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The End of Car Culture (nytimes.com)
52 points by llamataboot 1397 days ago | hide | past | web | 75 comments | favorite



One thing missed by most of these post-auto stories: transit used to be sooo boring, and no longer is.

I'm old enough to remember riding the bus before mp3 players and smart phones. Your only options were to read or to bring a CD player. Walkmans (Walkmen?) were a pain: batteries got expensive, and carrying more than 1 or 2 CDs was a pain, so you ended up listen to a few tracks over and over. Newspapers and books were good, but not as stimulating as the internet or email or Words With Friends. I still remember waiting for the train with no music, nothing to read, and nobody to talk to; it was excruciating.

Nowadays, I prefer transit to driving, even when it's a bit longer, because I can just zone out on my iPhone the whole way.


Actually it has seemed like this is the primary point most of these stories have been making for a while.

"The percentage of young drivers is inversely related to the availability of the Internet, Mr. Sivak’s research has found. Why spend an hour driving to work when you could take the bus or train and be online?" (from the article)

"...[A]lmost everything about digital media and technology makes cars less desirable or useful and public transportation a lot more relevant." [from May 2010, http://adage.com/article/digital/digital-revolution-driving-...]


I wish I could say this about transit in Beijing. The subways are so crowded you barely get to sit down, perhaps you would have enough room to fiddle with your smartphone if only there was signal for it in the tunnel (damn China Unicom), and standing for 45 minutes kind of sucks.

Taxi!


That's an economic issue, the roads in beijing are most likely croweded too and to boot most of those people are using public transport because they can't afford cars.

(I am using genaralisations about China to make these statements)


True. The subway is actually very nice, and in Beijing, very cheap (just 2 RMB a trip, no distance limit!). Those who can afford cars aren't using transit, and many of us in the middle are using taxis anyways because they are still not that bad (50 RMB = ~$8 taxi vs. 2 RMB subway...).

I would prefer nice public transit though, or better yet, the ability to bike without getting killed by a car.


I think it's a shame that private automobiles were introduced in China. There are too many people in large Chinese cities for them to all want to ride in a car. Imagine how much more livable these cities would be if everyone was either riding a bike or the subway.


I don't know about Beijing but in Shenzhen, lots of the newer apartments are located in "no car" gardens that can span over a few blocks. There are lots of trees, swimming pools, tennis courts, etc. Quite livable places actually.


All nicer apartment blocks are like that, actually; they usually have a garage underneath but even this is too expensive for most people (whose work unit will give them a Mercedes even if they can't afford a parking space!), so they park on the street...fun stuff.


I've actually always wondered about that. I often see loads of Mercedes/BMW/Lexus/Porsche cars parked around old buildings where the rent is less than 150$/month. If what you say is true (companies giving Mercedes to their employees), why is this? Or do some Chinese prefer owning an expensive car rather then living in a nice place?


I said "work unit" and I'm talking about government employees :) The government gives them the car and they use their connections to "qualify" for subsidized housing (the kind they are building for the poor!). So the result is a lot of Audi's parked around public housing.

Whatever works.


Not me. Most of my life I lived in cities with very good public transport systems, but I know that once I am done getting educated, I will live in a city that one can't live in without a car.

Public transit and bikes are cheaper and cleaner, I agree. But goddammit, they are so inconvenient. Public transit is annoying because it's never close to where you live or work - your destination gets averaged with everybody else's destination in the area and therefore involves walking to subway, waiting for subway, going places, getting out, walking to work... ugh. Biking is annoying due to whether (both winter and summer is super annoying) and security (locking bike, unlocking bike, findign place to lock it...). you can just leave a car somewhere and press a button and be pretty sure it won't be stolen.

I much prefer a world with big garages, big roads, lots of free parking spaces, spread-out low-rise cities, driving to huge stores for shopping (walmart, costcos, home depot) instead of malls and little shops.


Disagree utterly, but upvoted anyway.


Or you could just take a nap...


