In a recent post, Your Office Is In Your Pants: How The Smart Phone Is Changing The Way We Live And Work, I wrote that The Smart Phone is even changing the car's role in society. Now Jordan Weissman of the Atlantic asks Why Are Young People Ditching Cars for Smartphones?
The first and foremost reason is that the economics of car ownership have changed so much; cars used to be relatively cheap in proportion to income, you could fix them yourself, and gas was a lot cheaper. I bought my first Volkswagen Beetle for six hundred bucks and drove it for four years; I could take it apart in the driveway and fix it, and I am no gearhead. (I had this to help me). Young people also had jobs and did not have serious student loan debt. But more importantly, the car is no longer a symbol of freedom; with parking and insurance and other costs, it is almost the opposite, a burden tying you down. If you want to get around today, a bike offers a lot more freedom than a car.
Weissman then gets to what I think is the nub of the matter.
Young Americans aren't simply turning their back on buying cars. They're also turning their backs on driving. The percentage of teens and twenty-somethings with licenses has dropped dramatically over the past thirty years, which may be the sign that Gen Y's indifference towards autos is a cultural shift as much as an economic one. Of course, we don't know precisely why the young are driving less. Urbanites may be embracing mass transit, biking, and car sharing services like Zipcar. Other young people may be gravitating towards walkable suburbs, where cars are often optional. But it's not far fetched to think that the ability to connect with friends and family, shop, and entertain ourselves online has contributed to the trend.
The car is the tool that used to connect us; you would hop in it to go to where everyone was hanging out. You might cruise until you found your friends. But you don't need a car to do that anymore. You don't want a car anymore. Automotive consultant Joe Vitale is quoted in Bloomberg:
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.
You can see the implications of this beginning to happen. Census data are showing that our downtowns are growing, but there is also growth in towns and cities that are well connected by commuter rail. Companies are moving their offices back downtown, where the young people want to live and where the commuter lines converge.
This is just the start. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower's massive public investment in the highway system changed the way America lived and worked; we are ankle deep into a change just as significant.