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Posts from the "Car Culture" Category

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Seven Ways Technology Is Rendering the Automobile Obsolete

As we try to understand why young people are so much less jazzed about driving than previous generations, one possible explanation always comes up: Kids today just love their smart phones.

That is part of it. But the full picture is far more nuanced.

The internet, and the ability to carry it wherever you go, has changed society in so many profound ways it’s no surprise that transportation is among them. A new study by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “A New Direction,” illustrates the myriad ways mobile technology has transformed young people’s relationship with transportation.

Yesterday, we covered the report’s critique of government travel forecasting and its analysis of why young people’s driving rates will probably remain lower than those of previous generations. Technology is one of the biggest reasons. Here’s why:

Go ahead, check your stocks online – but not if you’re behind the wheel, please. Photo: PC Mag

Constant connectivity. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed at the dinner table or on city sidewalks, people have trouble putting down their phones. It’s not just compulsive Facebook status checking that keeps people glued to their devices. People perform an increasingly broad assortment of tasks on phones: make travel reservations, go through work email, catch up on the news, diagnose children’s ailments — the list is nearly infinite. While car companies are trying heartily to incorporate digital connectivity and social media into their cars, they still need to battle the fact that such technology is dangerously distracting for drivers. Given the option, many young people would rather take transit, where they can use their phones harmlessly, making far better use of their commuting time.

Alternative social spaces. Older adults may think it’s weird when teens would rather text each other than see each other, but hey, the world is a weird place. “A survey by computer networking equipment maker Cisco in 2012 found that two-thirds of college students and young professionals spend at least as much time with friends online as they do in person,” write report authors Phineas Baxandall and Tony Dutzik.

Online shopping. More and more people are making purchases online rather than in stores. Young people are leading the way on that, too. And it can be greener than going to the store yourself.

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Millennials Will Drive More as They Age, But Still Less Than Their Parents

At some point over the past few years, a lot of my friends started moving to Silver Spring and Takoma Park and Falls Church. These inner-ring, transit-connected suburbs of DC are still far less compact and walkable than the neighborhoods my friends moved from. So they bought cars.

Many young people still opt for urban living in walkable, compact neighborhoods -- even once they have kids. Photo: Let's Save Michigan

Why did they do this? They’re entering peak driving age, which is historically between 35 and 54. They have more money than they did in their early 20s. But mostly, they had kids. Of all my friends, I now have exactly one that is still proudly car-free with kids.

In light of the new U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group report on changing driving habits, led by young people, the question arises: Won’t those young people also drive more as they get older?

Reports of diminished interest in driving focus on two groups: baby boomers, the generation that came of age with the automobile and settled in car-dependent suburbs, who are now retiring and driving less; and millennials, the oldest of whom are in their early thirties now and the youngest of whom aren’t even old enough to drive.

Millennials’ shift away from automobile travel is well documented, especially in last year’s report, “Transportation and the New Generation,” by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group. That report found that between 2001 and 2009, annual driving by the 16-to-34 age cohort decreased 23 percent, from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita. The same age group also made 24 percent more trips by bike and 40 percent more trips by public transit.

With more people having children later in life, the vast majority of millennials are still childless. They also haven’t hit their prime earning years, which tend to be prime driving years.

That’s true, said U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall, co-author of the new report on driving trends, but the expected increase in driving by millennials had already been factored into the reports forecasts — all of which entail far less driving than government models predict. “Our scenarios all assume that millenials will drive more when they get older,” Baxandall told Streetsblog. “The real question isn’t, ‘Will millennials drive more as they get older?’ It’s, ‘Will they drive more than their parents as they get older?’”

There are persuasive reasons to think they won’t.
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Queens Auto Dealer: Buy a Car, Get Heart Disease

Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Clarence spotted this ad for a used car dealership in Monday’s Daily News. We can’t decide what we like best about it — the “trade in your shoes for cardiovascular disease” concept or the fact that it includes transit directions to the lot, in Long Island City.

Either way, it’s refreshing to see a little honesty in auto advertising, however unintended.

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Ford Tries to Sell More Cars By Looking to a Future With Fewer Cars

Ford wants young people to think the company gets it. Source: Ford

Ford has spent the last few years fretting about how to reach out to Gen Y. The car company made news earlier this year when it re-designed its 2015 Mustang to appeal to buyers born between 1980 and 1999. (Apparently Gen Y just screams “shark-nosed grille and round headlights” to Ford.)

Last year, Ford turned to marketing consultant Barbara Bylenga to explain this mysterious age cohort. She counseled them away from “flashy or snazzy” cars, saying Gen Yers “want to show their values, they want to show their success in different ways.” After all, “a flashy sports car makes you seem like maybe you’re trying a little too hard.”

