Youth Culture Shifts Away from Cars and Driving

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.

See also:

(h/t to Jason Leach for finding the Streetsblog article.)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Springfield (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 15:02:18

I don't know if I would say $70K+ is an affluent household. It's strikes me as simply the supra-median. (Hamilton's median household income in 2006 was $66,810, for example, compared to $69,156 province-wide.)

When I read that "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," I do wonder what the baseline numbers were like, and where they were recorded.

Did they only take a couple of bus trips a year but ended up logging four? Was there a huge increase in subway traffic in major metros, but negigible gains elsewhere? And why do we seem to be comparing "use" to "distance" in some of these formulations? Does anyone calculate "vehicle" miles for car/bus/bike classifications?

Household earnings notwithstanding, what role might historic levels of youth unemployment (around 20% in the US, apparently twice that in some areas of Europe) have with regard to new car purchases among that cohort? Are they simply buying used cars and driving less? Or are those who buy cars actually driving them further (eg. 30% fewer cars travelling 23% fewer miles).

I'm not disputing that there's something happening here, but IMHO what it is ain't exactly clear.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 15:05:29

you start by stating that youngsters have less interest in driving and more interest in other things like fixies. Then the rest of your essay goes on to quote some of these youngsters as saying "Personally I don't really want to drive that much because I don't want to pay for gas,".
That does not sound like a lack of interest in driving but as a lack of funds to support driving. I have 2 kids in that age group and interest in driving with them and all their friends is very much alive and well.

The single reason their are not more cars amongst them and their friends is lack of money. Kids are staying in school longer and not starting to work at a decent job until later in their life thus putting off the day that they can afford to get their own set of wheels. The cost of insurance alone is a major obstacle to young guys getting their own cars.

You can try and bend the facts to support your own biases and beliefs but the truth is not that hard to figure out.

Is their a real reason that my old screen name now comes up "Sorry, but that screen name is not available."

just wondering

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 15:17:23

Please explain the rise in urban living, walkable communities and other modes of transport seen all over N. America. Hamilton is seeing the rise in urban living and families downtown, but due to intentional choices meant to eliminate options we're not seeing much of an increase in cycling, transit use or walking...although, even in harsh, hostile, dangerous conditions we are seeing increases...just very small ones. With any leadership or 21st Century thinking at the Hall, we'd see great gains in these area of transport especially given our dense, compact urban core.

Comment edited by jason on 2012-09-18 15:18:48

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 16:11:02

There's certainly a shift happening, but it has yet to present itself in demographic heft. I would wager that Burlington is growing population in its core more successfully than Hamilton is.

Hamilton EcDev: "Downtown residents tend to be single people. Downtown families tend to be smaller. Average number of children per family: Downtown 0.9; City 1.2"

"Wards 1-5 lost an average of 423 residents each between 2006 and 2011.... Meanwhile, the two wards responsible for most city-wide growth between 2006 and 2011 are wards 11 (Glanbrook) and 12 (Ancaster), which grew by approximately 38% and 12%, respectively. Needless to day, nearly all that growth was single family residential sprawl on new greenfields."

"Over the past five years Hamilton has grown at a rate of 3%, falling 50,000 people short of growth plan forecasts for 2031. Between 2001 and 2006, the growth rate was only 2.9%, one of the lowest of Ontario cities and less than half of the actual provincial rate (6.6%) for that time period."

Compare this to 2006-2011 growth rates among our eastern neighbours: 6.9% for Burlington, 10.2% for Oakville, 6.7% for Halton and 56.5% for Milton. And yet by some accounts we're supposed to be the country's hottest real estate market. Go figure.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 18:19:07 in reply to Comment 80982

however, over the past 10 years two of Hamilton's highest growth census areas were downtown. Which is much more impressive than a growth rate of 30 plus % on land that housed mostly animals and weeds the previous census.

We should be comparing ourselves to Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto etc... not suburban areas like Milton. Been there. Done that. It doesn't work.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2012 at 21:25:12 in reply to Comment 80983

I would like to know where you get your 30 plus% from. Just from being around the city for a few years I have not seen any area that could realistically claim a 30% increase. At least in the inner city some of the burbs have gotten a lot bigger by constructing whole subdivisions of new expensive housing. Still doubt it's 30% that's a pretty big jump.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2012 at 09:12:00 in reply to Comment 81063

Ward 1 = 1,836 population loss (5.8% decrease, 2001-2011)
Ward 2 = 780 population loss (2% decrease, 2001-2011)
Ward 3 = 1,779 population loss (4.4% decrease, 2001-2011)
Ward 4 = 400 population loss (1% decrease, 2001-2011)
Ward 5 = 1,897 population loss (4.8% decrease, 2001-2011)
Ward 6 = 1,280 population loss (3.2% decrease, 2001-2011)
Ward 10 = 1,024 population loss (4.3% decrease, 2001-2011)
Ward 15 = 413 population loss (1.7% decrease, 2001-2011)

Ward 7 = 5,845 population growth (10.4% increase, 2001-2011)
Ward 8 = 2,298 population growth (4.9% increase, 2001-2011)
Ward 9 = 2,630 population growth (10.8% increase, 2001-2011)
Ward 11 = 16,051 population growth (78.1% increase, 2001-2011)
Ward 12 = 9,823 population growth (38.8% increase, 2011-2011)
Ward 13 = 513 population growth (2.1% increase, 2001-2011)
Ward 14 = 2,312 population growth (15.1% increase, 2001-2011)

Ward 11's explosive growth is chiefly due to the roll-out of Multi-Area Developments' Summit Park (a billion-dollar subdivision of 3,200 homes said to create "a 10,000-resident neighbourhood") and Losani-Branthaven collaboration The Fairgrounds (with its million-dollar sales centre), which have largely come online during the last census period.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2012 at 06:21:12 in reply to Comment 81079

Thank you for looking up the numbers to show what is really happening to this city. Everyone of the growing wards is on the mountain. Everyone of the shrinking wards is below the hill.

