It's not the economy, stupid; young people really are turning their backs on cars

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Screen capture Kids don't aspire to this anymore

In a totally scientific survey of whether or not young people want to own cars, Globe and Mail columnist Jeremy Cato notes that his son adores his truck and calls her Jenny. He concludes that the only reason kids aren't driving is that they are broke. And he says that we shouldn't go by the anecdotes, there's research:

Young people have turned to transit because they can’t afford vehicle ownership. Yes, the proportion of young drivers has dropped in the last decade. But HLDI [Highway Loss Data Institute] data suggests that drop has coincided with the economic downturn – which has not only hammered youth employment, but also has had an impact on parents who might otherwise help their kids take the wheel. As HLDI points out, “There was an inverse relationship between the growing unemployment spread and the falling ratio of teen drivers to prime-age drivers.” As unemployment rises, youth driving sinks.

© The Atlantic

And indeed, as this General Motors data shown on the Atlantic demonstrates, there was a big dip in the recession, and there is a recovery since. But the younger the cohort, the flatter the recovery.

© The Atlantic

Longer term, the picture is consistent. People between the ages of 16 and 34 are driving a whole lot less. The cost of cars, parking, insurance and gas keep going up to the point that it becomes a serious burden, and that's not changing anytime soon. This started long before the smart phone revolution. However now, the picture has changed. If you want to get all anecdotal, my nephew has a very well paying job and can afford a car. But he lives near a streetcar line and would prefer to be on his phone on the streetcar than in a car stuck in traffic. When he needs one there's Zipcar or rental. Much of the time he bikes. He has made the choice that another car consultant describes in Bloomberg, In a wonderfully titled article: Gen Y Eschewing V-8 for 4G

Cars are discretionary, phones are not.

For most Gen Y buyers, also known as Millennials, skipping a vehicle purchase is preferable to forgoing technology. Smartphones, laptops and tablet devices compete for their dollars and are higher priorities than vehicle purchases, said Joe Vitale, an automotive consultant with Deloitte. Financing, parking, servicing and insuring a vehicle all add up to a commitment that cash-strapped Millennials aren’t ready to make, he said. “A vehicle is really a discretionary purchase and a secondary need versus an iPhone, mobile phone or personal computer,” Vitale said.

Cato claims that "Millennials, like their parents, will warm to car ownership when they have the money and the need." For some, particularly those living or working in the suburbs, that may be true. But the amount of money needed to afford a car is going way up and the need for a car, in this era when more and more people are living in apartments downtown and close to transit, is going way down. Toss in the inability to look away from our phones for more than a moment or two, and the car doesn't look nearly as attractive as the alternatives. Look at another Gartner study quoted by the Star:

A future roadblock for carmakers is that a whopping 46 per cent of drivers ages 18 to 24 in the U.S. said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to research firm Gartner Inc.

American Graffiti/Screen capture

Driving isn't fun anymore.

Finally, it has to be pointed out that driving just isn't as much fun as it used to be. The roads are clogged, the parking is hard to find, you don't pick people up by cruising down Main Street anymore, you can't fiddle with your car because they have turned into computers. To get all anecdotal, I used to take my Volkswagen Beetles apart on the side of the road if I had to fix something. I used to drive everywhere and never had trouble finding parking. I still have a sports car (an 89 Miata) but I never use it in the city, I bike everywhere year round. It's faster, cheaper, good exercise and frankly, a lot more fun than driving in downtown Toronto. When we go anywhere now, I let my wife drive so that I can look at my iPad and catch up on my reading.

It's not just the millenials, driving has changed for everyone. It is slow, expensive and doesn't mean freedom, it means serious responsibility. Jeremy Cato is wrong, it is not just the economics, the whole picture is changing. In ten years, he will be writing about bicycles.

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