By Ryan McGreal
Published September 18, 2012
Just what is with kids nowadays? After decades of enthrallment with automobiles and the supposed freedom they confer, young people are rapidly losing interest. A post on Streetsblog today corrals recent essays from the L.A. Times, Slate and CNN that all point to the same conclusion: not only is driving falling among teenagers and young adults, but interest in driving is falling as well.
The trend predates the economic crash of 2008 and is not merely a matter of young people not being able to afford the maintenance, gasoline and insurance that go along with driving. Kids in Los Angeles, once a shrine to easy motoring, are simply interested in other things.
The changes in Crenshaw's car culture have been even more dramatic. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department cracked down on the Sunday night cruising ritual, which barely exists now. More recently, African American teenagers, like teenagers across Southern California, have traded an obsession with cars for ones with smartphones and bicycles.
"Personally I don't really want to drive that much because I don't want to pay for gas," said Terry Monday, a 17-year-old high school student.
"Me and a couple of friends, we'd rather work on our fixies," he added, referring to customizable fixed-gear bikes that have become popular among L.A. teenagers, "or spend money on clothes or on our phones."
At dusk on a recent Sunday evening, it was easy to see evidence of the shift. At the corner of Crenshaw and Imperial Highway, a gleaming burgundy Chevrolet Impala convertible carrying three middle-aged African Americans idled at a red light.
Before the light could turn, a half-dozen African American and Latino teenagers passed by on their bikes, some of which were as carefully polished as the Impala. Three more teenagers on fully detailed bikes went by, then another four, laughing as they raced east into the darkness.
These days, L.A. is becoming known as much for a tall, dense downtown core serviced by practical high quality transit as for its epic freeways and herculean traffic jams. Residents and politicians from both parties have voted to invest in a network of rapid transit lines including light rail transit, subways and busways (demonstrating, once again, that competent leadership in great cities transcends partisanship).
But the trend is widespread across North America. Young people would rather live in more urban environments and have easy access to social networks - both online and in real life - than have to pay for a car that is more troublemaker than liberator.
A report in CNN Money notes that new car purchases among 18-34 year olds has dropped 30% since 2007. Noting that re-urbanization has put more people in reach of transit, the report adds:
But mostly it's the explosion of social media. Car ownership just may not be as socially important as it used to be. "What we used to do in cars, young people are now doing online," said one analyst at a recent oil conference.
The ability to meet and interact with people on the Internet is largely replacing the need to hop in a car and cruise down the strip.
Couple that with more recent restrictions on driving - later ages for licenses, limits on how many people can be in the car, restrictions on cell phone use - and the Internet may be surpassing the automobile in the category that gave cars so much appeal: freedom.
"When I got into a vehicle, it represented me going to meet my friends," said Craig Giffi, automotive practice leader at the consultancy Deloitte. "For them, it cuts them off from their friends."
More data, this time from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, confirms that annual per capita vehicle miles travelled among 16-34 year olds dropped from 10,300 miles (16,576 km) in 2001 to 7,900 miles (12,714 km) in 2009 - a 23 percent decline.
Meanwhile, cycling is up 24 percent among the same age group.
Curiously, the decline in driving was biggest among the most affluent young people, suggesting that the shift is more cultural than economic. 16-34 year olds with a family income over $70,000 USD increased transit use by 100 percent, cycling by 122 percent and walking by 37 percent.
The question is: will Hamilton ever get serious about reforming our land use and transportation policy to take this shift into consideration?
If we continue to build on the assumption of ever-increasing driving, we will not only continue to allocate scarce public resources on infrastructure with poor returns and big negative externalities, but will also miss out on attracting a whole generation of young people whose idea of high quality living does not mean a suburban house and a commute.
(h/t to Jason Leach for finding the Streetsblog article.)