A Car? That’s so 2011.

Original Jan 5, 2012 – change back

At this time of year trends always catch my attention and one I am watching has to do with driving patterns.

  • Last week National Public Radio (NPR) quoted an oil industry analyst predicting that gasoline consumption in the US in January 2012 will be lower than in any month since January 2000, despite a population increase of about 30 million during that time.
  • In December the Department of Transportation reported that vehicle miles travelled has been flat or declining for the last 47 months—a record.

Certainly part of the trend has to do with the economy; unemployed Americans do not have a daily commute and even many with jobs are struggling.  In a Zipcar study over 70% of respondents in all age categories report that the high cost of gas, parking and maintenance make car ownership a challenge.

Another part of the story is improved automobile efficiency, which enables Americans who are commuting to use less gasoline in the process.  The EPA reports that fuel economy has increased slightly each year since 2005.

It seems, though, that American’s relationship to the automobile may also be changing.

Grist cites a study indicating that fewer young people are getting drivers licenses; in 1983 80% of 18 year olds had a license whereas only 65% had one in 2008.  They suggest that internet superhighway may be replacing the tar-covered highway one for some youth.  This is reinforced by a study from Zipcar where 68% of 18 to 34 year olds report that they sometimes go on line rather than driving to see their friends—compared to just 24 percent of those over 55 years of age.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that there is increasing buzz about car sharing.  One clean tech expert predicts that car sharing will be a key trend in 2012.  Car sharing provides the occasional convenience of a car without the constantly-depreciating-while-I’m-not-using-it drain on the budget.  Especially noteworthy here is the creativity–people are not only joining existing car sharing programs but they are also coming up with ways to share the cars they already own.  Whether I am borrowing yours or you are using mine, the car feels more utilitarian in these scenarios and less like part of my identity, which means that our relationship with our cars seems to be changing.

An interesting parallel trend in 2011 was the use of bicycles as a prop in stores selling trendy clothing (The Gap, Kate Spade) as well as some hipster stores selling actual bikes (CB2, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters).  The trend suggests that some designers are using bikes as shorthand for stylish—you know, the way we used to use cars.

It is going to be an interesting year.

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