An article in the current (September 22-28) issue of The Economist suggests something may be changing in our culture's addiction to the automobile. "Seeing the Back of the Car" begins predictably enough, reminding us how integral cars are to modern life. Cars account, we are told, for 70% of all non-foot travel in the 34 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, and America is "stil the most car-mad country in the world." But something surprisingly different suddenly seems to be developing. In fact, while inevitably exacerbated by the recession, a contrary tendency appears to have begun even before the recession: "After decades when each individual was on average travelling farther every year, growth per person has slowed distinctly, and in many cases stopped altogether."
One reason for the apparent decline is that the current retiree generation is the first in which most people drove, which means that newer drivers are now merely replacing older drivers, rather than adding to the total number of drivers. Even more significantly, younger people are getting licenses later than they used to, and the percentage of younger households without cars has increased. Unemployment is obviously a factor, but even employed American youngsters are driving both "less far and less often."
Car use remains stable in rural areas - "where driving still offers freedom and convenience." But car ownership is declining in urban areas, while "city living is on the rise." In the U.S. "13% of people in cities of more than 3m people have no care while only 6% in rural areas live without one."
Perhaps the most intriguing development, however, is the relationship the article posts between internet use and a decline in driving. Younger people who spend time on the internet are not only less likely to drive a lot but even less likely to get a license: "young people increasingly increasingly view cars as appliances not aspirations, and say that social media give them the access to their world that would once have been associated with cars." And, of course, people are shopping more on-line, which means less driving to shop.
All of this bodes well for whatever lies ahead. Perhaps, it may be too late to make much of a perceptible difference environmentally. The climate-change train has clearly already left the station, and a world climate train-wreck may be inevitable. But if even some of the social dysfunctions the 20th century's destructive addiction to the automobile can be reversed that would be a positive step, however modest, toward an improved qualilty of urban living and a revival of local community life.