Are Americans Falling Out of Love with Cars?

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The average American car owner drives fewer miles today than ten years ago. The statistics are indisputable. Miles per car peaked in 2005, and the number has been declining ever since.

Maybe the purported love affair between Americans and their cars is coming to an end.

Several recent studies show that this trend is particularly evident among young people. In an article published in the Atlantic in January of this year titled The Decline of the Driver’s License, Julie Beck reports on a study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The evidence clearly shows that young people are seeking alternatives to driving their own cars.

“The percentage of people with a driver’s license decreased between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups,” Beck reports. “For people age 16 to 44, that percentage has been decreasing steadily since 1983. It’s especially pronounced for teens—in 2014, just 24.5% of 16-year-olds had a license, a 47% decrease from 1983, when 46.2% did. And at the tail end of the teen years, 69% of 19-year-olds had licenses in 2014, compared to 87.3% in 1983, a 21% decrease.”

I never fully bought into the advertising-driven idea that Americans love their cars. For a small percentage of car owners, the metaphor of a love affair is apt. These are the hobbyists and enthusiasts, the people who spend their spare time working on their cars, waxing the paint job, tricking out the stereo system, going to car shows. But I think the vast majority of car owners view their vehicle as a necessity, a notion that the greater culture, until recently, has done little to challenge. It’s less a love affair than an addiction.

I accepted the inevitability of car ownership for longer than I’d like to admit. From the ages of 18 to 49, I almost always owned a car. The brief periods when I didn’t weren’t by choice. A car would die a few weeks or months before I could replace it. I had a car stolen once in San Diego. Members of a weekly writing group to which I drove chipped in to get me on the road again, for which I’m still grateful. But these days I would carpool or take the bus.

Another study, this one by TransitCenter, a New York-based philanthropic group dedicated to promoting public transportation, shows that the so-called millennial generation is far friendlier to public transit than their baby boomer predecessors.

“People under 30 are far more likely to ride public transportation and to express positive feelings about it than older people, regardless of what part of the country they live in or what kind of neighborhood they grew up in,” writes Sarah Goodyear in CityLab. The trend continues even when they start families. “Across all income brackets, parents under 30 used transit significantly more than those between 30 and 60,” Goodyear writes. “Forty-five percent of the under-30 parent group with incomes above $75,000 said they use transit weekly, compared with 16% of parents between 30 and 60 in the same income bracket.”

Furthermore, Goodyear observes, they are doing so despite the example of their baby boomer parents. Millennials are “less likely to have been encouraged to walk or bike by their families as children or to have had easy access to transit, and were more likely to have gotten the message from parents that transit was unsafe (as well as the message from peers that it was uncool).”

There’s more good news. Attitudes toward public transportation are improving all over the country, and up and down all income brackets. Even people who can afford cars are turning to public transportation as a more economic alternative.

But much remains to be done to accelerate this positive trend. People are five times more likely to use public transportation if offered incentives by their employers, as the University of Maine, Husson University and other area schools do. Car owners need to be persuaded that spending tax dollars on transit benefits them, too. Parking needs to be priced so that non-drivers no longer subsidize it, and businesses need to offer discounts to customers who arrive by other means than car. Alternatives need to be promoted and encouraged, in both public and private sectors.

Attitudes change slowly, over generations. The bailed-out, subsidized automobile industry still spends millions of dollars in advertising to addict Americans to their product and make them think they’re in love. But fewer of us are falling for it.

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