It’s Not Car Culture Any More, It’s Phone Culture

By Micheline Maynard

The Columbia Journalism Review gave us a forum this month to talk about Curbing Cars. Its editors also weighed in on the way mainstream media covers the transportation story.

Curbing Cars is featured in the November/December issue of Columbia Journalism Review

Curbing Cars is featured in the November/December issue of Columbia Journalism Review

It notes that the automobile industry spends $14.8 billion (yes, with a “b”) on advertising last year, making it the second biggest category behind technology and communications. Cars are the single-biggest television category.

Given that, it’s no wonder that newspapers, magazines and TV networks lavish coverage on the car companies. But that’s happening at a time when the public is turning away from automobiles as a preoccupation to many other activities.

“Much of transportation coverage, meanwhile, remains stalled in the 20th century,” CJR writes in this editorial.

“We cover Detroit as though it were 1993, not 2013. A story about transportation infrastructure typically means the sorry condition of bridges and roadways. In 2011, published a “How-to” column about covering transportation that could have been written 30 years ago.” Of course, there are lots of exceptions, including places that have been friendly to Curbing Cars. Says CJR: “The San Francisco Chronicle has its Bay Area Transit blog; in Portland The Oregonian’s Joseph Rose covers “the science and culture of traffic, transit, and bicycling”; and New York’s WNYC has Transportation Nation. At the national level, The Atlantic Cities regularly reports on many of the issues that comprise the emerging “mobility” beat, and in August NPR broadcast a monthlong series on the changing relationship between Millennials and cars. So the story is out there, but it is sporadic and diffuse.”

CJR suggests that instead of the automobile beat, publications think about covering the mobility beat. Like our project, that would allow them to write and broadcast about everything from bike sharing and car sharing to all the apps that allow people to order vehicles at will.

As a CJR commenter said, “It’s not a car culture any more, it’s a phone culture.”

Of course, the automobile industry isn’t going anywhere, as we’re constantly saying, but we have seen the emergence of “driving light,” where people get behind the wheel when necessary, and use other modes when they don’t need their car.

Says CJR: “The transportation story is coming from the bottom up, driven in part by innovative mayors and other city officials, but also by the changing behavior of people who imagine a more sustainable way to live.”




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