The End of Car Culture and the New Normal

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.
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(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.