What about chatting with fellow passengers? What happened to simple human interaction?


Small talk with strangers every single day would get boring extremely fast.


There is an interesting intersection between this piece, the first comment by BadassFractal, and Philip Greenspun's recent post about Denmark's bike infrastructure: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/philg/2013/06/17/danish-happine... :

Because a bicycle can be used safely on every segment of almost any trip it becomes much more practical to dispense with car ownership and its $9100 annual bleed (according to AAA). The 24-hour metro, excellent intracity buses, and frequent trains other parts of Denmark complement the utility of bicycles in situations involving miserable weather and/or long distances. . . .

The way that we have things set up in the U.S. contributes to our higher per-capita GDP, but it does not make us better off. For example, if you think that a trip by bicycle will be unsafe due to a lack of bike lanes and take a car, you will burn gasoline, maintenance, and depreciation on that car, thereby boosting the measured GDP compared to if you had used your muscle power (not figured into GDP). If you then sign up for a gym membership and personal training to get rid of the fat that you’ve accumulated during all of these car-instead-of-bike trips, that boosts GDP though at the end of the process you will be no thinner or fitter than if you had biked. If you get hit by a car the GDP can easily be boosted by $25,000. You will buy a new bicycle. The car will need bodywork. You may be concerned about your health and get an MRI done at one of the world’s most expensive MRI clinics. Your MRI will be read by one of the world’s highest paid radiologists. What the radiologist says will be read to you, for a GDP-boosting fee, by one of the world’s highest paid neurologists.


For urban dwellers blessed with proper public transportation and a good Walk Score, a car is a huge headache and drain on finances. They simply all need to go and be replaced with extremely efficient, clean and safe transit systems. Nobody enjoys sitting in traffic for hours a day commuting. Nobody enjoys wasting time on maintenance. Nobody enjoys the process of acquiring the vehicle.

At the very least, car sharing is a step in the right direction. Eventually as the Google car becomes reality, I hope that the # of cars on the roads is reduced to a bare minimum and we don't need to drive / pay people to drive any longer, and free up a lot of human talent to do something more productive.


> Nobody enjoys sitting in traffic for hours a day commuting. Nobody enjoys wasting time on maintenance. Nobody enjoys the process of acquiring the vehicle.

Maybe not, but some of us find it vastly preferable to being crammed in with others on public transport. So don't tar everyone with your particularly preferences thanks.


I guess one has to balance the time spent in traffic and being crammed with others in public transport. Here in the bay area, one can get stuck on 101 for 2 hours when it would take only 40 minutes via Caltrain. I'm sure quite a few people would rather save 1.5 hours every day being crammed in with others.


Caltrain also has seats most of the time. The worst is that you might have to sit next to someone...cry me a river.


One of the more depressing things is that the conversation around transit is so frequently: "But... [horrified whisper] other people!"


Not to mention the amount of time spent circling city blocks in SF to find parking. I hate myself every time I need to drive to SF and find street parking. I remember spending 30 minutes circling blocks around pacific heights to find street parking, only for the purposes of eating at a restaurant near there.


Well, 40 minutes not counting getting to the train, waiting for the train, exiting the station, getting to your car & driving from the station home.


My 40 minutes includes that calculation already. If you plan accordingly, you don't need to wait for the train... just arrive on time. I bike to the station so that I don't need to pay for parking at the station.

On a side note, BART is probably going on strike this week, which means that an hour BART commute is soon going to turn into a 4 hour commute when the traffic on the highways double.


Ironically, though that's correctly pointed out as a vulnerability of "public transit," it's also a vulnerability of private automotive transit: if not for public transit, it would be far, far less convenient to drive from point A to point B, at least for some values of A and B


Absolutely. However I was imagining public transportation being improved to the point where being crammed is no longer a problem due to many more options and routes being run much more often.

