There is a massive tectonic shift taking place in our country right now, and I’m not talking about gay marriage or adults moving back home with their parents. Multiple studies have concluded that our nation’s love affair with the automobile appears to be coming to a halt with the demographic group called Generation Y or Millennials.
In July, a study by the University of Michigan found that per-person, “light-duty vehicle driving miles” peaked in the U.S. in 2004—almost a decade ago. The report stressed that the ensuing decline in road miles driven predated the recession by several years, so hard times are not a factor.
The Pew Research Center has been tracking this phenomenon for some time now, and concluded that America’s “romance” with cars and driving may be “on the skids.” And not long ago, NPR reported that “teenagers are driving less, getting their licenses later, and waiting longer to purchase their first new car.” What’s more, NPR found that “not having a car or not being able to afford one, has become a lot more common. The negative stigma around not having a car also seems to have waned.”
Living here in northeast Florida, where public transportation consists of a bus that maybe, perhaps, occasionally comes every hour or so, it’s not easy to get your mind around not having—or not wanting to have—a car. Teenagers and kids in their early 20s can be seen heading for the beach, to school or–one can only hope–to work in little Asian imports, lowered and equipped with flatulent exhaust systems. And Jeeps–topless, windowless and even door-less–are still a fashion statement.
What is changing is that the passion for the automobile seems to have cooled dramatically. The domestic auto industry is on the rebound, inching back toward its comfortable 16 million-unit-a-year output. But the car itself is increasingly viewed as an appliance, and an expensive and often unnecessary one at that. Factor in the green movement and growing awareness of everyone’s “carbon footprint” and professing love for your fossil-fueled chariot can make you seem, well, old. Getting behind the wheel of your car simply to feel the wind in your hair and the horsepower beneath your right foot has become an anachronism.
I bought my first car at age 18 for $700, a good chunk of my haul from a summer construction job, and that mid-August I set out with two friends on a headlong dash for California. Sure, we wanted to see the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur, but the main point of the trip was to drive—radio blasting, for hours and hours on end.
With a modest investment in tools, some instruction from a local mechanic, and a textbook, I changed my spark plugs, replaced the points, coil and condenser, adjusted the valves and set the timing and dwell. Ask a kid today what those last two terms mean and my guess is you’ll get a blank stare.
In 2002, businesses that cater to the old-car hobby launched a campaign called “Take a Kid to a Car Show,” but I’m not sure it’s taking. Love of the automobile, as opposed to the need for an automobile, seems to be the province of guys around my age, which, as my daughter reminds me, is “old.” How else to explain “Cruisin’ for a Cure,” a national campaign that offers free prostate screenings at car shows and cruise-ins?
It’s fair to say that no inanimate object—except perhaps the air conditioner—has so completely changed the way Americans live as the automobile. Suburbs, shopping malls, fast food are all creations of the desire to set out on the road, and to shop and dine, on your own schedule. Our Interstate system is a marvel that allows families to visit cities and explore the natural wonders of our country a thousand miles from their own homes.
But we have also paid a steep price for our dependence on the car. Los Angeles, believe it or not, once had a superb public transit system that was eventually undone by the lobbying power of the oil, rubber and auto industries. Now, as modern LA chokes on its freeways, social scientists opine that suburban sprawl has made us a nation of lonely, featureless subdivisions, not close-knit communities.
Through social media and smart phones, young people are constantly connected with one another—they don’t have to actually see each other. At the same time, the shift away from cars may reflect a renewed desire on the part of young people to inhabit cities, to live in close proximity to like-minded refugees from their parents’ suburbs.
As a city kid, it was my ’69 Pontiac that allowed me to visit my girlfriend in the suburbs. I have to think that something has been lost in the tradeoff between actual human interaction and virtual contact through a tiny screen.
How many young people would choose to have Tom Waits’s “Ol’ ’55” on their iPods?
Time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly
Out to my ol’ ’55
Pulled away slowly, feelin’ so holy
God knows I was feelin’ alive.”
How many would know what it means?
Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.