Driving In America

2 June 2020

Uneasy Riders: Why Americans Will Reluctantly Fall In Love With Driving Again

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Road Trip Lover; photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash…

Last year I participated in a study by Ford about the future of driving. The interviewer asked me what I thought Ford should do now that young adults no longer want to own cars or even get a license. (Ford was in such a panic that they wasted money on invested in a scooter-rental company.)

My answer: don’t worry, drivers will be back…

Here’s the scoop:

Many young adults claim that they don’t want to drive because…

  1. They’re living in big cities filled with public transportation and black market ride sharing options.
  2. They’re financially challenged, and owning a car in the big city has never been more expensive. We urbanites have to take out a loan just to secure a parking space. (Barely kidding: USC charges me $14/day to park on campus, and I work there.)

So, yes, it made perfect sense that they would rather not put their limited funds into vehicle ownership.

But give it time, I said.

First, young adults are getting better jobs, and to impress their dates/golf-club buddies/boss, they can’t show up in an Uber.

Second, they’re spawning, and raising a child in the big city has also never been more expensive. The suburbs are already beckoning with their spacious homes (“For the price of an L.A. condo, we can buy three houses?!”), safe neighborhoods, and well-funded public schools. So young parents are flocking to suburbia, where pub crawls are out, and soccer practice carpools are in.

Hello, minivan.

I did err by telling Ford that new car sales would bounce back. Little did I expect that, one year later, we would have a pandemic, a recession, and various other horsemen of the apocalypse. Who can afford that new car smell now?

But, lo, what’s that smoke on the horizon…

Used cars — and lots of them.

Here’s why…

  • Car rental companies are declaring bankruptcy since the pandemic wiped out tourism and business travel. That’s a lot of used cars hitting the market at once, driving down prices.
  • For people staying in the city, those who can avoid public transportation will. Mmm, petri dishes on wheels. No thanks.
  • And forget Uber and Lyft, which were already in precarious financial shape before urbanites got quarantined and learned the joys of Zooming to work. Even after most businesses re-open, my students tell me they have no interest in hopping in a car with a stranger who’s been picking up other strangers. (And I found “ride sharing” creepy before humans could kill each other with an air kiss.)
  • Finally, bring on Moses — the migration to the ‘burbs and smaller cities will turn into a exodus. Urban living — as seen from a proper social distance — has lost its glimmer.

So who scores in all this?

Sorry, Ford, you’re still going to hurt, because new car sales will get further postponed. P.S. That scooter option doesn’t look like a bright move, either.

And, no, the used car dealers won’t be that profitable, either, since there’s too much supply.

The high scorer will be car insurance companies. They were already making a killing during the quarantine with few people driving and the number of accidents plummeting. They offered customers some paltry rebates that didn’t even cover the cost of hand sanitizer. Now, they’ll be signing on new customers, many in the relatively accident-free, theft-free suburbs.

Another scorer will be roadside attractions. Travelers will still hesitate to hop a plane (petri dishes in the sky). And recessions usually compel consumers to turn vacations into staycations. All those new suburbanites, liberated with their own wheels and bored to tears in their residential cul-de-sacs, will hit the road for relatively close, relatively affordable diversions. Vegas, anyone?

In short, when I see the future, I picture the 70s.

Let it roll…

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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