At that point it becomes a lot preferable to spend 1h on a train somewhere reading a book / catching up on news or email, rather than getting enraged in gridlock traffic without doing absolutely anything productive (yes, you could theoretically do radio/audiobooks).


Give me a public transportation system that runs on time, doesn't spread disease, doesn't have punk kids who confront you for no reason, is safe, and has sane time schedules and I'll be happy.

Until then, I'll always prefer driving/walking/biking/anything. Unfortunately, I'm in a situation where I can't drive now, and I have to deal with an awful San Francisco public transit system that does 0 of the things I listed.


> "Give me a public transportation system that runs on time, doesn't spread disease, doesn't have punk kids who confront you for no reason, is safe, and has sane time schedules and I'll be happy."

The problem is that you live in San Francisco.

The biggest problem in that list (safety/perceived safety) has more to do with the city than the transit system itself. It's not a brokenness in the transportation system (though more can be done to curb it, certainly), it's a brokenness in the society it serves.

It's always a little depressing to think about how so many other cities - both bigger and smaller - on this continent put the transit of San Francisco utter, complete shame.


It's the same in Europe. As a visiting American, I'm in awe of the infrastructure they've built -- beautiful, clean, fast, charming -- but these were built with European society in mind, which generally raises kids to be respectful, clean, and polite.

But now there are a ton of pretty awful immigrants from the Middle East who harass women, destroy property, and threaten anyone they dislike... which is quickly making European cities very unpleasant places to live. I wouldn't be surprised if Europeans start their own version of white flight away from their cities.


I don't know about other European cities, but immigrants are priced out of the central areas of Stockholm, just like poor black people are priced out of Manhattan. I wouldn't be surprised if the same effect is true in other cities as well, due to the fact that most have been a lot more restrictive than USA when it comes to erecting high rises.


Is driving really safer than public transit?


In San Francisco? Probably yeah. Some of the routes are extremely rough, especially at night.

On many bus routes the conditions can be positively third world. Graffiti everywhere - seats, floors, windows. Human excrement. Urine. Addicts. Homeless. MUNI buses are one of the less fortunate places you can find yourself anywhere.

Having lived there in the past, I can sympathize with residents who want to drive, or take Ubers everywhere. The public transit in the city can be a very foul experience - though this is largely a reflection of the city rather than the system itself.


I will note that the concern is not that your bus will crash- it is that you will be mugged and/or shot.


Actually, the number of people physically killed by a Muni bus annually is significant: IIRC, there's a small but non-negligible (single digits) number of people who are run over and killed by Muni every year.

We focus on crime, because it's easy to lash out at order breaking down and can relate to being harassed by the small percentage of Muni riders who can genuinely be considered subhuman refuse. In reality, though, SF has several times as many annual traffic casualties (around 3000, from some rudimentary Googling) as crimes reported on Muni (around 1000).

That latter figure has some factors that may suggest undercounting (it's reported crimes, and I can see how people might have so little faith in Muni that they don't bother reporting it) but also some that suggest overcounting (it includes fare violations and eating on the bus).

Muni certainly needs to be cleaned up, but let's not get ahead of ourselves: you're much more likely to die via automobile in SF than being shot or stabbed on the Muni. I wouldn't be surprised if you're more likely to be killed being hit by a Muni than murdered on the Muni.


New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia are towns with the best walk-score in America.

For various reasons, it is still much cheaper to live in the suburbs and commute into the city than to live in San Francisco. I wonder how the other walkable cities are fairing.

Perhaps when people buy homes, they tend to not buy a new car at the same time - prior to the housing crisis, many people bought lots of homes. Then the market collapsed and they lost their money, further reducing the number of new cars bought.

Oddly enough, some 2000-model-year used Hondas and Toyotas did not depreciate in value between 2010 and 2013 because the used car market heated up.


Used Hondas and Toyotas did not depreciate 2010-2013 because the Cash-for-Clunkers débâcle reduced the supply of used cars, keeping up their price.

The suggestion that destroying operational vehicles would be a net gain for the economy is an excellent illustration of the broken window fallacy.

