Young people giving up on car culture

click to enlarge
The cover of today’s Washington Post tabloid edition.

Americans under 30 are giving up cars in record numbers. Congestion, combined with escalating costs, a return to urban living, and the rise of social media have resulted in an increasing view among young people that cars are a burden rather then a ticket to freedom.

The statistics are staggering. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) by Americans under 35 fell by 23% from 2001 to 2009. Less than half of potential drivers under 19 have driver’s licenses today, compared to nearly 2/3 in 1998. 21-34 year-olds are buying about a quarter of new cars in the US today, compared to almost 40% in 1985. 88% of the Millennial generation want to live in a walkable urban environment. Bicycles are beginning to outnumber cars in some urban neighborhoods. [ref]

This cultural shift is such big news that over the last couple of years it’s become a fairly common meme in the media. Many of the major news publications are taking turns writing stories about it.

Today was the Washington Post’s turn. Their story covered all the usual points:

  • The car’s old role as a necessary tool for social interaction is greatly diminished due to the rise of the internet.
  • Electronic gadgets have largely replaced cars as the consumer products young people desire most.
  • Increasing congestion and rising gas prices have eaten into the simple joy of driving the open road.
  • New models of carsharing, bikesharing, and increased transit are diluting the car’s place as the most convenient way to travel.

The Post goes on to interview some of the young people living this different version of the American Dream. “It’s not advantageous to have a car, and sometimes it’s disadvantageous,” says one. “I think the car is less tied to your identity than it was in the 50s,” says another.

It’s standard practice in newspaper writing to find someone who disagrees with the premise of a piece. The Post’s article follows that template, but their choice of a naysayer is interesting.

The Post quotes a professor Michael Marsden, of Saint Norbet College. He says:

“If you look at Main Street America on weekends, they’re still driving up and down Main Street… Are we really ever going to get over the love affair? I doubt it. Automotive culture, that love affair is a deep one. And we may have to compromise, we may have to shift, we may have to redefine it, but it’s a pull. It’s a deep, deep pull.”

A quick search reveals that professor Marsden is an older gentleman, and that Saint Norbet college is located in a suburb of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Not to pick on professor Marsden, but I wonder if he knows that his statements aren’t really a defense of car culture so much as they are further illustration of the generation gap. What better proof of this could the Post have shown than to end a story filled with quotes from young people with one from an old guy about how he thinks they’re all wrong?

It’s extremely unlikely that cars will ever disappear entirely, of course. That’s not the point. Cars are wonderfully useful tools, after all, as long we don’t let them take over our lives. The point of articles such as this is that “useful tools” is exactly how young people today view cars, rather than as the essential identity-defining symbols of previous generations.

And really, is it such a surprise that today’s youth don’t identify with the same cultural symbols as their parents and grandparents? Is anyone actually shocked at this development? I doubt it.

Ref: Statistics in the second paragraph from the following sources: BeyondDC, MSNBC, Washington Post, The Atlantic,

By | 2012-05-22T09:46:58+00:00 May 22, 2012|Categories: Demographics, Motor Vehicles|16 Comments


  1. Dave Barnes May 22, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Driverless or self-driving cars are going to change everything.
    Not today nor next week, but within 50 years.
    One look at that:

  2. jjc May 22, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Denver seems unique to many of our urban counterparts in that we attract human capital based on our image as a place for outdoor enthusiasts with good job opportunities (or is that just my friends). There is little to no alternative to car transport to ski, mtn. bike, camping trips, etc. Is Denver seeing a sharp increase in families with one car instead of two or no cars instead of one? Do any of these studies take into account the lack of growth in wages over the past couple of decades for a large percentage of the population? Does less disposable income mean that people will buy fewer cars, forcing cities to plan better and not complain about it? Sorry for the spewing of questions but this article did little to provide insight into how and why this is playing out in Denver’s urban environment.

    • Dan Malouff May 23, 2012 at 7:27 am

      This is a good comment, and as far as I know it’s true that there are no Denver-specific studies. But it’s important to note that car USE and car OWNERSHIP are not synonyms. Car-sharing and car-rental are ideal solutions for people who want to access outdoor amenities, (or make an occasional trip to Target or Ikea) but otherwise don’t have much use for a car in their day to day lives.

      It’s unfortunate that Zipcar doesn’t have a presence in Denver. It really does make a huge difference.

      • Vicki H. May 23, 2012 at 7:36 am

        There are car-sharing companies in Denver. Here’s a May 2011 article from the Denver Post about them:

      • jjc May 23, 2012 at 12:51 pm

        I actually have a membership to a car share. I was worried when my fiancé got a job doing home visits and would need our one car on a daily basis and opted in to a car share. I can say that I’ve only used it two or three times in the last 5 months and that the forced planning that occurs when you can’t jump in your car is a good thing. But, I’d love to know if Denver is following the trends that other municipalities are seeing.