I wonder how the faithful will try to warp these numbers to fit in with their beliefs?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 19:12:09 in reply to Comment 80983

I'm less convinced of this phenomenal upswing in urban living, much as I would like to be.

Four tracts in Ward 2 registered population gains in the last census. Only one spiked: CT5370036, home to the Terraces on King. That tract logged a 701-resident gain in the last census, the only one of the four to score a triple digit increase. The other three combined added 175.

The bigger picture has been remarkably sedate. Ward 2's population has experienced net growth of 1,702 over the last 25 years, peaking in 2001.

1986: 35,865
1991: 36,550
1996: 36,699
2001: 38,349
2006: 37,815 / 37,408
2011: 37,569

For sake of comparison, Ward 7 experienced net growth of 2,051 between 2006-2011.

I cited Halton only to demonstrate that the suburban inclination is not an exclusively Hamiltonian tic. Again, as much as I adore Hamilton's core, I would wager that yawned-about places like Burlington and Oakville are growing population in their respective downtowns more successfully than Hamilton is.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 19:22:43 in reply to Comment 80984

Correction: 1,704 over 25 years.

And again, this is simply meant to illustrate that whatever else is happening in Hamilton, urban density still presents itself unevenly. I'll leave it to my betters to postulate about the reasons why this is the case.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 21:06:43 in reply to Comment 80985

That works out to an average net gain of 68 residents a year (or, if you prefer, 340 per census instalment, just under 1% growth every five years) in Ward 2.

I haven't seen the latest numbers on families downtown, or delved into the historic performance of tracts. Just going off EcDev's "Downtown Profile", as linked.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 20:22:42 in reply to Comment 80985

many reasons...most notably, Hamilton is still sprawling as much as ever. Yet, downtown is seeing real estate values increase quite nicely and families are moving back downtown after decades of leaving. Imagine if we ever saw a council that made downtown a priority, or even put it on a level playing field with sprawl? I think it would boom.

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By Paper Cranes (anonymous) | Posted September 18, 2012 at 21:15:21

"The Hamilton-Burlington economy will be the fastest growing in 2012 among Ontario cities tracked in a new Conference Board of Canada report.

The region is expected to churn out steady growth of 2.5 per cent this year, thanks to increases in the manufacturing and construction sectors, and will match that on average over the next four years, according to the Ottawa-based research centre.

And that 2.5 per cent figure is the actual gross domestic product growth recorded in the local economy in 2011.

Hamilton ranks fifth in projected 2012 economic growth among 13 cities tracked in the Metropolitan Outlook report. The top four cities are Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Vancouver. Toronto comes in at sixth with 2.3 per cent growth and Ottawa-Gatineau, the only other Ontario city tracked, comes in last at 1 per cent.

The manufacturing and construction sectors will lead the way in growth for the *Hamilton-Burlington census metropolitan area, which also includes Grimsby....

Total construction growth is expected to come in at 3.8 per cent this year and then slow to 1.8 per cent in 2013.

After falling 31 per cent in 2011, the board predicts total housing starts will surge by 39 per cent this year thanks to steady economic and population growth and continued affordability. The board expects to see starts rise an average of 7.7 per cent from 2014 to 2016."

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2012 at 23:48:24

Of our oldest 5 kids, ranging in age from 17-24 years of age, none has bothered to obtain a driver's license. They know that we will not pay for their insurance or their gas, and have decided it is not worth the trouble and expense.

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By Sky (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2012 at 10:53:20

My three children ages 24, 25 and 28 all have their license...My 15 year old will go for her's on her 16th birthday.

I agree that we have to make our streets more friendly to INCLUDE safe walking and bikes, yet have difficulty swallowing the bashing on where I choose to live.

IMHO this entire discussion tries to push that we should all live in the core ~ taking away from my and my children's love for the rural way of life.

It would be great if we could work at having the BEST OF ALL WORLDS ~ moving forward!

Open, honest, sincere dialogue leads to change...throwing out non truths "buying urban houses is all they can afford" ~ "imagine if we ever saw a Council that made downtown a priority"~ Really? Take a look at all of the loans/grants etc. for STRICTLY the core for re-development, outside facade improvement, interior renovations, sewer back-ups etc...and then try to find any such thing for any suburban, rural howmeowner. (These subsidies, interest free perks are also alive and well for downtown busineeses.)

The way to change for the better, is to work at betterment ~ for all.

Have an amazing day everyone.

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By fairness (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2012 at 13:28:38 in reply to Comment 81230

"and then try to find any such thing for any suburban, rural howmeowner" Please tell me you're just taking the piss and don't actually think you don't enjoy huge grants and freebies as a suburban, rural homeowner.

Just one single corner at Peters Corners is costing $5.7 million dollars to turn into a roundabout to help drivers.

Did you pay for that yourself? No, I helped pay for it (you're welcome) even though it doesn't help me one bit. It's called living in a society but you don't seem to think downtown deserves the same kind of support that lets you give your children a "rural way of life".

I'm pretty sure you're not a farmer, so you're just living in the rurals to enjoy it for it's own sake, let's not romantacize a lifestyle.

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