Cars and generational shift

In The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann asks: Why Don’t Young Americans Buy Cars?. He’s responding to a New York Times article about how people my age don’t want or like cars. The NYT portrays the issue as one of marketing (“Mr. Martin is the executive vice president of MTV Scratch, a unit of the giant media company Viacom that consults with brands about connecting with consumers.” Ugh.) But I don’t think marketing is really issue: the real problem is that we’ve reached the point where cars suck as a mode of transportation for the marginal person.

Until the 1990s, car culture made sense, to some degree: space was available, exurbs weren’t so damn far from cities, and traffic in many cities wasn’t as bad as it is today. By now, we’ve seen the end-game of car culture, and its logical terminus is Southern California, where traffic is a perpetual nightmare. Going virtually anywhere can take 45 minutes or more, everyone has to have a car because everyone else has a car, and cars are pretty much the only transportation game in town. Urban height limits and other zoning rules prevent the development of really dense developments that might encourage busses or rail. In Southern California, you’re pretty much stuck with lousy car commutes—unless you move somewhere you don’t have to put up with them. And you’re stuck with the eternal, aggravating traffic. Given that setup, it shouldn’t surprise us that a lot of people want to get away from cars (I’ve seen some of this dynamic in my own family—more on that later).

The hatred of traffic and car commuting isn’t unique to me. In The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten’s There and Back Again: The soul of the commuter reports all manner of ills that result from commuting (and, perhaps, from time spent alone in cars more generally):

Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller “Bowling Alone,” about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”

I doubt most people my age are consciously thinking about how commuting makes people unhappy, or how miserable and unpredictable traffic is. But they probably have noticed that commuting sucks—which is part of the reason rents are so high in places where you can live without a car (New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland). Those are places a lot of people my age want to live—in part because you don’t have to drive everywhere. Services like Zipcar do a good job filling in the gap between bus/rail and cars, and much less expensively than single-car ownership. In my own family, it’s mostly my Dad who is obsessed with cars and driving; he’s a baby boomer, so to him, cars represent freedom, the open road, and possibility. To me, they represent smog, traffic, and tedium. To me, there are just too damn many of them in too small a space, and that problem is only going to get worse, not better, over time.

(For more on cities, density, and ideas, see Triumph of the City, The Gated City, and Where Good Ideas Come From.)

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