Why Aren't Young People Interested in Getting Licences or Buying Cars?

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Screen capture. Driving isn't as much fun as it used to be/ American Graffiti

On this Earth Day and in the middle of this Extinction Rebellion, I like to think that it's because they see what is coming down the road.

The Wall Street Journal discovers that "if teenagers are any guide, Americans’ love affair with the automobile may no longer be something car makers can bank on." Apparently, they don't need them anymore.

Whereas a driver’s license once was a symbol of freedom, teenagers are reaching their driving age at a time when most have access to ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft to shuttle them around town. At the same time, social media and video chat let them hang out with friends without actually leaving the house.

This is a subject we have covered on TreeHugger for years, noting that young people are turning their backs on cars. We noted that driving isn't a lot of 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."

Many have said that car makers shouldn't worry, it's all about money, and when the kids get good jobs and move to the suburbs, they will all buy cars. But according to Adrienne Roberts in the Journal, it ain't necessarily so.

“Gen Z buyers’ participation in the new-car space is declining year after year,” said Tyson Jominy, an analyst with research firm J.D. Power. “We expect to see them get their first job” and buy a car. “But we’re not seeing this.”

percentage driving chart

© Michael Sivak, Sivak Applied Research

The Journal discusses the research of analyst Michael Sivak, as we have many times:

In 1983, the first year Mr. Sivak began analyzing the ages of drivers based on licensing data, the percentage of 16-year-olds with driver’s licenses was 46%. By 2008, it had fallen to less than a third and in 2014, it hit a low point of 24.5%. It was up slightly to 26% in 2017, which Mr. Sivak said was likely due to the economy improving. Even among those in their early 20s, fewer are getting their licenses. About 80% of 20- to 24-year-olds were licensed drivers in 2017, compared with 92% in 1983, Mr. Sivak found.

table of costs

© Sivak Applied Research

It also costs a lot more to drive. In a post he wrote for TreeHugger, Michael Sivak noted that "the cost of automobile travel goes beyond the cost of fuel. It also involves maintenance and repair, insurance, registration fees, and depreciation. From 1990 to 2015, the average cost of traveling a mile by automobile in current cents increased by 166%, from 15.7 cents to 41.8 cents."

Oxford circus protest

Andrew Davidson Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

But on this Earth Day, in the middle of this Extinction Rebellion, I am going to suggest something that you might never read in the Wall Street Journal, that there might be another factor at work: an increasing concern about climate change, and an increasing realization that the automobile, and the lifestyle built around it, is the single biggest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.

The Pew research Center notes that Generation Z and millennials are far more likely to see a link between human activity and climate change. Even Republican Gen Zers get it, at twice the rate that their parents do.

One just has to look at the graph of nitrogen dioxide emissions in Oxford Street during the Extinction Rebellion occupation to see the difference not having cars has made, dropping by a third. That's what British Gen Z people are doing instead of driving.

I suspect that the SUV and pickup industry (since we don't really have a car industry anymore) is in for a very big shock in the next few years. Young people just might care more about the air they and their kids are breathing than they do about the conveniences in their cars. In our post about how Bikes ARE climate action, I quoted an analyst who noted that "Generally, members of Generation Z are tech-savvy, pragmatic, open-minded, individualistic — but also socially responsible,” the kind of people who don't buy big SUVs, who might choose to live their lives in places where they don't have to drive.

There are so many reasons why kids are not getting driver's licences, but perhaps an important one is that they can see what's coming down the road.