The rise of SUV nation(s)

A look at the impact of increased SUV sales on the environment includes a short history of the rise of the vehicle category:

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

SUVs raced to a new milestone in 2019, surpassing 40 percent of all car sales worldwide for the first time. The world’s roads, parking lots, and garages now contain more than 200 million SUVs, eight times the number from a decade ago. SUVs’ share of car sales in the U.K. has tripled over the past 10 years; in Germany last year, 1 in 3 cars sold was an SUV…

This global phenomenon has its roots and impetus in the U.S., where in the 1980s the car industry carved out a new category called the “sport-utility vehicle”, a sort of mashup between a truck, a minivan, and the traditional American family car. After successfully lobbying lawmakers to class these vehicles as light trucks rather than cars, binding SUVs to less stringent fuel efficiency standards, the industry set aboutslotting them into almost every arena of American life…

The industry found that American drivers enjoy the lofty seating position of SUVs as well as the capacity and the comforting feel of security their bulk provides, even if half of all journeys taken in the U.S. are mundane trips of under 3 miles to run errands rather than high-octane adventures in the Rocky Mountains. For many Americans, SUVs invoke alluring qualities of fortitude and independence…

As Bloomberg’s Nat Bullard noted in a recent tweet: “We don’t buy cars here. We buy big cars built on truck bodies, and we buy trucks and drive them like cars.” The U.S. is now indisputably an SUV nation, a transformation that has had profound consequences for American cities as well as the global climate.

A few thoughts:

  1. This timeline roughly lines up with connection I have found in my years of studying McMansions: SUVs and McMansions can be viewed as related phenomena. They are both large and represent increases in size from typical earlier versions. The 1980s appears to be a key decade with a bigger economy, plenty of spending, and a growing emphasis on larger consumer goods. And those SUVs may need a three car McMansion garage to fit.
  2. There are hints here but there are also links to a suburban lifestyle that is largely structured around driving and short trips. Granted, just because Americans live in a sprawling landscape does not necessarily mean they need large vehicles to get around; they could use smaller cars. Yet, all that driving – even for relatively short distances – means Americans get lots of time to think about vehicles and what they want to have (and need to have to access many places).
  3. It is interesting to note that SUV sales and use are up in other countries as well. SUVs are often tied to American interests in driving and size; what explains increased sales in Germany and the UK? Car makers could be pushing these vehicles more and why are drivers more itnerested now than earlier?

McMansions, SUVs, and megachurches

I recently reviewed the book The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry by sociologists Mark Mulder and Gerardo Martí. As the authors describe Schuller’s emphasis on growth, they include this line on page four:

TheGlassChurchP4

As I studied the use of the term McMansion in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I found people regularly linked McMansions to SUVs. As the cited passage above suggests, McMansions and SUVs came about at the same time. Perhaps some would go even further and say McMansion owners are likely to be SUV owners or the two consumer goods are likely to be found in the same communities or kinds of places. And, like the passage above, the comparisons could go further than SUVs to include large food items.

Rarely have I seen the growth of McMansions and the growth of single-family homes in the United States connected to megachurches. A similar argument could be made: in a period of growth as Americans liked to consume bigger items in bigger settings with providers happy to produce larger goods, McMansions and megachurches came about or became widely recognized at roughly the same time (McMansions built in the closing decades of the 1900s and as a term widely used by the early 2000s; megachurch as a phenomenon known by the 1980s). As everything grew and appetites expanded, so did churches. And maybe megachurches were likely to spring up in or near McMansion filled suburban communities flush with money, family life, and access to highways.

At least in this study, Robert Schuller was enamored with growth decades before McMansions became a thing. Mulder and Martí suggest Schuller pushed for growth in order to encourage more growth; previous accomplishments became evidence for pursuing and fulfilling future accomplishments (until it could no longer hold together). Yet, Schuller was well-positioned in a booming suburban area: he arrived in Orange County in the 1950s and capitalized on the growing population and appetite for large churches in a way that few other religious leaders could match.

Now, linking these multiple phenomena together would take some more work. Were Orange County McMansion owners more likely to attend a megachurch? Is this a pattern throughout the United States? Did an ideology of growth pervade many sectors at the same time and mutually reinforce each other or explicitly intersect at points?

Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Need bigger garages and parking spaces for bigger vehicles

Americans’ interest in bigger vehicles means more space needs to be devoted to their storage:

Across America, the drive for bigger vehicles is bumping into physical limitations. SUVs and pickups are getting so large that they’re struggling to fit into some home and parking garages and public parking spaces.