Now the company is going a step further, trying to appeal to this demographic by displaying their grasp of the fact that demand for their product is waning. In a glossy, 74-page document that AdWeek characterizes as “an internal consumer trends report for 2013″ [PDF], Ford attempts to demonstrate that it is “not myopic, but is going beyond making cars into being an enabler in mobility opportunities,” according to Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s “global futurist” and author of the report. The document highlights Portland’s Depave activists, bike-share systems in France and China (no mention of all the ones closer to home), and downtown revitalization efforts in Las Vegas and Carmel, Indiana, where “the mayor has set out to design a city for ‘people first and automobiles second.’”

So, what’s Ford’s place in this bright, green future?

It may help to review an episode from last year – not long after Bylenga made her pitch to Ford executives – when the company announced it was partnering with Zipcar to put Fords on 250 college campuses and subsidize the car-share fees for students. It was a move calculated to show that Ford is nimble enough to change with the times. “We are looking at the future of transportation more holistically,” Ford Executive Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr. told the New York Times. “We shouldn’t be threatened by these different business models. We should embrace them.”

Of course, as the Times wrote at the time, Ford was betting that “drivers who rent from Zipcar by the hour just might be potential customers down the road.”

There’s no indication in the consumer trends report that this giant of the auto industry is going to start making profits by providing “mobility opportunities” other than driving Fords, and AdWeek reports that the company “doesn’t intend to scale down the traditional auto business.” Instead, “social business” maven Jeff Dachis told AdWeek, Ford’s release of the document is a brilliant stroke of branding. “Aligning itself with progressive trends helps Ford in the marketplace.”

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World’s Most Entitled Driver Sentenced to Wear “Idiot” Sign

Need a break from election coverage? Check out this shoo-in for the bad driver hall of fame: In an attempt to avoid waiting behind a school bus unloading children, a Cleveland-area woman was caught driving on the sidewalk.

But after some unorthodox punishment, handed down by a local judge, we’re guessing 32-year-old Shena Hardin won’t try that trick again. Hardin has been ordered to stand at an intersection two mornings next week wearing a sign that says, “Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”

She will also have her license suspended for 30 days and pay $250, according to the Associated Press.

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Teenagers’ Cars Are the Gifts That Keep on Wreaking Havoc

The multiple-teenager-fatality car crash remains a sad staple of journalism. And no wonder. The instant loss of several lives is so dreadful and the death of a young person so poignant that the combination is shattering. When a car-full of teens crash and die, the article can almost be assembled by rote: the devastated families, the grieving community, the investigation that will forever be “ongoing,” and the seeming arbitrariness of young lives snuffed out in a few seconds.

The aftermath of the one-car crash in Malverne, in which four teenagers from Queens died. Photo: Kathryn Brown/CBS 2

Give the Times’ Ginia Bellafante credit for breaking the mold in her Sunday “Big City” column, in which she commented on the 3:30 a.m. crash a week ago in which a 17-year-old drove his 2012 Subaru Impreza into a stand of trees off the Southern State Parkway near Malverne, a half-dozen miles from Richmond Hill, Queens, where the five teens in the car lived.

Bellafante pulled no punches in pointing out that even before he crashed his new car, the driver, who was the lone survivor, was violating three provisions of his learner’s permit: must have licensed adult in the car, cannot have more than one passenger under 21, may not drive between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Even more admirably, she focused her column not on the community’s sense of loss but on the “almost obsessive” car culture in which the five teenagers came of age. Indeed, judging from her reporting, other Richmond Hill young people were more keen to talk up their wheels than reflect on the loss of life:

As Ian Ramdas, an acquaintance of some of the victims of Monday’s accident, explained it to me, he had been a car enthusiast since at least age 14. When he graduated from John Adams High School in Ozone Park two and a half years ago, his parents, both nurses, bought him an Infiniti G37. “My car from the factory, no bragging, is $53,000 after taxes,” he told me… “When you modify a car to your standards, you’re expressing yourself; it’s our art,” he said. “Some people invest $3,000 in a car. That’s what I paid for the rims. That’s what makes me different from everyone else.”

To underscore the quote, the Times editors juxtaposed a photo of Ramdas leaning against the trunk of his gleaming Infiniti outside the wake for one of the dead 18-year-olds, with a shot of the smashed Impreza in the woods. However, the article’s headline, “Gift, and a Tragedy, Born of a Car Culture,” pales beside the original (inferred from the URL), “Teenagers’ Cars Are the Gifts That Keep on Wreaking Havoc.”

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Multi-Modal Summer Reading

Summer gives permission to set aside serious reading for the refreshment of fluffier stuff. This year, though, several meaningful books on transportation are out that you might want to tuck into your beach bag. Each is that rare thing: a should-read that’s also a want-to-read.

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe (Times Books)

Author Taras Grescoe.

You don’t have to have lived in any of the cities Taras Grescoe profiles to enjoy Straphanger, but it doesn’t hurt. I especially enjoyed the chapter on New York City, where I happily spent a decade getting around mostly underground. You’ll soon enough start thinking about your town and asking the questions he does in the book: What kind of transportation system do we have? How did we get here? Where might we go?

