Americans and Cars: A Love Affair on Fumes?
The couple in the convertible sail down a pristine freeway, the pavement theirs alone. At the wheel, he smiles in suit and tie, while she leans closer, every blonde hair in place, her face a portrait of mobile bliss.
“To whirl along with all the joy your car has to offer,” reads the ad. “That’s something to want.”
When it ran in the Saturday Evening Post in 1955 — bought by a steel company to hail the newly proposed interstate highway system — U.S. car culture was kicking into top gear. Americans embraced driving as the quickest route to independence, convenience and opportunity and cars as extensions of our homes and our personalities.
But six decades later, take a moment the next time you’re stuck in traffic to consider where we’re headed. America’s romance with the road may be fading.
After rising almost continuously since World War II, driving by American households has declined nearly 10 percent since 2004, a drop whose start before the Great Recession suggests economics may not be the only cause.
“There’s something more fundamental going on,” says Michael Sivak, a researcher at 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 are waiting to get a license — or not getting one at all. Less than 70 percent of 19-year-olds now have one, down from 87 percent two decades ago, government figures show.
“I sort of marvel at this … especially with my students. They’re just not into cars even in the same way my generation was and I’m 45,” says Cotten Seiler, author of “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America,” and a professor at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College. “I wonder if they’ve decided that there’s another, better way to be free and to be mobile.”
Our changing relationship with cars and driving isn’t always obvious. But it becomes clearer on the road, where a journey through five states and across more than 900 miles reveals shifts in habits and attitudes. At a high school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, you’ll notice that the parking lot remains half-empty even after students with cars return from lunch. In conversation at a Minneapolis coffee shop, customers tell of hours spent pecking away in place thanks to Wi-Fi, rather than driving to work.
And those changes — whether its car trips replaced by shopping and socializing online, or jams that have turned drives from an escape into a chore — raise complicated questions.
For much of the last century, the car has been Americans’ primary vehicle for realizing individual freedom. But in an era of road rage, gas close to $4 a gallon and the temptation of texting behind the wheel, is driving still a love affair? Or is it just a way to get from here to there?
At 6:45 a.m., Sam Kirstein pulls into central Minneapolis after a 5-mile commute, parks and locks his vehicle — and heads for a hot shower.
You wouldn’t know when he takes a seat minutes later, wearing a pressed striped dress shirt, that he arrived on two wheels.
Kirstein, an accountant, recalls growing up in a small town in South Dakota where “cars were a way of life.” In Minneapolis, he drove 45 minutes to work in traffic, until he and his wife wearied and set off to bike cross-country. They returned, but never put away the bikes. Last year, Kirstein cycled to work every day but five, and put 4,000 miles on a car that used to clock 15,000.
“The only thing I miss is being able to listen to the radio,” says Kirstein, 45, nursing a mug of coffee at Freewheel Bike — sort of a rest stop for cyclists with lockers, bike parking and a cafe — before heading up to the office.
Each day, more than 3,500 others share Kirstein’s route on the Midtown Greenway, a freight rail bed converted to bike highway. More than 4 percent of Minneapolis commutes now happen on a bike, doubling since 2000. Despite bitter winters, more are testing the idea of leaving cars behind.
A second light rail line opens in June, after criticism that it bypasses deserving neighborhoods. Street corners sprout racks of blue-and-green shared bikes. About 45 percent of the 150,000 who work downtown commute by means other than a car, mostly by express bus, despite the city’s 1960s move to replace older buildings with parking lots. That syncs with figures showing Americans took a record 10.7 billion trips on mass transit last year, up 37 percent since 1995, far outpacing population growth.
“There’s a lot of people who want the less-driving lifestyle, definitely — and the city is trying,” says Sam Newberg, an urban planning consultant and transportation blogger.
At 3 on a weekday, inside Spyhouse Coffee, a caffeine depot crafted from what was the Land-O-Nod mattress factory, nearly every table is filled by patrons pecking away on laptops, including one dialed into a conference call. Kimani Beard looks up from his screen to explain that he’s been working here for more than three hours.
