By Jeffrey Ball, March 12, 2014
For decades, U.S. youth culture revolved around cars. Iconic American hits, from the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,”
sang of horsepower, speed and open highway. The seminal shift from
childhood to adulthood occurred at age 16, when seemingly every
red-blooded American kid (except the suspect ones who lived in
Manhattan) scored a driver's license. Maturity, adventure and freedom
came in the form of four wheels and a full tank of gas.
perhaps, anymore. An emerging body of national statistics bears out what
observers of the bike-rack gridlock in Millennial-heavy neighborhoods
like Washington’s Petworth or San Francisco’s Tenderloin may have
guessed at: Today’s American teenagers and twenty-somethings aren’t
loving—or driving—cars nearly as much as their predecessors did. They’re
getting their freedom from smartphones, which can travel distances and
reach speeds that make cars seem quaint. They’re increasingly interested
in commuting by bike or public transit. And growing numbers of them say
they see cars more as nuisances and less as toys.
If this change proves broad and enduring—a postmodern,
post-automotive generational shift — it will have profound implications:
for how the federal government spends transportation dollars, for how
auto and oil companies make money, for future patterns of U.S.
real-estate development. But that’s a big “if.” The signs of this change
are new and spotty, so the extent of the change remains wildly unclear.
This may indeed be the end of an era: American car culture running out
of gas. Or it may be something less revolutionary: a shift in the
interests mainly of an elite, citified segment of the young—and an
economically-driven, and thus ephemeral, shift at that.
today’s youth are driving markedly less than their predecessors seems
clear. Between 2001 and 2009, a period in which the recession emerged
and gasoline prices shot up, Americans of all ages reduced their
driving. The U.S. population grew by about 10 percent during those
years, but the total distance Americans drove fell by about 1 percent—a
reversal from prior decades, when total miles traveled kept climbing,
according to the Federal Highway Administration. Driving fell most
sharply during the first decade of this century among those aged 16 to
30. Per-person miles traveled fell 2 percent among those 56 and older;
11 percent among those 31 to 55, and a massive 25 percent—more than
twice as much as for the middle-aged group—among those 16 to 30. Another
indicator: The portion of Americans aged 16 to 24 who have driver’s
licenses fell to 67 percent in 2011, its lowest level in roughly a
half-century, according to federal statistics cited in a report last year by the U.S. PIRG Educational Fund and the Frontier Group, two environmentally oriented organizations.
What’s going on?
Some contend that, in effect, America’s youth
are growing up. The Millennials, they say, see adult autonomy in a new
sort of contraption: no longer a physical conveyance with four wheels,
but now a virtual conveyance with two earbuds. “The Driving Boom—a
six-decade-long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the
United States—is over,” claimed last year’s report from PIRG and the
Frontier Group, a study that effusively championed such an outcome and
that advocated a number of policy moves intended to hasten it.
Millennials—today’s older teenagers and twenty-somethings—are, said the
study, which spurred widespread press coverage, “demonstrating
significantly different lifestyle and transportation preferences than
(Even if today’s young Americans are that
anti-auto, environmentalists shouldn’t break out their green Champagne
just yet: Whatever happens in the U.S., there are many times more young
people in developing countries like China and India, and their
demonstrably increased interest in driving is likely to overshadow any
ecological gains from reduced driving here.)
Others observers see
something more passive and less revolutionary at play in the declining
propensity of American young people to drive: Baby Boomers are aging
beyond their peak driving years, years that coincided with unbridled
American economic growth and with cheap gasoline, and Millennials are
approaching their own peak driving years at a time of recession and high
pump prices. “Youth are making choices about their travel that are
being influenced by the constraints of their personal income,” said a report
published last year by the Federal Highway Administration. “[I]s the
car still a symbol of freedom for youth as it has been for previous
generations?” it asked. “[F]or most youth, the answer is `yes.’”
Several cyclical factors could help explain the current decline in
driving among America’s youth—and, in the process, would suggest America
is hardly falling out of love with the car. First, the surge in
gasoline prices over the past several years has made car ownership more
expensive—and it has done so in a way that’s highly visible, slapping
drivers in the face every time they roll their cars up to the pump.
Second, the recession has hit young Americans disproportionately hard:
According to a 2009 Pew Center report, 37 percent of people aged 18-29
were either unemployed or underemployed, the highest percentage in three
decades. Less income means less money for a car payment and for gas.
Third, many states, in an attempt to minimize teenagers’ crashes, have
instituted so-called graduated standards for driver’s licenses, meaning
that teenagers who once got unlimited permission to drive at age 16 now
can’t get it until they’re a bit older. That reduces the amount of
driving younger teenagers legally could do even if they wanted to get
behind the wheel and go.
As for how smartphones and other mobile
technologies affect young people’s proclivity to drive, apparently it
cuts both ways. To be sure, having the virtual world in the palm of your
hand opens up a host of transportation options that lessen the need to
own a car: It facilitates car-sharing services; it tells you the
quickest way to bike between two places; it gives you real-time
information about when your subway or bus will arrive; and, because it
lets you get work done almost anywhere, it makes time riding public
transit inherently more productive than time spent behind the wheel.
Indeed, transit ridership is up markedly in many cities, particularly
among Millennials. And the fortunes of Zipcar and similar car-sharing
services are rising.
But technology also can encourage driving,
and there’s evidence that that’s happening, according to the Federal
Highway Administration. “In fact, in one survey year, web use is
associated with increases in travel,” the agency said in its recent
report, noting that the people who have the most access to technology
also are the people who have the most money—money they can use to
What, then, to make of those Millennials living in carless
bliss in trendy urban neighborhoods from coast to coast? They who drink
strong locally-roasted coffee, carry their Apples in understated
messenger bags, arrange happy hours through Twitter, and commute by
foot, bike or bus, in low-carbon style? Are these the early adopters of
an anti-automotive sentiment that soon will sweep the nation?
It’s too early to tell. According to
data from the Federal Highway Administration, “zero-vehicle households”
encompass two Americas, one unusually rich and one unusually poor.
Roughly 4% of those households earn more than $80,000 annually, a
wealthy group concentrated in and around New York. Yet 70% of U.S.
zero-vehicle households earn less than $30,000 per year. It’s a spread,
in other words, much like many others in certain coastal American
cities: Some well-off and often-child-free folks up top, some struggling
folks at the bottom, and not many in between.
Things may well be
changing in the land of the Mustang and the Explorer. But for now, most
carless households in the U.S. remain what they’ve long been: carless by
economic necessity rather than by choice.