Saturday, December 27, 2014

Peak Car

Like all Americans my age, my life has been greatly influenced by private car ownership - mine even a tad more than usual since I was once a driving instructor.

I've been re-watching Ric Burns' series New York: A Documentary Film, and one of the big themes is the (temporary) decline of New York City thanks to the rise of car ownership, and Robert Moses' attempts to criss-cross highways all over Manhattan. One of my favorite segments of the series is the story of the forces of Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs and the anti-highway forces headquartered in Greenwich Village.

The car has been such a huge force in my life, it hardly seems possible, and yet empirical evidence seems to indicate that we've passed "peak car." The Atlantic ran an article last year called The Decline of US Driving in 6 Charts.

Here is one of the charts:
The Average Driver Travels 1,200 Fewer Miles Each YearAmericans are also spending far less time in the cars they do own. The average U.S. driver traveled 12,492 miles in 2011, down about 1,200 miles, or 9 percent, from our mid-aughts peak.  

Even with population growth, the country as a whole is barely driving more than during the recession.

So why did this happen? Few articles that I've Googled offer any reasons, but I remember about 12 years ago I was arguing with an ex-boyfriend that the age of the suburbs was over - I maintained that people would start moving back to the city again. And a big reason, I thought, and think, is female economic independence - that factor that is reshaping the world, but which, I believe, gets almost no attention from pundits and sociologists because female economic independence is considered a woman's issue and therefore not of much interest to important people (i.e. men).

Suburban homes are conceived as little kingdoms with each man the king of his domain and the women and children subjects. Female economic independence is a huge contributor to the end of this kingdom concept. Also as suburban houses become larger, they require more and more money and effort to maintain - something only the rich, in McMansions, can afford. Working women no longer have the time to devote to better huge homes and gardens in the suburbs. Also working women have fewer children, so you no longer need a big house and a big yard.

And then there is the cultural wasteland of the typical suburb. When my family moved to Bensalem, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia, there was not even a public library nearby. The first library I ever stepped inside was in northeast Philadelphia, taken by my best friend Laura's mother, the only adult I knew who read for pleasure. My parents were/are both basically hostile to intellectual pursuits - flat out Philistines. The culture-free suburbs are/were their idea of paradise. My mother in particular was very upset when we moved to Pennsauken, a New Jersey town (for economic reasons). But I was thrilled that we moved to a house within walking distance of a library.

My hunch about the decline of suburbs is supported by this article in the Economist:
...the OECD, a rich-country think-tank, expects that by 2050, 86% of the rich world’s population will live in urban areas, up from 77% in 2010.
Another factor in the decline of driving must surely be the rise of the Internet - people can now work from home easily, and although it does threaten the power of middle-managers and so used less than it might otherwise be, there's too much temptation to use it when, for whatever reason, one can't make the commute - and even middle managers take advantage of that option.

When I was growing up, cities were doing so badly that my assumption as a kid was that cities were the places that poor people lived. Rich people lived in the country. But as soon as I was a teenager, my friends and I were always heading off to the nearest big city, Philadelphia, to see free open-air concerts and to go to the art museums and the midnight movies.

The Burns documentary lays the blame squarely on the federal Title One "slum clearing" legislation and the Title Two low-cost, single-family mortgage aid legislation, and the federal highway system. The documentary focuses on New York City, but it's always been said that Camden New Jersey was a vibrant city until the highway system made it possible for Philadelphians to motor right past it and into the farm land of New Jersey where they set up suburban communities - my sister lives in one of these and I was just there for Christmas. A mile from her home there was a highway that contained, one after another of chain stores and fast food places. An absolute suburban wasteland - I don't know why she wants to live there, but then she has about as much use for the arts or culture as my parents, so it makes sense. Of course we had to drive to get there.