Homeowners may need to think twice about purchasing larger vehicles, while parking lot operators are starting to charge oversize fees to accommodate behemoth SUVs and trucks…

“Nowadays, there’s people buying Dodge Rams, Ford pickups that don’t fit, and they’ll park them outside,” he said. “The difference here is this is an electric vehicle and … you need to plug it in. I’m not gonna spend $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 on a vehicle and then have to run an extension cord outside the garage or an outside outlet.”…

While larger vehicles may pose some inconveniences, Americans don’t seem too bothered by it overall, at least if the vehicles being introduced by automakers are any indication.

This goes along with the idea that Americans should buy bigger houses to help store their stuff!

I first noticed this last year on a trip to New York City. In looking ahead of time for a parking garage, I saw that garages charged more for oversized vehicles. The article notes that this is largely confined to New York City but from other recent experiences seeing large vehicles in parking garages in the Chicago area, I would not be surprised if this idea spreads.

Another casualty to these large vehicles: lanes on roads and highways. A bigger vehicle means it takes up more of a lane, particularly on roadways with narrower lanes and tighter conditions. There is also less room for drifting from going straight ahead.

There is a focus in some places of reducing the number of parking spots as communities have long had generous numbers of spots compared to the average number of parkers. It would be interesting to see how a reduction in the number of parking spots might clash with a need to create bigger spots (which would take up more space per spot).

Contrasting tiny weddings to reduced interest in McMansions and SUVs

I first read about “tiny weddings” yesterday – and the lede suggested they are the opposite of consuming big items:

Big SUVs, McMansions and the term “bigger is better” are all things that used to connote living your best life. Now, consumers are shifting to the opposite end of that spectrum, including those who want to tie the knot.

Tiny weddings (aka microweddings) are a growing trend for couples who want to have their special day with less worry and spend less money (think $2,000 to $3,000) at a time when annual reports like those from The Knot state that the national average cost of a wedding is $33,931. The smaller ideal also comes at a time when families are picking up less of the tab for the big day and student-loan debt is infringing on wedding dreams and goals. The tiny wedding limits the numbers of attendees. The average wedding in the U.S. has 126 guests, according to the WeddingWire 2019 Newlywed Report.

To some degree, McMansions and SUVs are back. And linking the two might be in vogue for a long time.

But there is a bigger question at play here: is the suggestion correct that Americans are now less interested in purchasing big items? I have heard this for years: Americans are past the garishness and ostentatious purchases of the 1980s through the early 2000s. They learned their lessons about too much debt, too much emphasis on material objects, and the impact on social life. They are now more interested in consuming experiences than items. They want to live simpler, less cluttered lives. Tiny houses are in, McMansions out.

At the same time, with an economy that slowly recovered after the housing bubble of the late 2000s is this true in regards to SUVs and McMansions? Both are expensive, particularly compared to other options in their categories. They both have their critics and these criticisms have dogged them for decades. Yet, both seem to be thriving among the sectors of the buying public that like them. Both appear to have a future. If Americans continue to desire single-family homes and there are still forces arranged to push them toward large homes, McMansions will continue.

Twenty-first century American life: McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities

An argument that the first decade of the twenty-first century never really ended includes citing McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities as part of our current world:

You might be tempted to cap the perceptual 2000s in late 2008, when Obama was elected president and the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed, taking down the housing market and much of the American economy with them. That collapse ended the tacky prosperity of the early 2000s, a period when the McMansion flourished, cheap gas fueled a love affair with giant SUVs, and pop culture was overrun with paparazzi shots of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan falling out of Los Angeles nightclubs while wearing low-rise jeans and trucker hats. Meanwhile, Facebook was metastasizing beyond college students, sculpting the basic contours of the digital environment much of the world now lives in. In hindsight, the moment in 2007 when the pop princess Britney Spears cracked under the paparazzi glare, attacked a car with an umbrella, and shaved her head feels like foreshadowing of the cultural brink to come, when none of this would feel so innocent or breezy.

The pairing of McMansions and SUVs continues. Both are still alive and well. Americans continue to purchase large vehicles and like driving (at least compared to alternatives). At the same time, Americans generally desire the largest new houses in the world. While housing prices may be really high in some urban markets, many still desire a starter home and suburban life.

Adding pop culture to this pair is an interesting choice. Do all three of these together suggest bigger is better or that consumption of all things – cars, homes, and people/celebrities – is what Americans want to see and experience? We have many images of celebrities driving around in expensive SUVs and living in large homes. As Americans in general like the idea of large homes, those in the public eye seem to gravitate toward large and showy homes. Their residences, such as those of sports stars and Hollywood stars, are usually beyond what the average American could buy (as are most McMansions).