Cash-for-clunkers helped middle and upper-middle class people, including some friends of mine, who wanted to buy new cars. The cost of the program was born mostly by poor people, as is often the case.


Don't you just love central planning? It's always the poor that it hurts the most.


>and free up a lot of human talent to do something more productive.

Or starve, as the case may be.


Mincome. That won't be the only thing driving a post-jobs future, so we'll have to deal with it anyway.


Wealth redistribution could solve that problem.


After the redistribution is all finalized and completed, who controls the prices of goods that one can finally buy with this newfound wealth?


I don't know, man.

I live in Colorado, in a super bike-friendly city, and I'm buying a car. Can't take public transportation to a campground. Can't take public transportation to a mountain bike trail. Public transportation for skiing is a huge pain in the ass.


But will you ride it daily to work? I think an argument isn't that nobody needs cars but more people will be relying on them less and the total # of hours spent driving them will be reduced.


Indeed. As you carry on in that direction, hiring a car when necessary may become much more attractive compared to the upkeep on a car you only use occasionally.


I belong to a non-profit carshare, and that shit adds up fast, especially if you want a car for a whole day.


You can rent when you need it. For the amount a car costs you each year, you can rent a car or take a taxi a good number of times.


Right now I'm stuck in the suburbs and the city I live in just doesn't have good public transportation and probably won't ever. There is one scenario that I'm looking forward to that could make my life easier.

What if Google or another company perfects self-driving cars? You could have "cars" that are basically motorized shopping carts. You go online and register your car with a particular store. Your car could drive from store to store having the workers load everything for you. If a lot of people use this it could be efficient since these self-driving vehicles drive optimally and won't get into accidents and will cooperate with each other to get to where they're going.

This way I can spend more time doing what I want and less time stuck in traffic and more time doing what I want. Basically it's automating a set of tasks you used to do with a car. I hope that day comes very soon.


Wouldn't this usage fall in the "better mouse-trap" model?

Instead of having your car driving around, it would be much better to have businesses' trucks and vans going to customers. This way, companies get a better distribution process, parking lots become a thing of the past, you get to reduce your car usage... and perhaps this even makes it viable to have car-sharing companies working in the suburbs.


My dads tire and wheel business is screwed. 40+ years in the business, and it has dwindled down to practically nothing.


Uhh, there are still plenty of cars last time I checked. Help your dad adapt to modern age and he'll do just fine.


As a car guy, maybe I am biased, but:

1) Where are the data/charts behind this statement: "Part of the explanation certainly lies in the recession, because cash-strapped Americans could not afford new cars, and the unemployed weren’t going to work anyway. But by many measures the decrease in driving preceded the downturn and appears to be persisting now that recovery is under way. " If the whole premise of the article is that this is more than just something related to the recession, shouldn't we be able to see that data for ourselves, and the justification should be more than a passing statement. The wording of "by many measures" also makes it sound like the author is cherry picking metrics to make his point. I'd also like to see the car usage compared to unemployment rates for the same age group. Overall, I just don't believe the validity of the claim without seeing more data.

2) As the author says "Whether members of the millennial generation will start buying more cars once they have kids to take to soccer practice and school plays remains an open question." I'm not sure it is an open question. When you're single and can live near where you work, it's reasonable to get on without a car. Then life changes, and you need a car.

3) If there is an actual drop-off in car usage, then it could be because we likely are at an inflection point of some significant changes in the industry. The two big ones being electric cars with Tesla leading the way, and the second one being self-driving cars with Google leading the way. We might just be seeing a temporary drop as people reject the "old" way, and as these two new technologies take-off and become more mainstream, so again will car usage .


There's still a few billion people with no transport who will be buying vehicles soon.

I really freaking hope we've sorted out some better engine than internal combustion.

But even batteries might be tricky - how much rare earth metal do you need for a billion electric vehicles?

