congestion much; the roads just fill up again.

    In the rural areas with open roads, driving is often the most attractive and convenient method of transportation. Same in suburbs with low traffic; same in declining cities with low traffic.

    In popular places with lots of people, the roads fill up immediately. Then there's congestion, and any alternative becomes attractive.