Beard, 40, used to drive a suburban delivery route for DHL, the package express company, burning half a tank of gas a day. On the side, he was a graphic and apparel designer, now his full-time occupation. Today, he’s negotiating a licensing agreement, aided by Skype and a chat app. A few days a week, he walks or bikes to Spyhouse from home, less than half a mile away, and tells friends he’s going to the 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.”
For Americans, it’s long been about more than just driving a car, but making it yours. A rearview mirror seems designed for a tassel or an air freshener. Install a baby seat, add a bumper guard or chrome wheel covers and you’ve made a statement.
But what if our cars were no longer ours alone?
The question intrigues Heath Anderson and his friends, gathered over beer and fries in a Minneapolis bar to compare experiences picking up passengers using a ridesharing app called Lyft. By day, Anderson teaches college anthropology and deciphers ancient Mexican civilization. But tonight he’s sifting through culture-in-motion, looking for new patterns.
On Saturdays, Anderson says, many of his riders are bar goers who don’t want to drive. On Sunday mornings, he takes people to church. Other times, people want a ride to go food shopping. Some say they don’t want a car. Others can’t afford one.
“We’re talking about younger people who have different ideas about transportation than their parents do,” says Anderson, 37.
Trading stories of rides given and received, he and fellow drivers conclude that shared transport breaches the cocoon that has long defined Americans’ car time — “like bringing back hitchhiking for the digital age,” says Mallory Kurkoski, a lawyer who moonlights as a driver.
Kurkoski’s second vocation highlights a new “sharing economy” and the technology powering it. But it also point to morphing relationships between people and cars.
That’s clear talking with Eugene Dunn and Justin Sakofs, who live four miles apart in adjoining Chicago suburbs, but met only because Dunn’s 2005 Pontiac broke down.
Dunn, 43 and a math tutor, takes a train to work. But he needs a car for his second job, refereeing youth basketball on weekends.
“When you’re 21 you want to drive around, pick up girls, have fun,” says Dunn, who lives in Evanston. “Right now, I just need (a car) to get back and forth and make money.”
So Dunn needed a car he didn’t have. But 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.
Meanwhile, 1 million Americans have signed up for car-sharing — short-term rentals sprinkled around city streets — up from 26,000 in 2003, according to Susan Shaheen of the University of California at Berkeley.
In Madison, Wisconsin, Melissa Malott walks to a city garage twice a month to do grocery shopping in a black Honda Fit that local Community Car rents for $10 an hour. Malott, a 34-year-old assistant to the county executive, recalls how a truck she drove in high school helped define her identity, but says the lack of a car is sort of freeing, provided she can have one when she needs it.
Every two years, “I think I should just grow up and get a car,” she says, turning a corner in early evening traffic. But then she remembers the car payments, insurance bills, monthly parking …
A night later and 140 miles north, the sounds of woodwinds and cellos fill an assembly room in Green Bay, Wisconsin, backing a video about the critical role roadways play.
“But that system, built over generations and entrusted to our care, needs constant upkeep and attention, and the resources needed to support that care are becoming increasingly scarce,” the narrator informs an audience of 60.
The video, softened by images of farms and smiling faces, raises a politically vexing question: If people keep driving more fuel efficient cars fewer miles how will states pay for roads funded largely with gas taxes? This is one of nine “town hall” meetings that Mark Gottlieb, Wisconsin’s transportation secretary, hopes will build support for an answer.
“No one wants to pay more for things,” Gottlieb says. “We’ve explained to the public … that the consequences of inaction are also very real.”
If taxes and fees go unchanged, Wisconsin will fall $680 million short of covering basic maintenance every year for the next decade, transportation officials say. In neighboring Minnesota, where officials held 20 similar meetings last year, officials say they expect to collect $18 billion over the next 20 years — $12 billion less than necessary.
Driving fell in both states during the recession, and is expected to rise just 1 percent a year, reflecting increasing population and truck traffic. Many states are watching Oregon’s test of a tax on miles traveled, but skeptics are doubtful about letting government install technology to track — and tax — individual motorists’ mileage.
But changes in driving are no longer just a headache for government.
