Automobiles: Yesterday's status symbol

End of the love affair: The automobile's last gasp?

Why waste our time here when we could go to a motel?
Why waste our time here when we could go to a motel?

About the only good news coming out of Detroit these days is the upturn in sales of the Big Three U.S automakers. General Motors sold 24 percent more cars in July 2013 than in July 2012; Chrysler sold 13.7 percent more; and Ford 4.4 percent more.

This is all very encouraging until you realize that part of the reason for the increase is because these companies are building better cars, and consequently Americans are holding onto them for an average of 11 years— much longer than used to be the case even a few years ago.

Also, people who buy cars buy them because they actually have to drive somewhere. In an age of $4-a-gallon gas, tooling around in a gas-guzzler has become a luxury many people can happily do without.

Portable bedroom

In major cities, bicycling has become increasingly popular; car-sharing companies like Zipcar are growing in popularity; and public transportation is now cheaper and often even faster than having one's own wheels, as anyone negotiating through midtown Manhattan can readily attest. Even teenagers— for whom a car was once an indispensable rite of passage as well as a portable bedroom— have fallen out of love with wheels, according to recent surveys.

All of which could herald an ultimate downturn in automotive sales. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats have said they want all gas driven automobiles off the roads by 2040. The green movement in general casts a jaundiced eye on the car. For city dwellers, there's the daily hassle of finding a parking spot, to say nothing of steep fines leveled by marauding bands of parking meter attendants.

Making a statement

There was a time when owning a car made a statement about who you were. Today, increasingly, not owning one makes an even bolder one.

My eight-year-old Acura TL boasts fewer than 40,000 miles; that's less than 5,000 miles a year. While it languishes, pristine, in its Center City garage, its owners walk, take the bus and save on gas, insurance and maintenance fees.

It also means we can bask in the glow of our parsimonious virtue. That should be good news in the long run for the country, but bad news in the short run for Detroit's economic prospects.

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