The US is finally falling out of love with cars

The Times, Justin Webb, 24 June 2014.

Fewer Americans are inclined to drive, which means a shift from suburbs to city centres

‘Saturday night in the suburbs, that’s when you really want blow to your brains out.” Ah yes: the American suburbs, Don Draper in Mad Men was playing on a well-established theme: the white picket fences enclose some of the profoundest American angst: think The Ice Storm, The Stepford Wives, American Beauty.

For a generation Americans have loved their suburbs and hated themselves for loving them.

But for all the fuss created by arty types the direction of travel was still one way: out of the cities and into the burbs. Hollywood could scoff but it could never kill the dream of the silent majority. America has been, since the 1950s brought new cars and new roads into ordinary lives, an increasingly suburban nation. The suburbs have dominated the psyche of the United States and also its social values and its politics.

It all ended on Tuesday, January 27 this year (I shall argue for the sake of brevity) when the people of Atlanta fell out of love with their cars. On that day Atlanta came to a halt. There had been a warning of a snowstorm and workers had been told to get home early. A million cars took to the roads at almost the same moment. The rest of the nation giggled at the sight of southerners trying to drive in snow, then looked on increasingly perturbed as a disaster unfolded that had very little to do with snow (only two inches actually fell) but a great deal to do with gridlock and a clapped out infrastructure. And — the more thoughtful observed — a way of life that no longer works.

People were trapped in their cars for 12, 16, 20 hours. Children slept in schools. Atlanta historian Rebecca Burns wrote a few days later: “This snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it.”

Months after the snowstorm Americans are about to embark on the summer “driving season” with those words ringing in their ears. Are they taking any notice? Well, yes actually.

After rising almost continuously since the Second World War, driving by American households has declined nearly 10 per cent since 2004. At first people assumed it was the effect of the recession. But now they are not so sure. Car ownership, car driving, just isn’t sexy any more. Young Americans in particular prefer a cool app to a Mustang, a screen to a windscreen: this year under 70 per cent of American 19-year-olds have driving licences, down from 87 per cent two decades ago.

This disinclination to drive, and even to own a car, will change America. Combine it with the impact of technology on cars — driverless motoring and easy ride-sharing — and the picture is one of a nation about to reverse decades of sprawl and all that goes with it. You cannot live in the American suburbs without a car. You wouldn’t want to. So what will happen?

You are seeing the future already in San Francisco. On a visit there a few weeks ago I was told that the real action now in the tech world is in the city itself; Palo Alto and Mountain View still host the suburban headquarters of Google and the other vintage tech names; but the cool kids prefer the city. In fact Google is reported to have given in, planning a new building in the centre of San Francisco. It’s the coffee bars, stupid. And what occurs in them: the friendships, the chance encounters, the hook-ups of all varieties. That doesn’t happen in a drive-in Waffle House.

The big question of course is whether the re-urbanisation of America would change its politics. You have already ditched the car but do you need the gun if your neighbours are just across the landing? Perhaps you worry less about crime when the neighbourhood is mixed and fear of bogeymen reduced by actually living among them?

Another thought: do you continue to live life online and in the mall when you live in the city or do you meet people face to face more often? Does the hunger for live events in the internet age — concerts, exhibitions, demonstrations — encourage people to meet and talk again?

No one knows yet what the effects will be but it’s difficult to believe that America’s view of itself can remain unchanged in the face of what many left-wing Americans believe is a mighty revolution. America is only in the beginning stages of a historic urban reordering, according to the New York-based architect and academic Vishaan Chakrabarti, who wrote in The New York Times recently: “Given these demographic shifts, we have an unsurpassed opportunity to transform the United States into a more prosperous, sustainable and equitable country by encouraging a more urban America.”

No wonder so many Republicans equate public transport with socialism. They might be right.


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