Interweaving personal experience and professional research, Grescoe takes the reader across the country and around the world, looking at the state and promise of transit. His city-by-city approach helps underscore the book’s takeaways. The past has shaped each landscape in unique ways, he shows us, yet history is not destiny. At the same time, the future will not be won with a one-size-fits-all approach to transportation.

Grescoe does not conclude that the bus is best just because Bogota has brought about “the revenge of the loser cruiser” or that elevated light rail is the way to go just because the SkyTrain has transformed his hometown of Vancouver. Since each city has a different landscape and mindscape — and because federal politics are a gridlocked mess — he states, “the change that’s going to come will almost certainly have to happen at the city, regional, or state level.”

In the end, Grescoe shows how various people in various places are providing various ways toward greater mobility, providing inspiration and ammunition for transit advocates.

The Enlightened Cyclist: Commuter Angst, Dangerous Drivers, and Other Obstacles on the Path to Two-Wheeled Transcendence by Bike Snob (Chronicle Books)

The Bike Snob.

The most entertaining of the three books is the one organized by the monkey mind of Bike Snob (aka Eben Weiss), whose ruminations on cycling swerve from the philosophical to the ridiculous and back in the course of a single paragraph. But don’t let his whimsical tone and meandering path fool you: Bike Snob’s purpose is rhetorical and sharply focused. He’d like all of us, by whatever mode we travel, to understand that we share more than the road: we share a primal and practical need to travel. He exhorts us to “remember that whatever we’re doing and wherever we’re all going, we all want the same thing: To be happy, and to not get killed.”

Bike Snob is a master of the apt and amusing analogy such as these pleasures:

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High Anxiety: Good Parents and Bad Parents on the Road

America’s roads have suddenly become dangerous places for America’s children. At least, that’s what’s suggested by a flurry of viral stories involving kids and cars.

We can all agree this is a bad idea, right? A Colorado police officer snapped this picture. Photo: Jalopnik

In May, an inebriated Florida couple made news when they took their granddaughter for a joy ride, pulling her behind their SUV in a toy car. Then came the story of an Indiana dad, arrested after strapping his four children to the car hood to get them home from a quick liquor store stop. Next, it was the stoned Arizona mother who secured her weeks-old baby in its car seat, popped the seat on top of her vehicle, and drove off. The latest item grew out of a snapshot, taken by a Colorado police officer, of a diapered toddler restrained only by a seat belt while his child safety seat, buckled in next to him, cradled a can of gas.

While the nation may be experiencing a statistical rise in stupidity, substance abuse, or child neglect, more likely we’re just enjoying better access, through cable news and social media, to tales of bad parenting, tales we can take perverse pleasure in consuming and sharing. It’s simple and satisfying to stand in judgment of these “horrible parents” whose choices were so obviously wrong. Here are selfish people who put loved ones into terrible danger, something we would never do. Their evil, then, becomes our good.

Why, though, would we need these object lessons to highlight our own good parenting?  Perhaps such high-contrast, black and white stories help quell the anxiety of transporting our children through the problematic gray area that is modern American car culture.

Cars — equipped with safety seats or not, piloted by sober drivers or not — present real danger to kids. Despite improved auto and traffic safety, they remain the number one killer of young people aged 5-34. Yet many new parents relocate to car-dependent suburbs, and many towns resist expanded transit lines or walking and biking paths, theoretically to protect their families from crime. Feeling children are safer in remote communities, these parents end up driving them everywhere, often to school, despite the fact that they would be about 20 times safer taking the bus. Seeking to protect them from the horrors of climate (but not climate change), moms and dads drive their young ones to school in inclement weather or idle at bus stops to shuttle them, warm and dry, a short block home.

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Free Parking: The Agony and the Lunacy

A reader passes on this notice, one of many distributed on Park Slope windshields. We present it without further comment.

The agony of free parking

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New A&E Series Mines Reckless NYC Driving for Ratings

From the network that brought you “Parking Wars,” the reality TV show about Philadelphia parking scofflaws and the agents who put up with their abuse, comes “Last Chance Driving School,” the reality TV show about student drivers running amok on the streets of Western Queens.

Premiering this weekend, the A&E series promises to show viewers the arc of the students’ skills as they transition from “flustered pupils into safe and sensible drivers.” But when you get down to it, the producers seem to be betting that “Last Chance Driving School” will have the same kind of appeal as American Idol auditions: The audience will get to see people humiliate themselves.

So in place of the Kelly Clarkson wannabes warbling off-key, the viewing public will watch incompetent motorists cause chaos on NYC’s pedestrian-rich streets in their bid for a lifetime of driving privileges. (Sample episode summary: “Fiesty Brazilian firecracker Carla gets Pete worked up with her road rage in Manhattan and Carlos takes to the streets with Sabina, one of the craziest and most dangerous drivers the school has ever seen!”)

A casting call sent out to an Astoria message board last fall went like so:

If you or someone you know live in New York and desperately need help passing your DRIVER’S TEST we can help!

We are looking for people with little to no driving experience. If you have never been behind the wheel of a car or terrified of driving, we are looking for you!

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