    • Planner T May 23, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      Appreciate your comment jjc. I am an avid skier, fly-fisherman, hiker, camper, you name it in the mountains. My car sits at home during the week as I take the bus and rail or bike into the office, but an outdoor lifestyle with 2 kids leaves no options to the personal vehicle in Denver. I think it’s great that less people are defining their lives around their vehicle, but I certainly don’t feel guilty about my annual VMT spent enjoying the beautiful state we live in. And no, a monorail on I-70 isn’t going to get me near Chalk Creek, Creede, or some of my other favorite spots. It’s all a balance I guess. I do love how cool cycling has become in the city. I think we have so many different bikes to choose from now that it has become the new way to define yourself. Leg power is in, horsepower is so 1990s. Bike on my fiends!

      • Planner T May 24, 2012 at 10:54 am

        That’s friends, not fiends.

  3. mckillio May 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    I’m a 28 year old male and I am very close to selling my car. Between gas, maintenance, car washes, Denver’s ridiculously high vehicle registration, street parking, parking enforcement I’ve had enough. I live 1.4 miles from the nearest light rail station and drive there everyday anyways, I don’t even touch my car on the weekends.

  4. […] read an interesting article from Denver Urbanism today. It is part of a common conversation lately. Many young folks simply don’t see cars the […]

  5. Gosia Kung May 23, 2012 at 9:28 am

    People are pedestrians by design

  6. Kio May 25, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Yes, this is very exciting to see! I have experienced this myself, but thought maybe it was because I was living in the bubble that is Boulder County. 🙂 Glad to hear that it is happening across our nation. I really think that the “generation gap” is a major factor.

    In high school (~2005), all my friends had a car and we all lived in massive suburban neighborhoods far from anything. Lots of my friends weren’t even allowed to ride public transit (in the few places it was available) because their parents said it was too dangerous!

    Many of us moved up to Boulder for college and learned that it was actually amazingly easy (and many times easier) to get around by walking, biking or using public transit. I went an entire year once on 1 tank of gas.

    Now a few years out of college, most of my peers own cars, but rarely use them. For the people that don’t own a car, it is a lifestyle choice not a financial necessity. They would just rather spend their money on something else. I think that for our parents’ generation not owning a car carried a huge social stigma, but that doesn’t really exist in my generation, making it easier to choose to live car-free or car-light.

    I think there is also snowball effect in play. It is intimidating to think about reducing car-use if nobody around you is doing it. But if you see your peers doing it, it becomes easier to take the first step because you can ask them about bus routes or bike paths.

    • mckillio May 25, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      In regards to your last point, “It is intimidating to think about reducing car-use if nobody around you is doing it.”, I think that could go both ways. For instance, I’m really close to going carless and it’s reassuring knowing that I have friends with cars that I could rely on if I needed a car now and then.

  7. WAR June 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Now 30 years old, I’ve lived in the city and county of Denver since 2005 and have had my car sit idle on the street typically 5 days a week for just as long.

    Between owning a cheap bike, having a b-cycle (bike sharing) membership, living close to mass transit, and having a perfectly functioning pair of legs, my man and I are seriously considering becoming a 1 car family.

    It took me a few years to feel comfortable biking to more than just work and school, but with the enhancements made by Denver and spending time on the roads learning how to be a safe and law abiding cyclist I am happier than ever to leave the car unused.

    Public transit use and bicycle communting are both learned skills, if more parents model this behavior/teach these skills both car use and car ownership will continue to decline. However living and working in the city is a distinct advantage to that way of life.

  8. matkaemm June 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    Fiance and I just became a 1 car family, both 28. Live in Villa Park area, now that the bike path along the gulch park is done, we are connected to Downtown Denver by 10 minute bike ride, 15 minutes to Market street station for bus. No parking, no hassle, we love it.

    Of course, we are 1 car now because she totaled it, but hey we chose not to replace it. Saved 3 months worth of insurance and gas already, and haven’t needed or wanted the other car back. Sometimes we all just need a little kick in some way or another.

  9. Sherika Aukamp June 7, 2012 at 3:49 am

    I have been sifting through this website for awhile now and I just wanted to post since this article is so awesome. Keep up the admirable work!

  10. […] more and more young people, those in their early 20s,  embracing a simpler life, even so far as to not own a car, or even having a drivers license, for my generation getting our driver’s license was a dream […]

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