Almost as soon as they started rolling off the assembly lines, automobiles became synonymous with freedom. And in the post-World War II boom our relationship with cars intensified.
It was about horsepower, status, being American, and for young people: rebellion. For generations cars inspired countless songs, books and movies. But now there are signs that our car culture is losing some of its shine.
The iconic 1973 film American Graffiti celebrated the deep relationship between American teen culture and the automobile back in the early 1960s. But that was 40 years ago, and a lot has changed since those days.
Studies show that teenagers are driving less, getting their licenses later, and waiting longer to purchase their first new car. NPR's Sonari Glinton recently hit the streets to find out why, and discovered not having a car or not being able to afford one, has become a lot more common. The negative stigma around not having a car has also seems to have waned.
"My girlfriend drives me everywhere. That sounds sad, and 20 years ago I'd be considered pathetic, but it's almost normal now to be that way," says Mike Clubb, who is in his 20s.
Micheline Maynard, a veteran journalist who's covered automobiles and transportation issues, now oversees the website CurbingCars.com. She tells NPR's Don Gonyea that one of the most cited reasons behind this trend of young people waiting to get a car or their driver's license is simply not having the time.
"Many states have now changed teen driving laws, so you have to spend a certain amount of time in the car with a parent," Maynard says. "And people just shrug and say, 'You know what, I don't need to get a license right now.' "
Another reason often cited is money. Maynard says the average cost of a new car is about $30,000, before factoring in car insurance. Add in the high price of gas in some places and owning a car is simply too expensive for a young person.
There are also more transportation options available for those without a car, Maynard notes, from bikes, to ride shares, hourly car services and public transportation.
"Public transit is seeing record demand at this point in time," she says. "I think people are looking at transportation now as 'I use my car when I need it, but if there are other cheaper, faster ways to get somewhere I'll use that as well.' "
All of this has car companies scratching their heads, Maynard says, about how to appeal to new and potential drivers.
People and families used to identify with the cars they drove. Car culture was huge just a few decades ago, but the shift away from that is what has created less emphasis on getting a car early, Maynard says.
"The automobile has shifted from a subject of adoration from most of the public, to something that's adored by a portion of the public," she says. "What we're seeing now is a move of the car out of people's hearts and into the garage — perhaps where they should have been all along."
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