How the 'car-light' trend is changing Michigan, and the nation

Even though the number of people abandoning their cars is ticking upward, the idea of going completely car-free isn’t feasible for most. The idea instead is to live “car-light,” viewing a car as part of a transportation portfolio, but not the only way to get around. If someone needs the family car, it’s there for the person who has to drive that day, explains Jackie Douglas of the LivableStreets Alliance in Cambridge, Mass. Others take the bus, ride their bikes, catch a ride with a friend or walk.

This notion of living “car-light” is gaining steam across the country, fueled by four changes explored in Curbing Cars: the economy, social practices, web innovations and environmental concerns. These are being accompanied by some new transportation resources that weren’t available even five years ago, such as bike sharing, car sharing and a wider availability of mass transit (innovations a number of Michigan cities are embracing). Each of these developments, in its own way, has contributed to individual decisions to cut back on automobile use. Each adds up to a significant change in the way Americans view cars.

Collectively, these trends and developments spell a different future for the automobile industry than the one it might have envisioned only five years ago, when President Obama embarked on an $82 billion rescue plan to save General Motors, Chrysler and scores of domestic parts manufacturers.

Obama continues to tout the industry’s revival as a signature accomplishment of his otherwise turbulent administration. “We saved the American auto industry,” he regularly declares in speeches across the country. And yet, it can be asked, saved it for whom? Perhaps Obama was asking himself the same question. For at the same time the president led the bailout of the Detroit car companies, his administration was in turn allocating billions of dollars for a panoply of public transportation, bicycle paths and other non-automotive infrastructure.

If the Detroit rescue served as a thank you to his political base, Obama’s embrace of alternative modes of transportation offers a gesture to the future. But wait: a future with less emphasis on automobiles? After everything he did to rescue the industry?

If that’s hard to believe, says Kevin Boyle, professor of history at Northwestern University, then consider this: America has managed without automobiles much longer than it’s relied upon them. And now, as with the fields in Detroit now blossoming where auto factories once stood, Americans are returning to what some might think is a more natural transportation state.

“What the automobile industry did was literally transform the way people interacted with each other, the way they viewed space and the way they used space,” says Boyle, a native Detroiter and the author of Arc of Justice, a National Book Award winner for its depiction of racial tension in Detroit. “There was no need to build upward, because you could build outward.”

That, however, emptied out cities and created vast suburbs where people felt detached from each other. These days, Americans are more eager to connect, as the interest in urban living among millennials shows. Says Boyle: “In some ways, they want to return to the 19th century model of cities like Chicago and New York.”

Micheline Maynard is a journalist, author and educator based in Ann Arbor. She is a former Detroit bureau chief and senior business correspondent for The New York Times.