These three together are likely not going to age well: do people need such large homes, large vehicles, and news about celebrities? Will future generations see this all as rampant excess and problematic? Yet, it is hard to see a future where Americans turn away from each of these three interests: new homes might be slightly smaller than in the recent past but a big shift has not occurred, driving is still necessary for most people to attain success, and celebrities allow consumers to consume people rather than created products.

Mapping vehicle emissions in the Chicago metropolitan region

The New York Times maps and discusses vehicle emissions across American metropolitan areas:

ChicagoVehicleEmissionsMap

Even as the United States has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from its electric grid, largely by switching from coal power to less-polluting natural gas, emissions from transportation have remained stubbornly high.

The bulk of those emissions, nearly 60 percent, come from the country’s 250 million passenger cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Freight trucks contribute an additional 23 percent…

Suburban driving, including commuting, has been a major contributor to the expanding carbon footprint of urban areas, Dr. Gately said.

But, he added, “Even in the densest cities, the vast majority of trips still happen in a motor vehicle.” These trips include work commutes, school drop-offs and millions of other daily errands as well as freight deliveries and other business traffic, each of which contribute to planetary warming.

The United States has organized much of its society around driving. Plus, many Americans like driving or the benefits they believe driving offers. It will be hard to enact quick large-scale changes to this though smaller efforts (such as fleets of electric vehicles or denser suburban areas) could add up to change over time.

The data from the Chicago area is interesting. Like most metro areas, the emissions are centered on major highways with some of the areas with most emissions being the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, I-88 at I-294, and I-88 at I-355 (these are likely areas with high levels of congestion and gridlock). From the maps, it is hard to know how much of the emissions come from freight trucks but I would imagine the proportion could be high in the Chicago area given its central location, highways, and intermodal facilities. Chicago ranks 5th in total emissions – behind New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston – and the per-person emissions ranks on the low end of metropolitan areas. Although the region is the third largest metropolitan region in the United States, it does have more mass transit than a number of other regions.

More Prii at which location: Whole Foods on a weekend or an arboretum on Earth Day weekend?

A recent experience at the Morton Arboretum led me to this question regarding where I was more likely to see Toyota Prii:

-The parking lot for Whole Foods on a weekend

-At the arboretum on Earth Day weekend

Since certain lifestyle and consumption choices are tied to other lifestyle patterns (for example: TV shows), connecting Prius owners to these two places may not be that surprising. One study had this to say about small car owners:

Small Car: Prius, Honda Civic, Smart Car
According to a study by researchers at UC Davis, “What type of vehicle do people drive?
The role of attitude and lifestyle in influencing vehicle type choice,” small car drivers are more pro-environmental and prefer higher density neighborhoods than drivers of others types of cars. This isn’t surprising; if you live in a big city, it’s simply easier to park with a small car and if you’re concerned about the environment, you’ll want something that’s more fuel-efficient. Small car drivers, unlike other categories of drivers, don’t necessarily see their cars as a ticket to freedom. They aren’t workaholics or status seekers who try to display wealth. They want to lessen their impact on the earth and have a reliable car—and find a parking spot.

When considering the number of Prii at the arboretum, there were also a large number of vans and SUVs, vehicles less friendly toward the environment. Can a driver claim to be an environmentalist while also driving a large vehicle? Is a Prius a special badge of honor?

Where is the evidence? McMansion owners “favor” Cadillac Escalades

The connections between SUVs and McMansions continue: this article features a list of traits of Cadillac Escalade owners and their favored kind of housing.

The Escalade has long dominated the Navigator both in sales and cultural currency. Check out this list of Ten Seriously Dope Cadillac-Inspired Hip Hop Tracks. Indeed, the Escalade has long been a favored ride of the hip-hop crowd, pro athletes, Wall Streeters, business owners, drug kingpins and “McMansion” owners…

Who’s buying these hulking SUVs, according to the data? Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for KBB.com, says it’s more than just the bling and business tycoon sets. “The Escalade and Navigator shoppers on kbb.com are very similar, leaning heavily toward a domestic, family-oriented mindset. But the Escalade buyer tends toward techie side, so if the new Navigator is stacking up well against Escalade on the telematics interface, Cadillac could have its hands full.”…

The market for large luxury SUVs is as well established as cigars, expensive brandy and coal furnaces. Even these harsh words from Consumer Reports can’t dampen the enthusiasm for these vehicles among the rich and brash. “This hulking SUV can comfortably accommodate seven, effortlessly tow more than 4 tons, and practically cast the shadow of the Queen Mary II. While the Navigator pampers you with power everything and a rich interior ambience, a few details detract from the idea of embracing this almost $90,000 behemoth.”

