America’s love affair with its cars is far from over

July 3, 2013, 10:51 AM UTC
Credit: Getty Images

Alert readers of the New York Times discovered this week that licensed drivers and car owners are in danger of becoming an endangered species. An essay by a Times environment and health reporter for the Sunday Review carried the headline “The End of Car Culture” and posed this question: “Has America passed peak driving?” After acknowledging the role of automobiles in the rise of the suburbs, the centrality of Detroit in the global auto industry, and the popularity of car songs like “Mustang Sally” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” the author concluded that “America’s love affair with its vehicles seems to be cooling,” based on these factors:

1. The number of miles driven in the U.S., adjusted for population, has dropped steadily since 2005.

2. The rates of car ownership per household and per person are coming down.

3. The percent of young people with a driver’s license is declining.

It’s not a new argument. America’s so-called love affair with cars peaked in the 1960s, the product of several unique and never-to-repeat factors. After they popularized rock ‘n’ roll, a torrent of baby boomers began to reach driving age and become fascinated by a means of transportation that hadn’t been available to their Depression-era or war-constrained parents. America was building the Interstate Highway System, which made long-distance travel accessible and even glamorous. Highly stylish cars with chrome and tailfins were pouring out of Detroit, and television commercials that celebrated them blanketed the airways.

Almost ever since, cultural observers have been predicting an end to the affair. The clamoring intensified during the gasoline crisis of 1973 when fuel was rationed and drivers waited in line for hours to fill their tanks. But you could date it even earlier, to 1965 when Ralph Nader exposed Detroit’s resistance to safety features like seat belts in Unsafe at any speed. Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. (F) and the great-grandson of Henry Ford, lamented in 2002 that “the love affair has in some ways become stale. People used to write songs about T-birds and Corvettes; today they write regulations.”

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The usual explanations for this societal shift range from the practical (traffic congestion, higher gas prices) to the demographic (decline of the suburbs, repopulation of central cities) and psychographic (concerns about climate change, texting replacing driving among young people). These analyses frequently display nostalgic longings for drive-in theatres, car-hop waitresses on roller skates, and bow-tied service station attendants who checked your oil and washed your windshield with a smile.

I would argue that affection for the automobile isn’t cooling or fading but evolving and maturing. Americans aren’t turning their backs on cars, they are just getting smarter about how they use them. With gasoline more expensive and fitness more valued, they are more willing to leave their car in the garage and walk or bike or car-share on short trips. They still support Detroit, but they also have access to the widest variety of makes and models — half of them import brands — in recent history, and all of them available at the most reasonable prices anywhere in the world.

A few other signposts that point to the resilience of America’s car culture:

  • After nearly collapsing in the financial crunch of 2009, the Detroit Three are on solid ground again and holding their own against global competitors.
  • Car sales have rebounded strongly since 2009 and have been one of the few bright spots in a slowly recovering economy.
  • New American manufacturers using green technologies have sprouted more thickly than dandelions in May. Tesla (TSLA), to date the most successful, is on its way to becoming a significant player in the luxury car market.
  • Zipcar, which advertises “wheels when you want them,” now has 777,000 members and maintains a network of nearly 10,000 cars.
  • Collector car prices traced by Hagerty’s Blue Chip index, which includes Corvettes, Mustangs, Cobras, and Barracudas, have increased 16% year over year to an all-time high.

A key pillar of the Times’ argument is that millennials — young people in their 20s and 30s — aren’t interested in cars or even, in many cases, getting a driver’s license. They are happy to ride a bike, take the bus, or walk. “The millennials don’t value cars and car ownership,” one expert is quoted as saying. “They care about what kind of devices you own.”

But that may be changing, according to chief economist Lacey Plache. Says she: “Millennial buyers came back to the market in force in 2012. What’s more, they have largely maintained these share gains so far in 2013. Improving income and employment, more household formations, and increased consumer confidence all contributed to the boost.” She adds: “While economic challenges remain, improving fundamentals indicate this generation — long feared to be uninterested in driving and cars — could finally be joining the ranks of new car buyers in earnest.”

If they do, they would be catching up with older drivers aged 55 and up who are renewing their drivers’ licenses at higher rates than ever before — another sign that America’s car culture is alive and well. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.