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Can Pop Culture Push Sustainable Mobility?
Zooey Deschanel's character in "(500) Days of Summer" makes Los Angeles trains look hip. Photo via IMDB.

Zooey Deschanel's character in (500) Days of Summer plays up the coolness factor of Southern California's trains. Photo via IMDB.

Popular culture shapes our lives in countless ways, both directly and subconsciously.  Since Leave It to Beaver, American popular culture has been deeply rooted in car-centered suburbia.  That may be changing.

There was a time when being car-less was tantamount to wearing head gear: totally uncool.  Truth be told, that time is still now in many places, but there’s a true shift beginning to take hold.  As young families, professionals and students eschew surburban lifestyles for transit-oriented city dwelling, popular culture seems to be catching on.  And where pop culture goes, we can hope, so will the masses.

Back in July, Slate.com published an intriguing article, “How not having a car became Hollywood shorthand for loser, detailing the history of movie dweebs who walk, ride bikes or take transit, from Pee Wee Herman to as recent as Steve Carrell’s character in The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Vanderbilt points out a mindset shift may be starting in Hollywood, though. Last year’s (500) Days of Summer features two affable young professionals who get around Southern California using a whole host of travel modes, even using the train to travel to San Diego.

The fashion world may be catching on as well.  Clothing mega-producer Gap recently introduced a new line of women’s shoe called the City Flat.  This “Walkable” shoe is designed for “the girl on-the-go.”  It doesn’t take a market analyst to figure out these shoes aren’t aimed at the 1980s-stlye career woman who drives from her Upper West Side condo to the parking garage in her Downtown Manhattan office building.

Yesterday, GOOD posted about shoemaker Rockport’s new shoe line and ad campaign called WALKABILITY, centering on a commercial that features attractive city dwellers sitting in bus stops, passing up taxi cabs, and, well, walking everywhere.  The very first image on the campaign’s website after all prominently features streetcar tracks:

Advertisement from Rockport.

Advertisement from Rockport.

In another video explaining the technology in this new line of shoes, the company targets “today’s metropolitan professional” and again fills shots with young, diverse people walking about a city, day and night.

Even Las Vegas, the capital of unsustainable practices (Dubai, at least, has a metro), is catching on to the urban lifestyle, with its newest mega-development, CityCenter.  A self-proclaimed “urban community,” CityCenter features a departure from the kitschy architectural pastiche otherwise found on the Las Vegas Strip and boasts LEED Gold certification.  While the hotel and casino complex is otherwise little more than the standard Vegas wolf in an urbanist sheep’s clothing, the fact that taste makers in this sprawling city have recognized the commercial appeal of urbanism can only bode well in the long run.

The latest chink in the mainstream car-centered American lifestyle came just last week.  The New York Times published a profile of Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser, who lives without a car in auto-dominated Los Angeles.  The article chronicle’s Kartheiser’s commutes to the Mad Men set, describing vibrant scenes on L.A.’s buses and subway.  “Instead of driving and being stressed out about traffic,” Kartheiser says, “you can work your scene, you can do your exercises or whatever on the bus.”  While many transit advocates have been making this point for years, it helps when an actor on America’s best TV drama says it in one of the world’s most prestigious and widely circulated newspapers.

This photo appeared in The New York Times profile of "Mad Men" TV actor Vincent Kartheiser.

This photo appeared in The New York Times profile of "Mad Men" TV actor Vincent Kartheiser.

What could this mean for sustainable mobility in other countries?

As per capita incomes rise around the globe, developing world cities are rapidly motorizing.  Congestion and pollution have reached crisis levels in many cities, as middle-income citizens forgo the often ad hoc transit systems in their cities for a personal automobile.  In today’s corporate-identity driven market, the American lifestyle is all-too-often emulated, whether willingly or not, in the developing world, so much so that debates of cultural hegemony have spawned the term “Cocacolonization.”  Since Hollywood films and American megabrands are a primary American export, both financially and culturally, a shift in the way movies and pop culture depict car-light, transit-oriented and walkable lifestyles may help enshrine the need for mass transit and non-motorized infrastructure in the people and policymakers of the developing world.

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