The problem with Beijing population all driving cars isn't so much that they're driving cars - it's weird of me to demand they still ride bicycles - but that they mostly drive badly made badly maintained cars.

Also, this is the kind of thing where international travel helps you see other perspectives. The first 'drive through mailbox' I saw was in the US. At Gilroy Outlets I would see someone leave one store, get in their car, drive 20 yards to be outside the next store, get out, go shopping, get back in their car, drive 50 yards to the next store they wanted to visit, and so on. I have no idea if that's common in the US, but I saw it in a few different malls in CA. It kind of freaked me out. (I understand if these people have a disability that makes walking painful or whatnot. That wasn't obvious from looking at them. Maybe they just hate the smell of garlic?)


For me, this is where lyft is so exciting. It used to be, if you could depend on walking/biking/public transit for 90% of your usage, you either still had to get a car for the other 10% or suffer a 10% downgrade in lifestyle.

Services like lyft perfectly patch over that hole. The cost of taking lyft indiscriminately is still less than owning and maintaining a car and the time I spend waiting for a lyft is counterbalanced by the time I would have spent parking.


> When adjusted for population growth, the number of miles driven in the United States peaked in 2005 and dropped steadily thereafter

The reason for this is more directly "The Internet" than they suggest. Nearly everything that used to require you to drive somewhere is now done online. You order products off Amazon today.


I know it has a great deal to do with this city, but since I moved to San Francisco, I've found myself using my car so rarely that every time I pull back into my garage, I need to disconnect one of my battery terminals, or I'll have a dead battery the next time I need to drive somewhere.


The end of car culture can't come soon enough.


this article is wrongheaded in many, many ways. The crux of the problem is that cars are designed and produced ahead of what is actually wanted and desired without concern whether there is actually an impedence mismatch with what consumers want in a car. For example, modular design in cars no longer exists. You can't find a car anywhere that can be transformed with add-ons between a commuter car to a weekender car to a car for hauling things to a car for being sporty. The same is true with manual transmission, you can't find it on the market ANYWHERE. For tinkerers, you can't get information about your car's computer chips or any kind of API that could serve a buyer's use, not someone elses. Not only that, you pay a lot of money for a car, and then find out that it's easily hackable, by anyone except the rightful owner. People love cars, and definitely prefer them to public transformation, which is unreliable at best, but there just aren't any cars on the market that match what consumers want.


What? When was the last time a car could be converted from a sports car to a capable tow vehicle with an add-on? You can bolt a tow hitch on just about any car, but tow vehicle/sports car/commuter/weekender runs so much deeper than that- at least if you want it to be better than "poor" in all of the above categories.

The same is true with manual transmission, you can't find it on the market ANYWHERE.

Patently false. Manual transmissions are not as common as automatics, and certain vehicles no longer offer a manual transmission, but they can still be found in many different vehicles.


"certain vehicles no longer offer a manual transmission"

Exactly right.


you can't find it on the market ANYWHERE.

certain vehicles no longer offer a manual transmission

Are you trying to tell me these two statements are equivalent?


if the make and model of the car of your interest is not available at all in manual transmission, then yes, absolutely yes, it's simply not available anywhere.

Henry Ford famously said "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black" and that's the problem today. An entire market of buyers is being ignored.

If you accept that only grey color cars are being made and wonder why people aren't buying grey cars, nothing can help you.


Ah, ok. I see what we're doing here. We're retroactively re-interpreting your argument to try to close some of the holes.

An entire market of buyers is being ignored

If the entire market of buyers you speak of consists of 3 people, it should be ignored. I am a fan of manual transmissions, and nearly all of the vehicles I have ever owned are/have been manual. But I have no delusions- I realize & accept that the gross majority of Lexus customers, for example, have absolutely no desire for a manual transmission.

