October 22, 2010 11:10 pm

I may, finally, be the man of the future

Cars are losing their status symbols to climate change, obesity and traffic jams

I somehow got a driving licence, but have hardly ever dared use it, and so I’m a non-driver. That has lowered my social status even below what it otherwise would have been. In my life I’ve found myself the only pedestrian in Los Angeles, and the only white pedestrian in Johannesburg. Begging lifts from acquaintances, I’d end up in the back seat like an eight-year-old. In the mating game too, non-driving was a handicap. “I’ll swing by your place on the Bakerloo line” lacks a certain ring.

Yet now something is changing. Driving is going out of fashion. Cars are ceasing to be status symbols. I may finally be the man of the future.

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Simon Kuper

We can now see that the car’s supremacy lasted almost exactly 100 years. When Ford’s Model T was launched in 1908, ordinary people gained unprecedented mobility. Driving, in the days of the open road, was fun. Drivers were called “motorists”, as if it were a hobby.

The car let people live anywhere, and so city centres lost status to the suburbs. Le Corbusier was slightly ahead of the game with his plans to tear down Paris to make way for the car in the 1920s, but something similar later happened in Brussels and other cities. City centres hit bottom in 1975, when President Ford refused to save New York City from bankruptcy, and New York’s Daily News headlined, “Ford to city: drop dead.” From then into the millennium, westerners just kept driving more.

Worse, from James Bond downwards, they derived their status from their cars. Simon Veksner, creative director at the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, who has produced campaigns for Audi and Volkswagen, says, “The car is probably the most significant badge we wear, because it’s one we’ve invested a lot of money in. It’s very visible. It completely surrounds us when we’re in it. It’s parked outside our house.”

The car’s long rise ended in 2000, when sales of new cars peaked at 17.4m in the country designed for them, the US. Around that time the infatuation with power reached a self-parodic peak with the SUV.

The car has been shedding status ever since. We now blame it for climate change, obesity and traffic jams. Almost every car journey takes longer than it did 20 years ago. Crucially, the trendiest early adopters in revived city centres like Manhattan and central London have begun ditching cars. Cities are currently regaining status from suburbs, and the city centres where house prices have remained most robust are the ones with the fewest cars. In these places the car is becoming an outdated mode of transport, like the donkey. Increasingly, a driving city is a dysfunctional city: contrast Caracas with Zurich. The new hip urban mode of transport is the bicycle.

No wonder that when recession hit, car sales in the west fell way out of proportion to economic decline. In the US, for instance, car sales marked the Model T’s centenary by diving 35 per cent from 2007 to 2009.

Of course most westerners still drive. Cars aren’t going anywhere (and certainly not anywhere fast). But people no longer seem to be buying second cars, or new fancy cars when the old one still works fine. True, people in the developing world are driving in ever greater numbers, but that reduces both the status and usefulness of cars. The more people who drive, the slower your car goes.

Moreover, drivers are buying different kinds of cars. Veksner says car ads have moved away from the themes of “power and performance”. Fewer commercials now show cars surging along empty roads into the sunset. Instead, he says, “cars try to position themselves as high-tech”, or they proclaim their fuel efficiency.

These changes further diminish the car’s status. What set the car apart from all your other possessions was that it moved fastest. It was your horse, your virile roaring speedster. Once a car becomes just a pretty tech gadget, you might as well have an iPad instead. And drivers can hardly derive status from how green their cars are, because that would be like saying, “Look how safe my bomb is.” Once cars lose speed and power, they become unglamorous everyday tools, like washing machines, and nobody, presumably, derives status from their washing machine.

Strictly in the interests of research, I recently visited the Paris Motor Show. Almost all the punters were men. Few women, apparently, seek to extend their personalities through their cars. Yet size, speed and power were decreasingly on offer. In the old days, cars were Cadillacs with tailfins, or converted army tanks. Tomorrow’s cars are tiny. The Renault Twizy, for instance, in which the passenger rides in tandem behind the driver, looks like a children’s dodgem car. But the most chilling vision of the future, if you are a motorist, was the electric Mini Scooter. “The first Mini on two wheels,” its slogan proclaimed. That is the future of cars: scooters. My day will come.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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