Shunning Cars … and Life

24 May

Last summer I relayed the news that Generation Y hates driving. Now it turns out, everybody hates driving.

According to the recent The Exchange article “Why More Families Are Shunning Cars,” the CNW Research of Bandon, Ore., reported that in 2012 the percentage of US households without a car was the highest its been in the 22 years they’ve been tracking this data. The percentage? 9.3%.

Citing a cultural shift, The Exchange says that people today don’t rely on cars as much because:

  • more people live closer to cities and public transportation
  • since they now don’t need a car on a daily basis, these people simply rely on car rentals, which have become more flexible
  • retirees now live in retirement communities that they seldom leave
  • teens prefer to keep in touch virtually than in person
  • the economy is still in the gutter

The economic factor is a fascinating one when it comes to the history of motor vehicles. I’ve been proofreading (what feels like) a lot of books on cars and motorcycles lately and also thinking about cars and road trips while writing Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and it’s been rather interesting to discover just how much the Great Depression and various wars have had on Americans’ driving habits.

An all-too-brief history:

  • cars and motorcycles are relatively new innovations, and they were making leaps and bounds until the Great Depression
  • there was an economic boom following WWII and suburbs became more popular–think Levittown–so the car became integral to family life
  • during the Cold War, the emphasis on patriotism no doubt led to Greyhound campaigns like this one, featuring a veteran who after fighting for the USA wants to travel to see the entire country, and the tv show/extended commercial See the USA in Your Chevrolet

Life in America hadn’t really changed all that much from that time when the economy improved, people moved out to the ‘burbs, and cars became a fact of life.

Until recently.

There were, of course, recessions here or there after the Great Depression, but it wasn’t until December 2007 that the US experienced the Great Recession or the Lesser Depression, whichever ominous phrase you want to use.

The same day that I read–while I was on the subway, mind you–that more people are “shunning” cars, I also read a Newsday article reprinted in amNewYork as “A growth spurt in NYC” that said, “New York City had the greatest numeric gain in population between 2011 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates out Thursday.” Granted, the article seemed to be specifically comparing growth in cities (see this New York Times article as reference), but unless it’s indicating that people are simply moving from one city to another it seems to suggest that more people are taking to city life. And perhaps that’s the–ahem–driving force behind the decline in car ownership.

So… what do automotive trends have to do with literature?

Arguably the most popular of all authors who wrote about traveling by car and philosophized about the culture of his generation didn’t own a car: as I pointed out in my Hipsters Hate Driving post, Jack Kerouac was a hitchhiker, a bus rider, and a passenger, but rarely a driver, and yet he wrote the great American road-trip novel On the Road.

Now, let’s go back to that point The Exchange made that today’s generation–Generation Y, Millennial, whatever you want to call them–seemingly prefer virtual, rather than interpersonal, relationships. Here’s how The Exchange put it: “Teenagers using social media to keep in touch seem to feel less drawn to the open road than their parents did at the same age.”

The issue at hand is not that today’s generation doesn’t like driving or that they’re moving to the cities in droves. The cultural shift that needs to be more adamantly addressed for both the sake of our personal well-being and literature is that people prefer living life virtually than experiencing it first hand.

Kerouac lived life to the fullest. He famously told Steve Allen that he spent more time experiencing the content that would end up in his book than actually writing it:

ALLEN: Jack….How long did it take you to write On the Road?

KEROUAC: Three weeks….

ALLEN: Three weeks! That’s amazing! How long were you on the road itself?

KEROUAC: Seven years

Of course, as Burning Furiously Beautiful points out, it was only the scroll version on On the Road that Kerouac wrote in three weeks; it actually took him years to write the novel. But that doesn’t change the fact that Kerouac was out there living life, adventuring, experiencing, gathering tales to tell.

If today’s generation spends their life behind the computer screen or is too busy snapping photos for instagram to be present in the moment, that will shape our literature.

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3 Responses to “Shunning Cars … and Life”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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