The price on the big neon sign at my local gas station, now sneaking toward $3 a gallon, is starting to look like a ransom note. Are we getting priced out of America’s love affair with the automobile?
An editor for the tech news website Recode, Kara Swisher, says we are, and claims it’s coming faster than any of us realize. And it’s only partly because of the cost of filling our tanks.
If you doubt her, Swisher reminds us that she was years ahead of everybody when she wrote a piece 20 years ago called, “I Cut the Cord,” about giving up her telephone land line and “going all mobile.”
I’ve never been a guy who falls in love with cars. I don’t give mine cute nicknames, and I’ve never cared about their looks. I can’t tell one brand from another, nor do I care. If my car starts up and gets me where I want to go, that’s all I ask.
And yet, as with generations of Americans, my life’s been so busy with sweet moments on the road that the thought of the “family car” disappearing brings an unanticipated sadness.
In post-war America, entire families would pile aboard on a Sunday summer afternoon, and head out to the suburbs, just to drive around. So that’s what the world looked like outside our own neighborhood!
What 20th century teenager doesn’t remember cruisin’? You’d pitch in for gas (25 cents a gallon), squeeze half a dozen pals in the car, and drive around with the radio louder than your folks would let you play it at home, and hit all the high spots: Ameche’s, Gino’s, Price’s Dairy, Champs, Harley’s. The hangout choices seemed endless.
And, inevitably, if the car was filled with guys, somebody would say, “Let’s go pick up some girls.” With half a dozen guys already in the car, one of them already straddling the clutch, where were you supposed to fit a girl in, even if you found one?
Or you’d take the car to a drive-in, Carlin’s or Bengie’s or the Elkridge maybe, and hope to fog up the windshield with some romantic heavy breathing, even though it was only the 1950s and heavy breathing was still sort of outlawed.
But now most of the old hang-outs have vanished. And, according to this Kara Swisher, we won’t be buying many new cars to reach the new ones.
She calls it the most important shift since the “explosion of the smartphone,” adding, “Private car ownership declined globally last year, and it is a trend that I believe is going to accelerate faster than people think.
“Consider how swiftly people moved from physical maps to map apps, from snail mail to email, from prime time TV to watching on demand. What had been long-held practices were quickly replaced by digital tools that made things easier, more convenient and simply better.
“That is harder to envision with the heavy hunk of metal and fiberglass that is a car, but it is not hard to see the steps. You start using car-share services, you don’t use your car as often, you realize as these services proliferate that you actually don’t need to own a car at all.”
Especially not with those gas prices climbing, and not likely to turn around.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.