"If there have been two seemingly immutable trends for the American consumer, they're that he's eaten more every year and driven more every year."

Writing this month in Esquire, stats-man extraordinaire Nate Silver writes about The End Of Car Culture:

In January, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Highway Administration, Americans drove a collective 222 billion miles. That’s a lot of time spent behind the wheel — enough to make roughly eight hundred round-trips to Mars. It translates to about 727 miles traveled for every man, woman, and child in the country. But that figure was down about 4 percent from January 2008, when Americans averaged 757 miles of car travel per person. And this was no aberration: January 2009 was the fifteenth consecutive month in which the average American drove less than he had a year earlier.

Could it be that there’s been some sort of paradigm shift in Americans’ attitudes toward their cars? Perhaps, given the exorbitant gas prices of last summer, Americans realized that they weren’t quite as dependent on their vehicles as they once thought they were.

For all the talk we hear about economic green shoots, I think this may be one. Or, at the very least, may lead to one. The hope, and typical result, of an economic downturn is the innovation and investment stemming from the realization than the previous way of doing things — an unswerving reliance on driving, in this case — is unsustainable, or at least uneconomical. Maybe that innovation will be in alternative energy; maybe that investment will extend the reach of mass transit.

The real question becomes whether this shift is only a temporary blip. Silver himself writes in the article that the falloff in miles driven is probably a trailing indicator of extremely high gas prices last year. Since prices fell so drastically almost immediately after, will attitudes revert to “normal” and suburban growth resume? Hard to say, but Silver does throw in a couple of interesting wrinkles at the end:

The exceptionally sluggish pace of new-vehicle sales, moreover, in the face of extremely attractive incentives being offered by the automakers might imply that Americans are considering making more-permanent adjustments to their lifestyles. And the denigration of the brand of the Big Three automakers in light of their financial difficulties — about one third of Americans have generally told pollsters they will buy only an American-made car — might reduce some of the patriotic associations with the activity of driving. Building a light-rail system might not persuade Bubba to get rid of his vehicle — but forcing him to buy foreign might.

That last sentence is a portent of marketing to come. Jingoistic patriotism is already a favourite tactic of car makers in the war against imports; how long before automakers cede that part of the market and swing their attention to another of Porter’s forces: substitutes? That is, if there is a recognizable shift from driving to public transit, then how long before the latter is cast as unAmerican?

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