When Jim Cable pulls into the rest stop near Exit 23 on the Indiana Toll Road at dinner hour, just three customers are seated at the Hardee’s inside. Leaning against his car, he marvels at how different it feels from the late 1960s, when he worked as a busboy at this same service plaza.
Back then, the lot backed up with cars and buses. Inside, travelers cued up for tables until they could be seated by waitresses who wore matching yellow-and-black uniforms.
Cable says he hadn’t heard that a private consortium that paid the state $3.8 billion in 2006 to operate the highway is considering filing for bankruptcy protection because traffic has fallen well below projections. He observes only that his 32-mile commute to work at an oil refinery almost never has traffic. And he laments the rest stop’s bygone past.
“It was the kind of place you took your wife out to eat,” he says.
In fact, American car culture has always been about much more than just getting somewhere. It’s hard to measure, though, how much that may have changed.
To start, drive past the mall and the chain drug stores in Michigan City, Indiana, and take a left on Coolspring Avenue to an orange oasis of car culture memories.
“The main strip is right there … and up and down everybody would go and this was one of the stops,” Barry Oliver says, setting aside his cheeseburger to recall teen nights cruising to Carlson’s Drive-In, a local institution for 67 years. “Yeah, it definitely takes you back to an older time.”
The modern drive-thru is a pit stop. But places like Carlson’s, where a car hop arrives at the window before you turn off the ignition and kitchen staffers call themselves “Weenie Queenies,” were destinations for Americans embracing driving as recreation. That explains why Oliver, introducing his girlfriend to Carlson’s, tells her the food is best appreciated in park. And why Amanda Simmons, sharing a silver Kia with daughters Miya and Teja, favors the drive-in for “family bonding time.”
Through the 1990s, Indiana had nearly 60 vintage drive-ins. Now, five or six remain, says owner John Hermann, as mom-and-pops surrender to age and operating costs much higher than quick-serve chains. Drive-in movie theaters, which numbered 4,300 in 1957, have dwindled to just 350.
If cruising is losing its touchstones, where does that leave car culture?
Walking a visitor past an 1897 gasoline buggy and a 1954 robin’s-egg-blue Olds 88, Bill Adcock offers perspective. People rejected the first cars because belching engines frightened horses, says Adcock, executive director of the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan. But Americans soon realized cars’ practicality and that bloomed into outright affection.
Adcock, a “car nut” since a childhood spent fixing engines, acknowledges that computers in today’s vehicles make it harder to pop the hood and bond. But Americans still love them, he says, pointing to NASCAR’s popularity.
Others aren’t so sure.
“When I come back, I see it. I hear it. I smell it. Gear heads live here,” says Todd Davis, a Lansing native visiting from Orlando. Away from Michigan, “it’s not like that — the love of your car and shining your car and waiting to go to the parking lot.”
Paul Kuhlmann, here from Westminster, Colorado, with wife Karen, says fellow Thunderbird enthusiasts are all over 60 and debate whether younger people will follow them.
“You talk to various kids that really aren’t even interested in getting a driver’s license,” says Kuhlmann, 77. “I think they’re more interested in the technology kind of thing than ‘let’s go drive.’”
But Davis’ cousin, Sol Jaffee, isn’t convinced.
“Kids will always be interested in cars! I mean, cars are America, don’t you think?”
You’d think so. Then a visit to Wisconsin’s Oshkosh North High School provides both proof and reason to doubt.
A few minutes before the 4B lunch period ends, pickups and sedans zip across the asphalt bordering the Spartans’ baseball diamond as older students — cups of soda in hand — rush back to class.
But when the bell sounds, the lot stays half empty. Enrollment in driver’s education, no longer required for graduation or subsidized by the state, has declined 40 percent. 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, whose trip to school today started with a lift from his father and ended with a ride on the city’s No. 2 bus. “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.”
Tim Gesteland recalls long-ago nights on farm roads outside Janesville, Wisconsin, when his father, Norm, used to line his children’s faces with red food coloring and belt them into cars jackknifed to imitate a crash. Then they’d lay quiet and try not to smile when teens practicing driving skills pulled up to the scene, says Gesteland, whose dad was once considered Wisconsin’s “Mr. Driver’s Education.”
