Falling Out of Love With The Automobile

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Over the last twenty years, the number of drivers licenses in The United States has dropped… and it’s dropped relatively dramatically.  According to a story in the Atlantic in January of this year, “16.4 percent fewer 20-to-24-year-olds had licenses in 2014 than in 1983, 11 percent fewer 25-to-29-year-olds, 10.3 percent fewer 30-to-34-year-olds, and 7.4 percent fewer 35-to-39-year-olds” (2014 statistics).  From 2004 (peak year for miles driven) to 2013, total mileage driven was down 9% This is a rather drastic change in the way America’s younger generation is moving about.

So why this sudden break from the ages old love affair with the American right of passage, the automobile?  What is causing this sudden surge in desire for a more public transit options?  There are likely a diverse combination of reasons, including the obvious and unprecedented amount of debt that college student are saddled with during and after college.  But there are more interesting and unappreciated factors that are contributing to this trend.

The Rise Of Mobile Technology

While theories abound regarding the skyrocketing desire for transit options in our cities, there is one that virtually everyone understands and agrees with.  Smart phones, tablets and mobile technology allows everyone from the hoodie-wearing student to the suit-and-tie business person to access and transmit information on the go.  Checking email, making a call, booking a flight, researching a science project… these were all activities that, just a few years ago, could only be accomplished from a desktop computer, or maybe even a clunky laptop. For me personally, as a professional photographer, I can send an invoice and a contract, write a blog post and watch a YouTube video about cats that attack people, all while riding an Amtrak train to Utica, Rome, Schenectady or somewhere else.  If I was driving a car, I couldn’t get that work done, nor could I have a good laugh over a fat calico fly tackling a toddler.

I joke, but this is the our world today… our former obsession with the freedom of the automobile has been replaced with our desire for constant information.  We are slowly breaking up with the car in favor of a new love, the smartphone.  The two could not be more unalike, but more and more we are finding that the two may not be able to coexist.

Licenses Are Harder To Come By

Sam Schwartz, author of the book Street Smart, speaks to the rather drastic decline in the number of licenses acquired over the last 15 years.  One of the reasons he mentions is that there are many more steps involved than there used to be for someone who wants to attain a driver’s license.  Tests, minimum road hour requirements, mandatory 5 hour courses… this multi-step process was created for greater safety in the hopes of producing a more competent motorist.  What it’s likely done is act as a deterrent for many would-be drivers.  This might sound puzzling to some, but there is a rule in the business world that says “if you want to keep selling something, never make it harder for the customer to attain it.”  Or something like that.  This statement is based on the fact that, very often, if your customers have to take one more step to purchase your product or service than they are previously used to, a large percentage will simply walk away in favor of a simpler option.  That may be a contributing reason for the decline in license acquisition.

“The Back Seat Generation”

This is my favorite, because it’s one I would never have thought about, yet it makes so much sense.  The generations reaching driving age today are part of what are referred to (in this context) as the “back seat generation.”  These youngsters spent more time in the back seat of their parents’ cars than any other age group before them.  The two-person income family, the popularization of travel sports, the obsession of minivans and SUVs and the continued suburbanization of America… these 1990s trends produced a generation of young adults who, in their childhood years, spent more time in the car by age 16 than ever before.

Couple this with the fact that this time period yielded more cars on the road and more miles driven, and you get the rise of a term that had never been used before… “road rage.”

Some experts theorize that, with increased traffic congestion in the 1990s and 2000s, the youngsters sitting in the back seat watched as their parents become increasingly frustrated with traffic congestion, drive times and road construction.  By the time this generation reached adulthood, a high percentage of them likely associated driving with anger and frustration as much or more than freedom.


Cars aren’t going away.  They will continue to be a dominant force in this country for years to come, as our infrastructure and lifestyle as American citizens has been built around the automobile.  But for the reasons mentioned above and many more, younger generations are becoming increasingly vocal about the desire for more transit options.  If we want our children to stay close to home, we would do well to listen and understand where they are coming from.