That people of different class statuses purchase different brands and models is well-established, going back to the General Motors brand for every buyer as well as more academic studies showing different tastes among different social classes. What I would want to see in this case involves something more: where is the data that shows McMansion owners favor Escalades over Navigators? Or, that people who own Escalades are more likely to live in McMansions than other kinds of homes?

This is not the first time McMansions have been connected to Escalades. For example, take the New York Times. From a July 2001 story:

There are those who are drawn to the Escalade simply because it is so far over the top. You see them pulling up to McMansions in the suburbs and to hip-hop clubs downtown, making a statement before the truck comes to a halt. On the flip side, it is not hard to find people who are appalled, sometimes with fanatical fervor, by what the Escalade represents. Glaring from subcompacts or crosswalks, they seem to hold this hulk of metal responsible for global warming and dolphins in tuna nets.

Or an October 2005 review of a Lincoln SUV subtitled “A McTruck for the McMansion“:

The Mark LT is priced thousands below its prime competitor, the Cadillac Escalade EXT, but the equipment list shows why. The Caddy has 45 more horsepower and comes only with full-time four-wheel drive. (Lincoln’s system is part time, and costs extra.) Lincoln doesn’t offer a navigation system, air-conditioned seats, traction assist, stability control or power folding mirrors. Its power seats have manual recliners.

Or a January 2014 story titled “In Housing, Big is Back”:

Affluent buyers are drawn to new homes in part because the market for existing homes is so competitive, said Stephen Kim, a Barclays analyst. Inventories of existing homes for sale remain low, and buyers are less interested in large homes in far-flung developments — the McMansions of the exurbs that were emblematic of the boom and bust…

In April 2012, they selected a model costing about $850,000 from a luxury builder and chose a number of standard options for an additional $650,000. Ms. Sleep, who was in the process of selling the software firm she founded nearly two decades earlier, added a wall of windows to the basement and furnished it with a pool table, a media room, a wet bar, a home office and a suite for their youngest daughter to use when she was home from college.

They added a second master bedroom suite, on the ground level, for use when they are older and stairs become tougher to climb. They upgraded floors, carpeting and molding, added a sunroom and a large deck and supersized the garage door to fit Ms. Sleep’s Cadillac Escalade. The home’s lighting and temperature, as well as media on any of 14 televisions and the sound system, can be controlled remotely.

I get that it takes a certain amount of wealth to own either an Escalade or McMansion – and linking McMansions to wealthy people is common – but I have yet to see more evidence that McMansion owners prefer Escalades.

Back to the SUV and McMansion comparisons

With a stronger economy, it may be time now again to link McMansions and SUVs. Here is one review of “gargantuan SUVs” or “extra-large luxury SUVs”:

But when you drive one like the new 2018 Lincoln Navigator (starting at $73,250), you start to understand why these whales of the highway are a rare yet growing subgenome of the SUV originally created in the heady days of the late ’90s. (Sales were up 5 percent in 2017.) They have become less McMansion, less family trucksters gussied up in questionable leather and wood veneers, and more bespoke luxury condo—the mobile living room for sophisticates with a growing brood that they always tried to be.

Space is a luxury, sure. But the stretch-your-legs-out room and cushy rear-seat experience that would normally require a first-class Emirates ticket? That’s a rare kind of decadence on the road that the Navigator handles with surprising grace. The interior is a treat for grown-ups (copious soundproofing, massage seats) and their kids (it can take up to ten WiFi connections).

Three quick thoughts:

  1. There is still an emphasis on space in these comparisons. SUVs and McMansions both provide significant amounts of room compared to the typical vehicle or home.
  2. Both are luxury goods that are a step up from the normal experience. Yet, the line that these newer SUVs are less McMansion and more luxury condo suggests their opulence is more acceptable. Indeed, it is okay to spend a lot of money for a flashy urban condo while the suburban McMansion is still looked down upon.
  3. Are we sure that the SUV and McMansion are the mass consumer goods that mark this era (roughly late 1990s to now) of American life? To critics, they represent wasted resources as well as American conspicuous consumption. The cell phone becomes popular over this time period but not until the smartphone of the late 2000s does it reach its peak.

I will keep looking for the comparisons of SUVs and McMansions. At the least, they suggest the economy is back to the point where more Americans are making or considering these purchases.