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Tue, 04/22/2014 - 8:13am
This assertion that youngsters are abandoning cars, using public transit, congregating in downtowns and shop at farmers markets might be visible in a few spots, but I need data before thinking seriously about this fad. Has anyone actually counted the numbers of young people who live in downtown Grand Rapids, Lansing or Detroit, areas where this alleged liberation from cars is touted? I'd guess that the totals added each year to this life style are in the hundreds as opposed to the hundreds of thousands who lead ordinary greedy and acquisitive lives, marrying, creating careers and moving further out into the country to get away from public transit...... There is a certain type of reporter who has an agenda that corresponds to what big construction unions and companies especially those who want to put in bicycle lanes, light rail, bus companies and the like. These reporters believe that they can create light by flicking the switch on the wall. Their car bumpers sport Obamacare stickers. Their problem arises when there is no juice in the lines to support these airy stories.
John Q.
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 9:19am
Erwin - Instead of attacking the messenger by implying a bias that you have zero reason to believe exists other than the agenda that you're pushing, start looking at the numbers. Many urban cities are seeing a resurgence in population growth and property values. Look at the numbers like VMT per capita which peaked in 2004 and have been going down since then. Interesting that you're attacking the reporter for the lack of statistics when your comment is completely absent any and the numbers that are available don't support your claims.
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 2:01pm
But John, I know that the stuff in this article repeats the pious cant, but where are the numbers? The population of Grand Rapids has been dropping and I suspect that so have those of other cities. The pubbahs who run these urban centers, big money interests and assorted ward heelers have an interest in gussying up the image of cities and so hitching a ride to glamor by over emphasizing the small number of Millennials who do European inner city stuff seems safe enough. But where is the hard data? Absent good statistics, I have every reason to disparage this writer's "me too" fluff. Anecdotes and testimonials do not amount to evidence. And "VMT" sounds like an in-group solipsism. A public official would probably be the only one to know what it means. I'm still wondering.
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 10:52am
A few weeks ago I spoke with the head of Oakland County's Road Commission. He showed me that the money from the gas tax (the main source of funding for road repair) has declined because people are driving less and are driving more fuel-efficient cars. The State of Michigan spends the least amount of money per capita for its roads than any other state. There are also many, many bike trails in Michigan that connect cities. The trend is headed that way. I think Millennials are buying fewer cars because they can't afford them.
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 11:14am
There is some growth in downtown Lansing due to more housing built mainly for Cooley Law School students and some new apartment projects under construction or planned but I'm skeptical that there is any serious movement from the suburbs back to Lansing. A apt. complex located about one mile from downtown on Michigan Ave. was finished last year but appears to have nobody living there yet (the neighborhood I think is part of the problem). One interesting aspect on these trends I have heard about is will the young people want to continue living downtown when they start families or will they then retreat to the suburbs? I think the jury is still out on that.
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 2:20pm
This isn't feasible in most of Michigan. Glad I live in Cincinnati, where driving is optional.
Charles Richards
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 3:54pm
" For at the same time the president led the bailout of the Detroit car companies, his administration was in turn allocating billions of dollars for a panoply of public transportation, bicycle paths and other non-automotive infrastructure." This illustrates that Obama is advocating a giant misallocation of transportation resources. As Ms. Maynard documents, driverless cars for rent by the hour seriously undercuts the need for inflexible, expensive public transportation. Liberals have been advocating mass transit for so long, that it is difficult for them to shift gears and accept that new developments have rendered it largely obsolete except for those high density cities that rely on it. When Professor Boyle says, " America has managed without automobiles much longer than it’s relied upon them." he fails to appreciate that America has, for better or for worse, radically changed from the days it didn't rely on them. There is no going back to those days. That is not to say that America, and its transportation system, won't evolve. It will.
James Flint
Wed, 04/23/2014 - 12:23am
It does not take a brain surgeon to determine that the author of this article is putting the cart before the horse. It is not the "car-light" mentality that is affecting transportation options and choices, but rather the decline in discretionary income to the median income families that horse causing urban decay and economic ruin for many communities. Sustainable development and the move away from private ownership and control of property with the resulting waste of public funds is the root cause of declining urban environments. Wildlands Projects, Public/Private Partnerships (stakeholders councils), Smart Growth programs (Michigan Main Street) are the utopians mantra. Yet, such thinking does little to create wealth and the incentive for a growing economy and are in fact contra-productive! You can't keep printing money, growing government, and raising taxes without a corresponding drop in the standard of living. Until these simple lessons are implemented by decision makers, we will continue to see the number of Americans unable to afford a car and or home grow at an alarming rate.
Ken Kolk
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 4:22am
We live in Zeeland, one of the few walkable/bikeable cities in Michigan. There are just the two of us, with 2 cars and five bikes. Over the years the price of gasoline has constantly rose, and the price seems to be based on monopolistic ownership of the supply (price goes up on holidays when people will be driving and down in winter when less miles are driven). So we have shifted our vehicle purchases from vehicles that were lucky to get 15 MPG to ones that average in the mid to high 30s MPG. Thus often drive about the same yearly miles but pay half as much for gas and thus road taxes. Public Transit is nice in theory, but unless all cities and towns are served with busses, trams, and trains that run on schedule and very frequantly
Ken Kolk
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 4:30am
(continuing) they will never provide transportation that will allow the freedom people need to rely on it day to day. In Europe busses and trams run every 15 minutes, or 30 minutes after 11 PM to 6 AM even if they are empty. In the US transit systems close down by 10 or 11 PM. The mass transit idea sounds great, but won't work until the city fathers are willing to pay for running it empty or nearly empty during non peak hours.
Patrick McLean
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 6:32am
For Erwin and those who want data, here is one of several studies that shows driving habits of the young are changing. Young people are not getting their driver's license when they come of age in the same numbers as they did in years past. This paragraph is taken from a USAToday article last year, but a google search will show plenty of these studies. This one comes from the CDC. "Today, many teenagers are deciding to wait to get their driver's licenses, a shift documented in several recent studies. One this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the percentage of high school seniors who had a driver's license fell from 85% in 1996 to 73% in 2010. The study analyzed results of a survey given annually to 15,000 seniors from 130 public and private schools."
Matthew Gittleson
Mon, 04/28/2014 - 2:51pm
Rather ironic that Erwin has accused the article's author of making assertions without data and then calls the trend a "fad" in the same sentence in which he claims ignorance about said trend. Everything said after smells heavily of confirmation bias. I completely agree that the article should contain supporting evidence, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Feel free to say "I want more data" but don't say "I want more data because I doubt you can produce it." In my experience, the latter type of request is most often made by people who won't believe the data when they do eventually see it...