Successful Young Americans Seen Drifting Away From Car Culture: Smart Phones Play A Role

Robert Couse-Baker/CC BY 2.0
Lost art of the driveway tune-up.

DC StreetsBlog documents a major car culture tipping point in: U.S. PIRG Report: Young Americans Dump Cars for Bikes, Buses . Though there are few real surprises, interesting data are offered to back up the common observation that young people prefer driving less, are walking and biking more, and take public transit more frequently than older people do. All of which points to youth favoring a life where live/work/play is possible without car ownership.

Read the story from DC Streets for a well reported overview of the research. Like all such broad culture changes, this one has multiple, linked factors behind it. Those linked changes are what I'll focus on in this post.

Planets lined up for powerful anti-car ownership force.
Young people have lowered their expectations for high salaries, a career path, and easy credit. Finding the meaning of life and being a success no longer depends on four wheels-expensive.

Early environmental activists - we late 60's types - typically got some feeling of personal redemption from recycling, a practice which has lately turned out to be largely bullshit. Environmentally committed young-uns of today focus instead on lowering their greenhouse gas 'footprint.'

“Sixteen percent of 18- to 34-year-olds polled said they strongly agreed with the statement, ‘I want to protect the environment, so I drive less.’ This is compared to approximately nine percent of older generations.”

As always, there's more sex in the city, better restaurants, and a far better music and theater scene than can be found in any suburb. If you can no longer afford to fly to Tortugas for a vacation, life in the city is a reliable way to keep life interesting for the long haul - especially important once you decide TV sucks. This is a given.

Fewer people are getting married and, thus, there is less net movement of couples to the suburbs where public schools will be better for the kiddos. Anyhow, that dream is disappearing rapidly, what with Republican governors and state legislators attacking school teachers and cutting school budgets.

Young folks, most of whom probably grew up in the burbs, know that there you must drive the kids everywhere because - you know - sidewalks are not worthy of taxpayer support and deviants lurk in every shadow. This added protective driving greatly increases cost of living. Somehow, in the cities of America, where unregistered Glocks are as common as dandelions in the suburbs, kids can ride public transit or bike couple of blocks to a friends house. Most of them miraculously do not get shot or run over.

DC Streets directly cites three items as the critical factors.
"Some states now require “graduated” driver’s licensing, making young people pass multiple driving tests and hold learner’s permits longer before they earn full privileges."

"Higher gas prices, obviously, help put owning a car out of reach for many younger Americans, especially as the age group struggles in a less-favorable job market."

"Finally, technology, specifically smartphones, and their incompatibility with (safe) driving, help make alternatives that much more inviting."

I'd like to expound a bit on the smart phone effect because I think it is far more significant than acknowledged.

Generational contrasts
When I graduated from college in the early 70's I used my first paycheck to buy a really rusty Ford sedan with a cracked exhaust manifold. It was loud and burned a quart of oil every 300 miles or so but it was all I could afford. Having no phone at the time, using my car to pop in unexpectedly on friends and check out happening night spots was the only way, really, to be social.

The next year I bought a run down Chev Corvair on the theory that at any given time one would be running and I could take my time repairing the other. (This phenomenon is the origin of the legendary American 'yard car.') A person can't manage that way now unless they have free access to advanced diagnostic tools and an engine hoist which, with today's cars, is needed just to change the freaking spark plugs.

Contrast that ancient history with young people who zig zag back and forth from Mom & Dad's to the apartment where the next job is. To communicate from the apartment, they no longer first have to give Ma Bell a $500 deposit, prove credit worthiness by snail mail, and then wait 3 more weeks to have a land line connected. The smart phone moves with them. They can plan for meeting up with friends without having to pop in unannounced, etc.

It goes to motive.
I have to believe that major car makers have done their own market research on this trend and, seeing the market dividing radically between young and old, especially among the educated and well to do, will take parallel defensive actions.

One market-preserving defense would be to integrate smart phone with automotive functionality so that the car remains relevant, perhaps indispensable to youth, by keeping a drivers eyes on the road instead of on the phone. To close the lock then...lobby Congress to make it a legal requirement that all new cars sold in the USA must be smart phone integrated and, conversely, new phones be integrable to the automotive standard.

The lamest defense would be to just let that young urban demographic go and focus on short term profits from very expensive and inefficient SUVs and trucks sold in the exurbs.

The third path would be to stealth lobby against government subsidies of bike lanes and mass transit. Give piles of money to stink tanks, which can be relied upon to develop and pass along the clever anti-bike anti-mass transit talking points to news directors and astroturf groups.

Really, you think that last one already happened? And they already focus on the exurb market for short term?

Tags: Car-Free