Cultural Attitudes Toward Driving Evolve

Young People Without Driver’s Licenses Has Increased chartAs noted in a Marketplace piece today, the Frontier Group, an environmentally-oriented public interest organization affiliated with the federation of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGS), has dug into the data to find that fewer young Americans are licensed to drive, and those who do drive are today driving fewer miles than ever. The think tank’s report suggests not only a change in transportation patterns but a cultural shift is underway too. Are we getting over our century-long swoon with the automobile? Has the next generation moved on? And what do these findings suggest for the policies and subsidies that have kept big auto and big oil in business?

Consider some of the findings from the Frontier Group’s report, Transportation & the New Generation [pdf]:

  • According to the National Household Travel Survey, from 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent.
  • In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.
  • In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds walked to destinations 16 percent more frequently than did 16 to 34-year-olds living in 2001.
  • From 2001 to 2009, the number of passenger-miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds on public transit increased by 40 percent.
  • According to Federal Highway Administration, from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.

Young people’s transportation priorities and preferences differ from those of older generations, the report concludes, for several reasons: new forms of communication that shorten distance and replace actual trips with email, calls, and telecommuting; higher costs of car travel shift choice to other modes – particularly in times of economic hardship; and as a nation we’re simply more urban than we used to be, which puts more people within the reach of mass transit.

These are practical choices that will affect how we invest in transportation. If smartphones, subways, fixies and workbikes appeal more to today’s would-be drivers than, say, a car and a commute, then tomorrow our public investment will favor multimodal mobility options and opportunities – a trend we’re beginning to see emerge today. Big auto and big oil won’t go to the mat without a fight, though, as the current battle over the federal transportation bill suggests.

But the zeitgeist has already changed – particularly among younger people. They are choosing more carefully where they live and work, eschewing the quality-of-life sacrifices that for too long characterized our lengthening commute (as benchmarked in annual rankings). They’re turning toward city living, too, rejecting the received wisdom that put suburbs at the center of the middle-class agenda more than a half-century ago.

Vehicle-Miles Traveled Per Capita chart
All charts from Frontier's report, Transportation and a New Generation.

Consider how the change in attitudes cuts along generational lines. Between 2001 and 2009 the average mileage clocked by gainfully employed 16 to 34-year-olds decreased by 16% to 10,700 miles. Overall for that age group, the drop was even more steep: 23% to 7,900 miles on average per driver. If we’re inclined to blame the high cost of motoring as a sole factor driving the change (middle-class household incomes have been on the steady decline for three decades), the data show that the same age cohort from above-average income households (over $70,000) were simply more likely to turn to different modes of transportation: survey respondents reported walking a third more often; using public transit use twice as often; and taking to the bike at even higher rates (up 122% between 2001 and 2009).

Motoring once captured the nation’s imagination but it does so no more. Fewer of us are steeped in the culture of the automobile that once was at the center of American life. It was a means of individual expression as much as a mode of transportation. Makes and models marketed with precision were calculated to telegraph something about who we were or wanted to be. We could signal our brawn, thrift, pragmatism, or cool quotient by our choice of model, trim, and color (to say nothing of aftermarket accessories).

The maturation of automobile production and marketing evolved in tandem with the promotion of car culture in television and movies. Remember how radio and TV liberated our collective imagination just as state highways formed a network of smooth blacktop coast to coast? TV’s Route 66 in 1960 took us along that iconic route (of which Santa Monica Boulevard was a key western segment). The open road beckoned in all its uncertainty and misadventure, and films like Monty Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971) celebrated that darker side. In towns and cities across the land, cruising was the defining social activity of the pre-Internet era for much of the country. That was where friendships were formed and hook-ups sparked. George Lucas pictured the ritual in delightful detail in American Graffiti (1973).

But today the open road and the culture of the car has lost its allure. There are many more ways to get our kicks, and much more opportunity to differentiate ourselves without pimping the ride. New gadgets tend to capture the collective imagination (to say nothing of our limited time and discretionary dollars). Industry analyst Gartner found that young folks tend to view Internet access as more central to their lives than access to a car. That seems like a truism already: young adults seem much more inclined to view apps and home screens as a benchmark for individuation and coolness rather than what you may one day drive.

Was it the age of irony that hastened the death of the automobile as a cultural totem? Exactly two decades ago, Wayne’s World (1992), “the triumph of the low achievers” (as the Baltimore Sun put it, inverted the carefully-constructed hierarchy of auto-centric status by putting American Motors Corp.’s Pacer front and center. With that stroke and bountiful irony, the film parodied the shadow social structure represented by car ownernship – a class system that emerges most prominent in Southern California and one that reached a nadir of sorts with the faux-haute bourgeois Lincoln Town Car. The model, once available in Cartier and Gucci trim in the 1980s, even sported Trump’s brand on its ‘Signature Series’  – a Rolls for the everyman. Heck, even the lowly Ford Grenada harbored Mercedes aspirations back then.

But Wayne’s World turned upside down the received wisdom by enthroning a flames-accented Pacer as a true American auto demi-icon (much like the eponymous characters themselves).

Was it irony, or did practicality simply draw a curtain on the auto age? Car travel finds stiff competition from cost-effective options like walking, transit, and cycling (all up) and creative approaches to ‘ownership’ like Zipcar rentals and private car sharing. Fuel-efficiency is king, with the popularly of economy models on the increase while the ‘hybrid’ badge is slapped on nearly every vehicle with an oversized battery.

But the change in zeitgeist suggests that the bell is tolling for big auto because we are beginning to realize that we simply don’t need a car to get ourselves around. The Frontier reports puts numbers to the trend among young folks away from driving. As the report concludes,

America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw that assumption into doubt…It is time for policy-makers to consider the implication of changes in driving habits for the nation’s transportation infrastructure decisions and funding practices, and consider a new vision for transportation policy that reflects the needs of 21st century America.

Well said!