Young People on Car Ownership: Meh

Owning a car was once a rite of passage for young Americans on par with algebra and the prom. But, according to a recent report from MSNBC, more young people are sitting out the ritual driver’s tests and the time-honored privilege of getting the keys to a hand-me-down clunker.

The number of young adults between 20 and 24 who are licensed to drive dropped by five percent between 1994 and 2008, down to 82 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Among 16-year-olds, just 31 percent held a driver’s license in 2008, compared to about 42 percent in 1994. Experts attribute the decline not only to a sour economy, but also to a growing ambivalence among younger generations about driving and car ownership more generally.

Network blog NEOHouston says younger generations’ hesitancy to invest in personal automobiles makes sense on a number of levels. It’s unfortunate, however, that they’ve inherited a landscape poorly equipped to accommodate them.

When compared to earlier generations, this generation of 18-35 year-olds seems to be less and less interested in cars. Younger people these days are more interested in spending their money on socializing with friends or the latest technology. They are more and more likely to put off buying a car and take public transit.  Some young people are making the decision to forgo driving altogether.

This is not surprising. The downturn in the economy has been especially rough for younger people. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about the future out there and purchasing a car is often a long-term financial decision. People are unlikely to make such a long-term commitment in a car when they are worried about losing their job.

David Cole, the chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, said that as younger people age, they will eventually be forced to buy an automobile of some kind. I don’t argue with that assertion though I do find it interesting that we, as a society, have made the collective decision to design our cities in such a way as to essentially force citizens to make a substantial private purchase in order to function.  Actually I think it’s more accurate to say that several generations ago people made that collective decision and we are now all living with it to this day.

It will be exciting to see what kind of stamp a new, auto eschewing generation puts on the built transportation environment.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Transport Politic examines the agenda of John Mica, the likely new chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Baltimore Spokes highlights the fact that gas taxes and other user fees are making up a declining share of highway funding. And Steven Can Plan studies the equity effects of priced express lanes, or “Lexus Lanes.”

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