Americans and Their Cars

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This post was originally published on The Energy Blog, a project in collaboration with National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge.

by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

For decades, a number of environmentalists have been hoping the American love affair with the car would fade away.  A lot of people who'd like this to happen see hope in a survey by Zipcar, the car-sharing firm, which found that a majority of 25- to 34-year-olds say they'd rather drive less. There's also a drop the number of 17-year-olds with drivers licenses, according to The New Republic.

In reality, it doesn't really matter if people love their cars, so long as they need them to live their lives.

Consider this: there are about 250 million motor vehicles in the United States, a country of a little over 310 million people. Only 9 percent of American households make do without a car; most have more than one. Nine in 10 of us drive to work, according to the Census Bureau, and three-quarters of us drive alone.

Plus, almost all of that driving is done on oil. Nissan is optimistically saying it expects to sell 500,000 electric Leafs a year in three years, and hopes 10 percent of the world auto fleet could be electric in 10 years. That would be huge – but it still leaves us with a lot of people driving, and a lot of people needing oil to do it.

The Zipcar survey suggests that teenagers, in particular, may not need a car as much as they used to.  The American Graffiti-era hanging out that used to require piling six teens into a car and driving around aimlessly now can be done on Facebook.

Fair enough. Once you're out of school, however, you're still going to need to get to work, and given the state of public transit in this country, that's going to mean driving for most people.

Public Agenda's Energy Learning Curve survey found people aren't necessarily wedded to the way they drive now. They're open to ways of changing their driving habits, and during the gas price spike of 2008, majorities said they were willing to carpool, cut back on leisure driving, or accept a lower speed limit.

But they don't want to be forced into change—especially not by hitting them in the wallet. The Energy Learning Curve, among other surveys, shows that most Americans reject raising gas taxes, congestion pricing, or setting a floor under fuel prices. Given the financial pressure Americans face today, it’s not hard to understand why the gas tax is so reviled.

A change in how Americans feel about their cars isn't impossible, but it isn't absolutely necessary, either, at least when it comes to changing how we use energy.  Whether people love their cars or just tolerate them, they still need a genuine alternative they can afford and that will get them where they need to be. Getting people into electrics, hybrids or alternative fuel cars still means big investments in infrastructure, and the country would have to make a lot of decisions to enable it to happen.  Same goes for more high-speed rail,  and making public transportation a more appealing option in cities where it stands a good chance of working.

These are long-term strategies, but they still might be faster than waiting for a love affair to die out. After all, plenty of couples stay together for practical reasons long after the flames of romance are long gone.