This New York Timesarticle from last Saturday echoed news that has been popping up alloverrecently.  The headline sums it up:  "America’s Love Affair With S.U.V.’s Begins to Cool."  Higher gas prices are apparently starting to shift people’s car-buying patterns—which seems to have caught most auto-industry execs by surprise, though it should hardly come as a shock to economists who (quite naturally) expect that price changes will eventually change people’s behavior.

But what stuck out at me was this quote from a former SUV aficionado:

"I never wanted a car before – never," said Tamika Cooks, a science teacher at Bellaire High School in Houston, in an interview Friday as she was signing the paperwork for her Chrysler 300C. "But this car has captured my attention. It speaks to me. It calls my name."

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  • By now, I should be used to the idea that people respond to their vehicles emotionally, and that buying a car is as much a visceral decision as a practical one. Automobile marketers understand this very well, of course, but it’s a lesson I keep having to remind myself.  And it means that, for folks like me who want to reduce fuel consumption, it’s not enough simply to present people with useful information about vehicle choices. You also have to speak to people’s psyches, or their ids, or whatever portion of the brain it is that actually motivates them.

    Luckily, it seems that when vehicles are chatting with people’s ids these days, they’re saying something different than they did 5 years ago.  The SUV that used to whisper "power, domination, self-determination" now whispers "That’ll be $100 a tank, bub."

    Now, it strikes me that the same sort of thing that motivates car buyers may also be what animates the surprisingly heated battles over mass transit. Different modes—buses, bus rapid transit systems, light rail, ultra-light rail, monorail, and heavy rail—each seem to attract vigorous supporters, who view any discussion of transportation as an opportunity for spittleflecked invective in favor of their chosen mode. For outsiders to the debate, it all seems rather silly and off-putting; each kind of transit has its advantages and disadvantages, so the decision about which mode to employ ought to depend with what’s most practical and cost-effective in any given situation.

    But perhaps the best way to understand it is that, while some people hear cars speaking to them, others hear buses or trains.