As best I can tell, automakers are not campaigning against the manual transmission and trying to "shut it down", or any such bullshit. They are simply reacting to market demands. This is most apparent looking at trucks. Base model trucks with manual transmissions can be found with ease. Top-trim trucks of the same model are very difficult to find in manual. As the two examples are identical models (but different trim), they are directly comparable and we know both varieties of transmission are available. The market speaks, however; the buyers interested in the top-trim trucks want automatics. The buyers interested in the base model trucks want manual. This is clearly evident in the scarcity (but not absence) of manual transmissions in top-trim trucks.


Manual transmission is but an example. The idea is that ownership rates declined before the downturn unrelated to the economy. What is declining, is the value proposition that the current set of new cars offers compared to older cars and, that many would-be car buyers just aren't finding what they want in a car. Imagine the cell phone market before the iPhone, that is the state of the car market today.


What is declining, is the value proposition that the current set of new cars offers compared to older cars

What is happening (IMO) is that "old" cars (in relative terms) are lasting longer and longer. The car I learned to drive in had a 5-digit odometer. The car I drive today can reasonably be expected to reach 250k with regular maintenance.

many would-be car buyers just aren't finding what they want in a car

Ok, what do they want? 'Cause I assure you, "it doesn't have a manual transmission" is not the complaint of the majority.


DITTO on manual cars. I always thought that driving stick is so much more fun, but it's impossible to get a rental car with manual transmission. The entire fleet of Zipcars has no manual gear cars, for example.

And I don't understand why... everybody is licensed driver, which means everybody can drive stick. Also manual transmission cars are cheaper. So what compels rental companies to have automatic transmission fleets?


> everybody is licensed driver, which means everybody can drive stick.

You can take your driving test in an automatic in many states (US).


Huh, I did not know that.

Btw, are you Turkish?


yes


Can the same thing be said about desktop computers and laptops?

That's a separate can of worms but I have to say, I really don't see those form factors disappearing because of tablets. I think it's more of a "modern technology and better performance leads to longer use before replacement"- which may also apply to modern cars.


I think your argument is wrongheaded. People want cars to get them from A to B, that is all. Some people pay more for bigger cars because they have families, want presteige etc. Modular cars is so far down the list of things that people want/need.

Even software is often hard to make modular, things in the physical world... even harder.


>there just aren't any cars on the market that match what consumers want

I don't know about that. The Tesla Model S seems to be just that, according to every reviewer and customer I've heard. What other mainstream car has a waiting list?


fair enough. should have stated "there just aren't enough cars on the market that match what consumers want". Some people want a car like the Model S, true enough. That's because Elon Musk has the vision to produce what (some) consumers want - an electric car. There's a market for the Model S. I'm sure there are lot of other types of cars that would have waiting lists, were they available. Give the owner back more control over options, add-ons, individuality, there's surely another tranche of people for that. others likely too.


I think public transportation culture can't die soon enough. It's a ham-fisted solution to poorly designed cities. Even in "good" cities like New York and Vienna I think it's awful. I despise public transportation in almost every conceivable way.

The good news is that the future is a fleet of self driving cars. Everybody wins in that world. Safe, efficient, clean, and fast. It's gonna be great.


Where did you get from "self-driving" to "safe, clean, efficient and fast"?

Cars, unless we go with the monorail-pod-car concept, will always have particulate pollution due to tires (even EVs like the Tesla). Furthermore, all the self-driving cars right now are also gas-powered (hybrid, IIRC). It's not clear how the intersection of mass-market self-driving cars and human drivers will result, safety-wise, leaving alone pedestrians. I won't contest the "fast" claim you put out there, but given safety concerns, it's likely not going to be much faster than non-automated car results.

Public transport is a poor solution, but it's simply the safest, most efficient that exists unless you're simply unconcerned with reality or don't care about scale. When Musk shows up with a working pod-car concept (he's hinted at it), then I'm on board. Until then, I'm a champion of least suck transport model that exists.


don't get hung up on this linked article alone (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/motoring/the-modular...) , but modular cars - cars as platform for add-ons based on need - should have arrived long ago. They haven't materialized yet.




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