America’s fabled love affair with the car hasn’t ended, but like many a romance that gets off to a smoking-hot start, it has evolved over the years into more placid coexistence rooted more in need than pleasure.
There are a multitude of reasons: The roads don’t seem so free or open as they were when the affair blossomed after World War II. Congestion and the pillory at the gas pump have reined in some of the wanderlust.
Hot cars once were a teenage status symbol, but now four wheels matter most as a way to the mall. And the meeting place of social cyberspace means there’s a lot less need to go anywhere to commune with friends.
People younger than 30 are showing increasing disdain for owning combustion-engine power. Saddled with college debt and concerned about the environment, fewer are bothering to get driver’s licenses, more are moving to transit-friendly cities and new apps are expanding the arsenal of alternatives to owning a car.
“My parents were both born in the 1950s, and one of the things we’d do is just pile into the car and go driving around with no particular destination,” said Aaron DeNu, 33, who grew up in suburban Cincinnati but now lives in Logan Circle and chooses not to own a car. “I think the car is less tied to your identity than it was in the 50s.”
Two telling details:
The District’s population grew by 30,000 in the century’s first decade, but the number of registered vehicles remained fairly flat. More than a quarter of adults in the city don’t own an automobile.
NASCAR has discovered that younger people aren’t being lured by the roar of high-performance engines. To expand a rapidly graying fan base it has urged popular drivers to take to Facebook and Twitter. Now Jeff Gordon tweets regularly to more than 200,000 followers and has more than 458,000 Facebook fans.
But younger people seem more interested in fiddling on the Internet than under the hood, and they’re finding it provides more ways to get around than ever before.
Online services like Zipcar and Car2Go that provide short-hop rental vehicles for trips to the grocery store or mall are facing competition from new apps that let car owners rent their private vehicles to strangers through online connections. And now there is an app that brings technology to the slug line, allowing drivers to post their coming and goings to fill empty seats with passengers.
“Right now we’re on all the mobile platforms,” said Jason Conley of Avego, a global company that plans to begin matching riders to empty seats in Washington this summer. “Smartphone penetration just hit 50 percent this past Christmas, so more and more people have a small computer in their pocket and can avail themselves of lots of transportation options.”