As Auto Show Revs, America Cools To Car Culture

DETROIT—Around 800,000 people are expected to check out the auto industry’s latest models during the nine-day run of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this year.

They’ll ogle the shiny sheet metal, jump into the drivers’ seats of hundreds of vehicles on display and dream of buying that sporty convertible when spring finally arrives. But for others, owning a car with its attendant expenses of maintenance, gasoline and insurance holds no excitement. They’re perfectly happy getting around on buses, trains, bicycles or their own two feet.

Americans are driving less.

And young people – who once couldn’t wait to get a driver’s license and buy a car – are delaying this traditional rite of passage in unprecedented numbers. Even as auto sales climb again after a steep downturn, younger buyers are comprising a smaller share of that market.

The trend has touched off a spirited debate over whether America’s long-held love affair with the automobile is cooling, or if it’s just in a temporary lull while the economy regains its footing.

“We’ve seen a really bad economy, one of the worst downturns since the Great Depression. The most profound impact has been on the young demographic,” said Erich Merkle, a Ford Motor Co. sales analyst. “Young people are not coming out of the gate as fast as their parents did.”

Among them is Kevin McKenna, who is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at Michigan State University. McKenna, 25, said he has never owned a car and doesn’t plan to purchase one anytime soon.

“I don’t aspire to have one,” he said. “I might find myself in a situation where I need a pay-as-you-go rental, but I don’t intend to own an automobile.”

Part of his reasoning involves economics. Money is likely to be tight after he graduates in May and starts paying back student loans.

New cars are out of the reach of many cash-strapped young people. The average price of a new vehicle in December was $32,890, according to Kelly Blue Book. That’s more than some new college graduates earn in a year.

McKenna said he plans on moving after graduation to a large city where a car can be more of a hassle than a convenience. He said he prefers public transportation.

One study shows that the recovery from the Great Recession is not bringing back younger drivers to dealer showrooms in substantial numbers.

Read the full story on Bridge Magazine.

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