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Crisp: Young adults are driving less, fueling change

The Long Island Expressway in Roslyn at dusk.

The Long Island Expressway in Roslyn at dusk. Views look west just west of Glen Cove Rd. Westbound traffic is on the right. (Oct. 7, 2011) Credit: David Pokress

Now, here’s a counter-intuitive bit of good news: It appears that many young Americans are less interested in driving than baby boomers are.

According to the National Household Transportation Survey, as reported by Reuters, Americans started driving less around the turn of the 21st century. But the biggest drop was seen among those ages 16 to 34.

Between 2001 and 2009, the average number of vehicle-miles driven by young adults dropped 23 percent, from 10,300 to 7,900.

And 26 percent of these young people didn’t even have a driver’s license in 2010, a drop of 5 percent from a decade earlier, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The Frontier Group, a think tank that has studied this phenomenon, speculates about why the young are driving less. Some reasons are strictly practical: Gasoline and insurance cost more these days, and the price of an automobile represents an increasingly heavy burden in a weak economy.

Other reasons are less obvious. Frontier suggests that the young are more open to using alternative forms of transportation, such as buses and bicycles, and that they’re attracted to living in places where shopping and recreation are within walking distance. Improvements in technology — the province of the young — have made non-automobile transportation convenient and efficient; schedules, bus stop locations and car-sharing opportunities are immediately available in their ubiquitous hand-held devices.

Finally, the relentless connectivity that the young require isn’t easily reconciled with the attention that driving involves. Texting causes accidents, and governing bodies have responded with laws. This may surprise boomers, but many young people would rather text than drive.

In fact, the most interesting part of this phenomenon is the psychological gap between a group of young Americans who appear to be less interested in driving and my generation, baby boomers, for whom learning to drive was a rite of passage that represented freedom and adulthood. The idea that it doesn’t mean the same things to a new generation may be hard for us to envision.

Even though our modern world — where we live, what our cities look like, even how we think — was largely shaped by the automobile, it’s worth remembering that driving is a fairly recent phenomenon. My grandfather was a grown man with children the day he walked into town with $400 — an East Texas oil-boom windfall — and drove home in a Model T, the first time he’d ever been in a car.

My father rode trains all across the U.S. during World War II, but in the 1950s his very American love affair with the automobile blossomed, along with the interstate highway system, and into his 80s he drove hundreds of thousands of miles across the Lower 48, Alaska and Canada, absorbed in the pleasure of the open road.

So even though the automobile was only a couple of generations old, we boomers were born into a world thoroughly shaped and dominated by it. And without the Internet and videogames to distract us, we readily adopted the car as the central symbol of what it means to be a grown-up or, really, an American.

I’m not convinced that the tide has turned on driving in our country, but the figures above remind us that the world doesn’t necessarily have to remain in the state in which we find it: New generations may indeed see the automobile differently than we do.

Why is this a good thing? Here’s a sentiment that usually provokes some readers to invite me to move to France, but let’s face it: As much as we love the internal combustion-engine automobile, it’s hard to think of anything that’s done more to damage our environment, to tarnish our landscape, and to provoke us toward war in order to acquire and protect the fuel that powers it.

Real transformation will not occur until we begin to think differently about cars. The boomers weren’t capable of it; maybe the next generation will be.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.