For decades, the automobile has reigned supreme over the hearts and minds of America's youth. But sometime over the last decade, the car's dominance finally began to slip—and its twin killers aren't high gas prices, or another shinier transit contraption. They're Facebook and Brooklyn.
Since the 1940s, there has been no rite of passage more fraught with symbolism for a middle class kid than The Acquiring of the Driver's License. It was certainly a momentous occasion for me: Finally, I could go anywhere I wanted. I was high on adrenaline for days. I could drive.
But it never really occurred to me that the reason that moment felt so infused with a sense of freedom was because the built environment I'd grown up in had taken that freedom away in the first place. In my teens and preteens, I lived in a woodsy suburb that left great distances between myself and a social hub of any kind. It took me ten minutes to ride my bike to the closest dusty sandwich shop. I could walk to my best friend's house, who lived in a neighboring development, but it meant hopping a fence and facing down and/or frantically eluding a pair of nasty dogs—often deterrent enough to keep the both of us home.
Everything else—parks where we played soccer, the pizza place where we played arcade games, and, mostly, other friends across town—was simply unreachable by anything but a major, time intensive bike trip. Or getting dropped off by Mom. In effect, suburban development itself was withholding most of the stuff I wanted to do as a teenager. No wonder it felt like such a liberating release when I could finally go spend time with my friends whenever I felt like it.
With all that in mind, it's interesting to note a new trend uncovered by the public advocacy research group U.S. Pirg—young people have officially begun to lose interest in driving. After six consecutive decades of unimpeded growth in driving rates, they began to stagnate in the mid '00s.
As the New York Times reports today, "the number of miles driven — both over all and per capita — began to drop" at precisely that time. But the drop was most pronounced among young people. In fact, the Pirg report shows that "Young people aged 16 to 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001—a greater decline in driving than any other age group."
There are likely two separate engines motivating this trend. The first is that the upper and middle class youth in their twenties and early thirties, those most likely to be able to afford a car (or to come from families that can afford to buy them one), are moving into cities where they're unnecessary. Much digital ink has been spilled over these "Millennials" and their predilection for moving to hip, Brooklyn-esque communities where they can walk everywhere and ditch the SUVs of their forebears. But the data, collected by the U.S. Department of Transportation, pretty much bears it out.
I'm evidence, I guess—once one of those wide-eyed car lovers, I moved to Brooklyn from car-heavy southern California and sold my Ford. I haven't regretted ditching it at all. Brooklyn certainly isn't the only model, but it has become a "global brand" for hip urbanity (the New York Times told me so, in about 3,000 different trend pieces). Young, affluent people now overwhelmingly want to be able to walk or bike to artisanal restaurants, sweaty music venues, and bars stocked with organic beers. That's partly why places like Charlotte are focusing on walkability. That's in no small part Brooklyn's doing/fault.
But the other explanation for the decline in driving is more interesting: the rise in internet use amongst the same demographic that used to be so eager to hop behind the wheel. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan discovered that "a higher proportion of internet users was associated with a lower licensure rate," which they found to be "consistent with the hypothesis that access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people."
More time on Facebook, less driver's licenses. It might seem like an absurd sort of zero sum game to play, but it actually makes a good deal of sense. Thinking back to my own early car-driving days, I recall exactly what I did after exiting the DMV: I drove to my friend's house who lived across town. Then to another friend's. I beamed, I probably tried to act cool, maybe I awkwardly leaned up against my parents' Subaru. Then I went home.
Both were friends who I'd previously had to get rides from Mom to visit, and both were girls, so that used to be embarrassing. Now I could talk to them without anyone cramping my style, on my own terms—the way tens of millions of teenagers are currently Facebook chatting their friends right now.
I grew up right in the midst of the proto-social media boom. Some of my friends used AOL Instant Messenger, some didn't. I had an account, but never took to it. Those that did had access to a conduit that allowed for robust, private personal communication with groups of friends at a time. In other words, there's less of a burning incentive to drive on over to that friend's house if you've gotten entirely comfortable chatting, playing games, and so forth from your own room.
Studies bear this out, too. Just look at the driving rates in 1983 (the year I was born, coincidentally) and 2008, as mapped out by the U of M study:
And we know from the Pirg study that the trend is holding—those researchers think the declining in driving will continue until at least 2040. Which seems eminently plausible. As more folks from the affluent 18-34 demographic settle in cities, the need for cars will diminish. More parents simply won't own them. Which means the physical barriers to socializing erected by the suburbs will thus never be put in place, and teens won't need to overcome them to feel liberated. Meanwhile, social media will still be providing alternative channels for interaction.
These two colliding factors may indeed wear down the allure car. The prospect of driving, after all, is only exciting if there are places you're dying to go. Growing up in a place where all of your friends and activities are already within walking distance, and being able to bridge the rest of the gaps online—gaming, gossiping, etc—may hopelessly antiquate that four-cylinder headrush.
Which is great, really. That "liberation" you get from the car is fleeting—it quickly fades, first into schlepping your buddies around town, then into speeding tickets, and eventually into brain-numbing commutes across smoggy, congested highways. You realize that cars are ultimately confined to roads clogged with other cars, running on the same limiting rails—like trains, just more dangerous, and no drinking.
Yet I can see why conservatives are so protective of their automobiles, which they so consistently associate cars with "freedom" (and also why many seem to hate trains so much). There's a deeply psychological association that was forged in those early years: getting access to the car keys was in some ways like getting access to a giant chat room. That liberating sense of being able to go wherever you want, to talk to whoever you want.
Image: Allen Ginsberg
Again, much has been written about our fading romance with cars; the high mythology of American Graffiti and On the Road and every car commercial ever giving way to other, less transit-related and more digitally-oriented fantasies. But especially in those searching road narratives and teenage car porn films, an argument can be made that everyone's really just driving around looking for someone to talk to, someone who'll listen up. The pages of On the Road are filled with whirlwind dialog, but the great irony is of course that none of it really sinks in; Dean is crazy and poetic, but he can't figure out how to listen to anyone. Sal is lonely as hell. None of them can articulate what it is they're looking for out there; the need to drive is a need to connect (I just earned my lit major stripes there, right?).
But ultimately, it didn't work. Cars didn't end up awarding us freedom, nor did they serve to better connect us to our friends and communities. On the contrary: they turned out to be temporarily exciting engines of isolation that sort of despoiled the environment along the way. So we're in the process of moving on; we're sussing out new routes by which to connect, through which to move around our communities. Maybe walkable neighborhoods and social media won't prove to be ideal, either; maybe it will be Google Cars and ride-sharing, or light rail and Skype. Who knows. The only thing that's certain is that the American romance with driving is dying off, and the kids are looking for a more sustainable way to move their brains around.