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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,