Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fewer Car Songs and What It May Mean for Urbanism

In my recent blog post about driverless cars, I noted the possible waning of the love affair between Americans and their automobiles.  Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council found a way to take a measure of the fading ardor.

Benfield writes that car songs have become far less common in the past few decades.  He’s right.  My first introduction to rock-n-roll came from the teenage daughter of my godparents playing “Little Deuce Coupe” and “The Little Nash Rambler”.   And “Dead Man’s Curve” followed a short time later.

There were more car songs as the 60’s proceeded.  “Drive My Car” by the Beatles comes to mind, even though that car was nonexistent.  Cars then began to disappear from lyrics.  Benfield notes a 1990 driving song from the Irish group The Saw Doctors, but nothing thereafter.

 Although they’re a good indicator, the lyrics of popular songs aren’t an infallible proof of changing societal trends.   Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissman from Atlantic Cities dig more deeply into the data.  And come up with much the same answer.

Although muddied by the recession, it appears that the demographic sector called Millennials are less interested in cars.  Carmakers are struggling to find ways to convince Millennials to make their first car purchase.  And Millennials are also less interested in driving.  Per Thompson and Weissman “the proportion of teenagers with a license fell, by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008.”

Nor are the changing aspirations of the Millennials limited to cars.  As noted by Thompson and Weissman, the Federal Reserve reports that the “The share of young people getting their first mortgage between 2009 and 2011 is half what it was just 10 years ago.”  Yes, the recession certainly has a place in that change, but 50 percent is a massive drop regardless of the economic circumstances.

So if Millennials are spending less on car purchases and mortgages, where they spending their money?  One hint: In my youth, the beginning of the new car year was cause for much excitement.  Entire families would visit dealers’ lots to see what new wonders Detroit had to offer.  Today, the same level of excitement is attached to release of a new iPhone or the annual Las Vegas electronics show.

Also, Millennials are greater believers in the “sharing economy”.  From ZipCar to Airbnb, Millennials are more willing to engage in resource sharing than ever before.  Of course, the internet plays a key role in that sharing.

Thompson and Weissman suggest that education will also receive more Millennial spending.  I’ll add travel to the list of new spending priorities.  Trading a home purchase for annual foreign travel seems a swap that more people are willing to make.

How does all of this affect urbanism?  Lifestyles oriented around electronics, education, travel, and the sharing of resources are often accomplished more effectively in urban settings.  Even if a 2,000 square foot drivable suburban home must be exchanged for a 1,000 square foot walkable urban home, the easily access to other lifestyle amenities is good compensation.  And the reduced living space is in keeping with a growing frugality.

This isn’t to say that all Millennials are moving downtown.  Demographic shifts don’t work that way.  But if even twenty percent make the switch, it’s a big deal.

Many years ago, I knew a couple in Eugene, Oregon.  I’ve forgotten their names, but will never forget their lifestyles.  They worked nine months a year in low-paying jobs.  They might have been school librarians.  They lived in the smallest studio they could find.  They didn’t own a car, instead commuting to work by transit or bike.

Come summer, they’d move all their possessions into storage, book budget airfares, and spend three months traveling and living frugally in Europe.  And they were very happy.

It wasn’t a lifestyle that would have been right for me.  I’m not an avaricious person, but like possessions a little too much to live as they did.  But I envied them much, including their absolute certainty that they were living the life that was right for them.

And it’s possible that they were a forerunner for the next generation.  Which could create big challenges and great opportunities for urbanism.

Follow-Ups and Scheduling Notes

Urbanism and Religion: I have another reason why Kaid Benfield is my favorite blogger.  In fact, he’s who I want to be when I grow up.

A few posts back, I wrote about Pastor Eric Jacobsen of Tacoma and his new book on the relationship between religion and urbanism.  In my post, I linked an interview with the pastor.  I then made a note to read the book someday.

Meanwhile, Benfield read the book and wrote a review that blew my doors off.  If a witty and scholarly assessment of religion and land-use sounds like something you’d enjoy, I recommend Benfield’s piece.  You’ll be rewarded with a line about the Kama Sutra that is still making me smile days later.

Petaluma Urban Chat: We met twice this month, once for a tour of the Petaluma River aboard a classic motor launch (look for photos soon) and a second time to chat about this blog and other local matters.  It’s been a good month.  If you’d like to join us in November, we’ll meet on Tuesday the 13th.  We convene at the Aqus Café at 5:30pm for beverages and good conversation.  And we have a preliminary idea for another field trip after the holidays.  But it won’t be as scenic as the river tour.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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