I spent my high school years in a small, sprawling city in northern Ontario. Cars were everything. You spent your first couple years bumming rides or else freezing your tail off at a bus stop waiting for once-every-hour escape to wherever your friends were, and then you got your license (within a week of your 16th birthday, if you could manage it) and you were free.
For boys in particular, your place in the social hierarchy was defined by the kind of car your parents lent you and your ease of access to it. If you had a Civic Si or Acura Integra that could explode out of a stop, that was pretty cool, but even a Subaru wagon or K-Car was status-enhancing if you could drive yourself to school (and your friends to the pool hall during spare period) every day.
This was the late 1980s, not so long ago. It might as well have been the beginning of the end of the predominant car-obsessed culture of the whole postwar age. If a spate of new data (and accompanying newspaper-feature anecdote) is to be believed, “peak car” is upon us. For the first time since the days of the Studebaker, young people are waiting longer to learn to drive and buying fewer cars.
The pivotal stats, as recounted by the Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann, are these:
less than half of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. The fraction of 20-to-24-year-olds with a license has also dropped. And according to CNW research, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, a far cry from the peak of 38 percent in 1985.
Like any shift deemed seismic enough to inspire broadly generalizing trend features in mainstream newspapers, peak car has begun to inspire a wide range of detective work aimed at discerning why it’s happening, who’s responsible and whether it’ll last.
A while back (as I’ve discussed previously), the New York Times explained how GM was so convinced it was all about superficial cool (and GM’s lack thereof) that it hired MTV’s marketeers to give its fleet an extreme makeover. And just this week, the Washington Post attempted to create a parallel between automotive gearheads and today’s gadget-obsessed digital age teens.
Trendmongering’s a dangerous journalistic business, and the Post’s peak-car sleuthing resulted in a pair of journalistic embarassments: 1) an opening line confusing smartphone love for storage lust (“The 389-cubic-inch overhead-cam V-8 holds a sweet spot in many aging hearts, but their grandchildren are more likely to lust after a 1-terabyte hard drive streaming video to a high-resolution screen”); and 2) filing a story 1,200 words long on why people under the age of 30 aren’t so big on driving that failed to cite a single person under the age of 30 as a source.
So what exactly is the deal with these kids today? Well, I’d argue it’s an all-of-the-above phenomenon. Multiple vectors. Changing tastes and values, an upended economy, traffic-choked roads, the rebirth of downtown cool. Here, for example, are a few key data points I’ve stumbled on in just the last few weeks:
- 88 percent of Americans born after 1980 say they want to live “in an urban setting” (which is to say, in a place where cars are not only not king but often not even very useful)
- the average American takes just 5,117 steps in a given day, the smallest amount in the industrialized world by a substantial margin; as well …
- nearly one in four American adolescents is at high risk for contracting Type II diabetes (but one glimpse of the catastrophic toll taken by a sedentary lifestyle in a car-centered world)
- the cost of owning a small sedan in America today is 44.9 cents per mile driven
This last stat comes from the best explanatory riff on peak car I’ve come across so far, by veteran automotive journalist Michael Hagerty. Rather than simply declaring it to be the economy, stupid, or pointing an accusatory finger at text-messaging-obsessed teens or 20somethings moving back in with their parents, Hagerty digs down toward the all-of-the-above answer – some less tidy but more profound shift defined by the emerging, multiple-vector evidence that the car-dominated suburban lifestyle that defined 20th-century America is slowly choking on its own success. It’s making kids sick, creating landscapes young people don’t want to be stuck in, and costing entirely too much to move around in.
Here’s Hagerty’s conclusion:
Maybe we’ve arrived at the generation where a significant number of people don’t want to be in their own isolation tank an hour or more of every day, but want to be engaged and involved with the people and places around them.
People need cars. We’re a long way from being able to retire them. But until their prospects improve -- and the carmakers focus on their actual price and product requirements instead of PR -- it’ll be a tough sell convincing millions of young Americans they can’t live (for at least a few more years, anyway) without one.
This reminds me of the next couple of chapters in my own automotive life. I left that northern Ontario town in a 1981 Ford Mustang that was never reliable and eventually died the summer before I started university. I wouldn’t own another car for more than a decade. I spent the next four years in a lovely little university town in southern Ontario where classes, groceries and pubs were all in walking distance along leafy sidewalks, and the next eight in downtown Toronto, where a car was an expensive liability.
I still live on a tree-lined street in a walkable neighborhood, but with a wife and kids and mortgage and all that noise, I did eventually return to the world of car ownership. (In fact, we’ve got our first new car in eight years – a 2012 Golf TDI with its world-class fuel economy – on order.) But it was a reluctant return. If we could get to my daughter’s distant French immersion school by transit more easily, if the coming integration of car share and smartphones was more fully upon us, if the Copenhagen wheel were on the market – if all of the above? Well, we might well have decided to simply let our trusty old Civic die a natural death and be done with car ownership.
We aspire, in any case, to a life as free of cars as possible. I know we’re not alone, and I don’t think this is a temporary shift. Peak car is real. And it’s nothing to be afraid of.
To trade stories of not driving 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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