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Can Young Generations Eliminate Car-Centric Cities?

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Some have high hopes that the next generations apparent disinterest in cars will lead to cities that are less dependent on cars. Bloomberg’s latest article argues otherwise, claiming that decades of autocentric development makes this unlikely.

Some major newspapers have run stories lately that claim the world is changing, and that the young do not share the same attitude towards cars as former generations. For example, a February headline in the Economist says that throughout the rich world, the young are falling out of love with cars. Along the same lines the New York Post noted that around 25% of American 16-year-olds had a driver’s licence in 2020 compared to 40% in 1997, suggesting a downward trend in car ownership and interest. The Washington Post had an article with a similar message. It’s headline read: “’I’ll call an Uber or 911’: Why Gen Z doesn’t want to drive”. However, the Bloomberg article points out that this decline in car use among teenagers might be due to affordability as much as to disinterest. Because cities are built around cars, the article claims, the only thing that can make society less reliant on them is building places that don’t need them. This requires increasing density and investing in transit and bike lanes – which lets people have real choices for travel. So, without major policy reforms, today’s car-cautious teenagers will become tomorrow’s daily drivers due to a lack of options, much like previous generations. A decade ago, their disinterest with cars was the subject of similar media fascination.

In the early 2010s, Kelcie Ralph was enrolled in an urban planning Ph.D program. Ralph kept hearing about how her generation was turning its back on cars, and she was sceptical. She decided to write her dissertation about the driving trends of young Americans. The article summarizes her conclusion in the following way: “Their much-hyped rejection of cars was a mirage. Overall, young people were driving less and waiting to get a driver’s licence compared to previous generations – but the bulk of that shift was not happening among the urban dwellers and middle-class youths who featured prominently in in media coverage.” Ralph herself points out that “the steepest declines in driving between 2001 and 2009 were among young people with low incomes who lived with their families.” Which strongly suggests this trend was not about disinterest, but options.

“It makes sense if you look at the cost of owning a car and insuring a teen driver,” Ralph said. “It’s so expensive that it doesn’t make sense.” However, when these teenagers became adults with increased incomes and children it turned out that they were not so anti-driving.  

Like their predecessors, Gen Z will likely obtain driver’s licenses and buy cars as they age. “The moment they no longer live in a college campus or in one of the handful of places where they don’t have to have a car, they will purchase one,” Ralpha said. “The US is an autocentric country, and if you don’t have one, you’ll be left behind.”

The same has been happening in Europe. A 2018 study of Switzerland concluded that young people were delaying acquiring a driver’s licence, but by 30 they had caught up. However, young people in Europe might be better able to avoid driving as they age, especially now when cities like Brussels and Paris are transforming themselves into “15-minute” cities.

Personal Comment:

It is tempting to think that the next generation will fix everything, and that young people will not be as autocentric as the previous generation. However, the truth is that most people will choose to give up cars only if they have viable alternatives. This requires significant infrastructure change that makes non-car-based options a reality, whether those are micromobility, walking, or public transport. Even a good infrastructure for biking and cycling does not mean that everybody will rush to switch from comfortable cars to bikes. This can be seen in examples where people raised voices of opposition when the government closed roads to implement some of these infrastructure changes.

An implication from these reports is that the narrow focus on a snapshot of a generation isn’t enough. The more interesting and relevant question is how vehicle ownership decisions change over time for people as they age. It would be nice to see some results from long-term research.

The Written by Kateryna Melnyk,
RISE Mobility & Systems