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Margaret Wente (Kevin Van Paassen)
Margaret Wente (Kevin Van Paassen)

Margaret Wente

Object of desire or necessary evil? Add to ...

Just south of the Globe building in Toronto is a thicket of shiny new glass towers reaching toward the sky. These are the dwellings of the Condo People - hip young multiracial 20- and 30-somethings who labour in our city's knowledge industries. They have all the stuff you can fit into an 800-square-foot condo - iPods, iPhones, flat-screen TVs, and (for couples) fluffy little condo-sized dogs.

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What they do not have is cars.

They don't need them. They can walk to work, or take the subway. If they need a car, they can walk up the street and rent one for 11 bucks an hour. Not only is a car not a necessity for them. It's an expensive nuisance.

These people are bad news for the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that car sales will soar again once the recession is over. The conventional wisdom is that if only Detroit designed cars that people liked, its problems (and ours) would be over.

"Loving your car is what it's all about," pronounced an ABC-TV reporter the other day.

But maybe the problem in the auto industry are far deeper than that. Maybe our love affair with cars is over.

"I owned cars for years. I loved cars," says a 41-year-old man I know. He lives in a downtown neighbourhood with his wife and two kids.

"I had a Honda Civic. I slapped the nice rims on it, and the racing tires. I had it for 10 years. But then it started to break down, and I started to dislike it. My wife and I said, this is the perfect opportunity to see if we can live without a car. "

That was three years ago. So far, so good.

Ever since I can remember, North America has been dominated by car culture. When I was little, my dad could be relied on to drive home a brand-new set of wheels every two years. I distinctly remember a powder-blue Chevy with tail fins (I must have been around 7) that I thought was particularly fine. Families would get their pictures taken standing next to their new car, in the same way that new immigrants would pose with their refrigerators. It showed the folks back home that they had made it.

Life without a car was inconceivable, unless you were a student or extremely poor. It was a passage into adulthood. It was the first thing you got after university, especially if you were a guy. My first car was an elderly white Peugeot that only started if you pointed it downhill. It cost me $500. It was rear-ended beyond repair very quickly, which is a good thing because it was a death-trap. In spite of several half-hearted resolutions to live without a car, I have owned one ever since.

Fifteen years ago, it was almost unimaginable for a middle-aged, middle-class family man not to own a car. Such a person would have been regarded as mildly eccentric. But today, I seem to be surrounded by them.

"The reasons I don't own a car are largely selfish," says a colleague, who is a 44-year-old father of one. For starters, he hates driving in traffic. It's a major stressor. So he lives in the city and commutes to work by bike. Then there's the expense. He figures that owning and operating a car costs a minimum of $8,000 a year. Every year he tallies up the family's total spending on public transit, taxis and car rentals. He always comes out ahead. Then there's the nuisance factor. "I love not having a big hunk of metal to look after," he says. "There's freedom in not owning a vehicle."

Wait a minute. Isn't freedom the very thing that cars used to stand for?

Today, freedom is defined by Zipcar and Autoshare. Both offer short-term car rental without the hassles.

Zipcar has more than 300,000 members in North America, up from 200,000 a year ago. Scott Griffith, Zipcar's chief executive, figures that for every three members, a new car probably goes unsold. "[People]are much smarter about spending money and looking for ways that don't even involve cars any more," he told The New York Times.

It's not just sales of American cars that have tanked. Honda and Toyota have tanked too. Toyota lost $7.1-billion (U.S.) in the first three months of this year. Car sales per driver are the lowest since 1970, and some experts do not expect them ever to return to the debt-fuelled levels they reached before.

The demographics aren't so hot either. The engine of the car industry has been the boomers. When their kids were younger they bought minivans, and after that they bought SUVs. People's spending on cars peaks when they are in their late 40s and early 50s. But now, the early boomers are entering their 60s and beginning to retire, if they can. Guess what? A lot of households don't need two cars any more. On top of that, automobiles have become so durable that you can get 150,000 or 200,000 kilometres out of them if you want. That's not good for new-car sales.

For most of us, cars aren't much of a status marker any more. They're more like an appliance, like a fridge or a stove. You can get a Sub-Zero one or a six-burner one, but their basic function is the same as the cheaper models. I no longer expect my car to make my heart beat fast. I merely expect it to get decent mileage and to start every single time I turn the key. It's really just a very big, very costly appliance with a cup-holder.

The sale of GM's Hummer division to the Chinese strikes me as an apt metaphor for our changing times. The Hummer (which was virtually invented by Arnold Schwarzenegger) was the ultimate macho car - the wheeled embodiment of outsize ego and swaggering masculinity. It was a product of the American empire at its peak. But now, with America humbled, it stands for arrogance, deliberate disregard for the environment, and wretched excess. The Hummer is a car for the vulgar nouveaux riches. And these days, China probably has a bigger vulgar nouveau-riche class than does the United States.

In the popular consciousness, the automobile has gone from object of desire to necessary evil almost overnight. "There's a part of me that believes the invention of the car was one of the worst things for civilization," says my colleague, the contented cyclist. "It's caused incredible pollution, it's made cities too big, and it's created ugly highways. Besides, not owning a car is a really substantial way to cut down on your energy use."

I don't entirely agree with him. I think the car has been a tremendous force for personal liberation, progress and opportunity. But these days there are more and more people who agree with him and fewer and fewer who agree with me.

"Maybe we'll need a car again one day - if my daughter takes up hockey," says the father of two. "I still love cars, but I don't feel I have to own one."

 

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