When the elder Gesteland died four years ago, “so many people came through the lines and told stories of how that night driving experience helped them,” says his son, a teacher in nearby Burlington. “I just don’t know if kids are going to say the same thing nowadays.”
In the years since Norm Gesteland taught, Wisconsin joined other states in eliminating funding for driver’s ed, raising the price of in-school programs now competing with private instruction. Once, nearly every Wisconsin district with a high school offered driver’s ed. Today, only 45 percent still do, says Randy Thiel, who supervises programs for the state Department of Public Instruction.
At the same time, Wisconsin and every other state has adopted graduated driver’s licensing that aims to reduce accidents by prolonging training for drivers under 18, limiting the hours they can drive and who can be with them. Add rising costs and busy schedules, and more teens are delaying getting a license once deemed essential.
At Oshkosh North, freshmen in teacher Scott Morrison’s driver’s ed class talk enthusiastically about taking the wheel. Landon Mueller, 15, has already bought a 2008 Jeep, anticipating “the freedom, more or less, to be able to go places when you want to.” But for some, the idea of not getting a license isn’t such a reach.
“I debated waiting because I’ve always lived in a small town and I’ve walked or biked places,” says Megan Schultz, 14.
“My older brother never got a license and he’s almost 20,” Blaine Brown says.
“My brother doesn’t have a license and he’s almost 24,” says another freshman, Lindsay Behlman.
Today’s young people often rely on parents for rides, says Morrison. And then there’s Facebook and other social media.
They “don’t need to be physically moving places to be able to connect with their friends,” he says.
Long ago — well before those teens or their parents were born — General Motors offered a vision of driving’s future. Five million visitors flocked to the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, captivated by its imagined landscape of boundless superhighways.
The greatest leap forward, the creators said, would come when technology linked roads and cars together to take over from the driver. It must have sounded pretty fanciful, and in fact it was — Futurama predicted this would happen by 1960.
But in 2014, Debby Bezzina will tell you, the promises are no longer farfetched.
Bezzina’s van, a boxy 12-seat Ford, would look at home in a church parking lot if not for the knobby antennas on top and the route decaled in yellow across its doors: “Connecting the Future.”
Pulling out of a lot in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Bezzina has just begun to explain when the road interrupts. The rearview mirror flashes a snowflake icon and the words “Ice Warning.” Approaching a bend in Baxter Road, a staccato beep warns Bezzina’s colleague, Rick Byrd, to slow down. Unseen and unheard are short-range signals the van transmits 10 times a second to receivers along the road, on traffic poles and in passing cars, buses, bikes and motorcycles.
At the intersection of auto and information technologies, researchers “all think we’re on the cusp of a revolution,” says Bezzina, of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.
For nearly two years, 2,800 vehicle owners in Ann Arbor, Michigan, have been participating in this federally financed bid to improve driving safety by connecting vehicles with their surroundings to make them partners in decision-making. Soon, it will expand to 9,000 vehicles and within three years to 20,000.
But this journey is just beginning. On the institute’s second floor, a Nissan Versa wired to let drivers navigate a simulated cityscape on a trio of screens will soon be reprogrammed to make it almost entirely self-driving. Thanks to cameras and infrared flashers mounted to the dashboard, researchers will be able to track the behavior, even the eye movements, of those in the driver’s seat to see what they do when the car takes over.
“You may not even have a steering wheel!” researcher Anuj Pradhan says. “You may not be reading your latest Stephen King, but you’re certainly going to be checking your email.”
There are bound to be complications as people turn over some control to their cars, says the institute’s director, Peter Sweatman. But Americans are pragmatic and are looking for ways to make more of limited time. Imagine, he says, using your smartphone to summon a driverless car you might not even own, being picked up and dropped off at curbside, and watching it pull away.
A car culture like that one would be quite a departure, he acknowledges.
But it might deliver even more of the freedom we prize, by letting us focus on family, work or the destination ahead — instead of the driving needed to get there.