Young people turning their backs on driving? That’s un-American

As a nation, we put a lot of money into saving the American automobile industry, and it appears to be paying off. I see a lot more Buicks, Chevys, Cadillacs, Fords and Chryslers on the road these days, and it sounds as though Detroit is back on its feet.

Now I see in Atlantic Cities that increasingly, young people are less interested in buying cars, and they’re not all that interested in driving. That’s almost impossible for me to get my head around.

I’ve held a driver’s license for more than 40 years, and I count driving as one of the most liberating experiences of my life. There was nothing more important to me, during my teenage years, than having the freedom of the road and the ability to go anywhere I wanted, down the street or across the country.

A major new report says many people in their teens and 20s aren’t too interested in buying a car or in driving. Consider these findings:

  • The average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) in the U.S. decreased by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, falling from 10,300 miles per capita to just 7,900 miles per capita in 2009.
  • The share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased by 5 percentage points, rising from 21 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Part of the reason is economic. It cost an estimated $8,700 a year to own and operate a car, and that figure was calculated before gas started pushing $4 a gallon. In an economy that has made it tough for young people to find work, a car becomes a luxury for many.

Beyond that, however, a growing number of young people have increasingly negative perceptions about the necessity and desirability of owning a car. Cars are coming to be seen as a burden, not a liberator.

In part, social media are contributing to the lessened need for a car. Young people seem to believe they can get together online and not need to be together physically as much. (There’s something wrong with that picture!)

There are obvious benefits to relying less on cars, of course. People get more exercise when they walk or bike somewhere, and less fossil fuel is burned.

Still, cars have been and can be a huge economic driver. And they are an important part of the American landscape and the American dream.

I’ve felt differences between younger generations and me before, but they’ve been minor. This one, however, really feels like a major shift between my generation and those that follow.

So what do you think? Can you fathom having a generation around that doesn’t love cars? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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