Photo by Septuagesima on Flickr.

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 paradigm may be shifting.

There was a time when being carless 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 the surburban lifestyles many of them grew up in 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 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.  2009’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-style 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:

Photo 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 chronicles Kartheiser’s commutes to the Mad Men set, describing vibrant scenes on LA’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.

Photo from the New York Times

In a today’s corporate-identity driven market, the American lifestyle is all-to-often shaped by TV and movies, pop culture and megabrands.  A shift in the way the movies, media 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.

That said, in DC, politics is often inseparable from popular culture.  If we want to see a true shift, not only in mindset, but in spending and outcomes, the political taste-makers need to do their part as well. It’s one thing to hear Congress members or Ray LaHood or President Obama talk about more transit options, complete streets and road diets, but, as they say, a picture is worth 1000 words. How many lawmakers (besides Earl Blumenauer) do we have who actually walk or bike anywhere? Who take Metro?

Maybe that’s the next paradigm shift.

Crossposted at TheCityFix.