What Does the Future Hold for the Automobile?


For a generation, the car has been reviled by city planners, greens and not too few commuters. In the past decade, some boldly predicted the onset of “peak car” and an auto-free future which would be dominated by new developments built around transit.

Yet “peak car,” like the linked concept of “peak oil” has failed to materialize. Once the economy began to recover from the Great Recession, vehicle miles traveled, sales of cars, and particularly trucks, began to rise again, reaching a sales peak the last two year. Instead, it has been transit ridership that has stagnated, and even fallen in some places like Southern California.

Demographics — notably the rise of the millennial generation — were once seen as the key to unlocking a post-car future. Yes, younger people have been slower to buy cars than their predecessors, much as they have been slow to get full-time jobs, marry or buy homes, but more are now driving, so to speak, the car market, representing the largest share of new automobile buyers.

Convenience can’t be banned

The persistence of personal transportation has little to do with the much hyped “love affair” with the automobile but convenience and access to work. Simply put, with a few notable exceptions, Americans live in increasingly “dispersed regions.” Transit works brilliantly, as Wendell Cox and I demonstrated recently in a paper for Chapman’s Center for Demographics, to downtown San Francisco and a few other “legacy” urban centers, notably New York which accounts for a remarkable 40 percent of all transit commuting in the United States.

Yet, overall, 90 percent of Americans get to work in cars. Access to jobs represents a key factor. University of Minnesota research shows that the average employee in 49 of the nation’s 52 major metropolitan areas can reach barely 1 percent of the jobs in the area by transit within 30 minutes while cars offer upwards of 70 times more access. This practical concern does much to explain why up to 76 percent of all work trips remain people driving alone.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo: Nissan_LEAF_got_thirsty.jpg: evgonetwork (eVgo Network). Original image was trimmed and retouched (lighting and color tones) by User:Mariordoderivative work: Mariordo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons