The End of Car Culture and the New Normal

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The other day I showed Pew data on the things Americans consider necessities. I speculated that the economic crisis has brought us to an inflection point. We're seeing the decline of the old auto-housing consumption bundle which powered post-war growth. And while certain new trends in consumption and lifestyle are emerging, nothing has yet come to form a "new normal."

Writing in Esquire, the ever-insightful Nate Silver looks into whether or not America's once-great car culture is coming to an end.
Nate Silver.jpg(Graph via Esquire)


To sort this out, I built a regression model that accounts for both gas prices and the unemployment rate in a given month and attempts to predict from this data how much the typical American will drive... [The results of the model are shown for the month of January in each year since 1980 in the graph above.]...

Americans should have driven slightly more in January 2009 than they had a year earlier. But instead, as we've described, they drove somewhat less. In fact, they drove about 8 percent less than the model predicted.

For people like me who live in big cities where one does not need a vehicle to get by, there is a certain romantic attraction to this story. Why, if only all those Bubbas could ditch their SUVs, take the monorail to work, and buy their families a bunch of Schwinns, life would be just grand!... In the real world, of course -- outside perhaps a half dozen major metropolitan areas -- American society has been built around the automobile.

Still, there is some evidence that more Americans are at least entertaining the idea of leading a more car-free existence. Between October 2004, when gas prices first hit two dollars a gallon, and December 2008, when they fell below this threshold, three cities with among the largest declines in housing prices were Las Vegas (-37 percent), Detroit (-34 percent), and Phoenix (-15 percent), each highly car-dependent cities. Conversely, the two markets with the largest gains in housing prices were Portland, Oregon (+19 percent), and Seattle (+18 percent), communities that are more friendly to alternate modes of transportation.

The exceptionally sluggish pace of new-vehicle sales, moreover, in the face of extremely attractive incentives being offered by the automakers might imply that Americans are considering making more-permanent adjustments to their lifestyles. And the denigration of the brand of the Big Three automakers in light of their financial difficulties -- about one third of Americans have generally told pollsters they will buy only an American-made car -- might reduce some of the patriotic associations with the activity of driving. Building a light-rail system might not persuade Bubba to get rid of his vehicle -- but forcing him to buy foreign might.

If Silver is right (and his analysis looks good to me) that's another nail in the coffin for old fordist consumption bundle.

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Richard Florida is Senior Editor at The Atlantic and Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. See his most recent writing at The Atlantic Cities. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Who's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He is founder of the Creative Class Group.

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