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The End of Automania

In January 1973, William Ruckelhaus, the administrator of the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency, traveled to Los Angeles to break the bad news to residents: They were going to have to drive less. Automobile smog was choking the city, in stark violation of the Clean Air Act, and the EPA had hatched a plan to clear the air, by promoting mass transit, parking fees, high-occupancy lanes, and gasoline rationing. The reaction from car-loving Californians was a combination of shock and outright rage. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," fumed one resident. "Wouldn't it be cheaper," one reporter asked Ruckelhaus at his Biltmore Hotel press conference, "to take the people that have asthma and send them to Arizona?"

The backlash against the transportation plan was the first time that ordinary citizens, rather than big polluters, were attacking the EPA. ("The most searing experience I lived through," one agency staffer later called it.) And in the ensuing years, indignant Angelenos opposed nearly every attempt by local officials to tamp down on driving, from transit to land-use controls. True, the city's air did get cleaned, but only because of the invention of catalytic converters that filtered tailpipe emissions—vehicle miles traveled, meanwhile, continued to soar. And the episode offered a warning to anyone trying to promote walkable urbanism or get people to drive less. Americans adore their cars and clogged freeways, and only a fool would try to change that. (As Josh Patashnik reported for TNR, Arnold Schwarzenegger's brand of climate activism has explicitly avoided trying to persuade Californians to alter their motor habits.)

But is that still true today? Are Americans as car crazy as they were in the '70s? There's growing evidence that young people, for one, are less enamored of driving than their parents were. In 1976, three-quarters of all 17-year-olds had drivers' licenses. By 2008, that was down to 49 percent. And, in a recent survey by Zipcar, the car-sharing company, a full 67 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds said they would prefer to drive less, especially if alternatives were available (Zipcar's not a disinterested party here, but other surveys have yielded similar results). The shift in mood partly reflects worries about the environment and the price of gas. But there also seems to be a technological aspect, too. Once upon a time, newly licensed teens would pile all their friends into their new used car and drive around aimlessly. Nowadays, teens can socialize via Facebook or texting instead—in the Zipcar survey, over half of all young adults said they'd rather chat online than drive to meet their friends. 

Now, a lot of these car-free teens will eventually become auto-dependent. After all, it's hard to raise a family in walkable urban areas—housing prices are high, the schools aren't always great, and it's hard to carry groceries for three kids on the bus. But many of these young people might prefer to stay carless. Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institute has estimated that about 88 percent of household growth through 2040 will be composed of singles or childless couples—and many of those people would be perfectly happy living in urban centers, riding subways. But, he notes, there will only be enough walkable neighborhoods to satisfy about 5 to 10 percent of this demand—which is why rents in transit-accessible areas are so exorbitant.

The natural policy solution would be to focus more on promoting denser neighborhoods—places where people don't even need cars. Yes, that would involve spending public money on things like transit (or, say, tinkering with zoning rules like D.C.'s building-height limit to increase the supply of affordable housing in urban centers). Though, as Matt Yglesias loves pointing out, America's current car-dependent set-up also depended heavily on government subsidies and regulations—everything from trillions of dollars in highway spending to mortgage-interest deductions and zoning rules that promote bigger houses. There's no free market here.

Trouble is, the people who currently benefit from these low-density subsidies like them—a lot. That's why you see Tea Partiers denouncing smart-growth projects as sinister plots to force everyone into "hobbit homes." (Or politicians warning that new bike lanes are a precursor to a UN takeover of America.) These protests, while nutty, are direct descendents of the LA car revolts in the 1970s. And yet, polls like the one above seem to suggest that a newer generation is a lot more willing to embrace alternatives to car-centric suburban living. It's just that young people who theoretically wouldn't mind going car-free are a lot less vocal than suburban dwellers opposed to denser neighborhoods. So it's not yet clear whether this big attitudinal shift will lead to major policy changes.

(Flickr photo credit: mushwu)