Kids to cars: Drop dead

GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GETTY IMAGES Driving a Detroit muscle car was once a defining characteristic of being a young American.
GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP / GETTY IMAGES Driving a Detroit muscle car was once a defining characteristic of being a young American.
Posted: April 01, 2014

REMEMBER "American Graffiti"? Remember the hamburger-shop drive-in where all the cool kids with cars hung out? (That was California. Around here it was Hot Shoppes.)

Did anything better capture the love affair between the automobile and the American teenager?

It looks as though the romance is fading like a summer tan.

That observation follows reporting by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission that automobile use around here is down.

The "why" is intriguing.

In our region, the DVRPC reported "total weekday traffic declined by 5.4 percent from 2005-2010," with highway traffic to and from Center City down by an astounding 9.3 percent. Simultaneously, Center City mass-transit ridership grew 3.2 percent and regional rail zoomed 15.7 percent.

But that's not the whole story. The number of kids driving is diving.

In 1983, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 72 percent of those between 16 and 19 years old had driver's licenses. That dropped to 50.9 percent in 2011.

That means only half of American teenagers have licenses. That is an amazing statistic and a sea change in American culture.

One reason is the annual cost of operating a car, which increased from $1,000 in 1950 to $7,000 in 2012. Considering youth unemployment and low wages, millennials seem to be saying it just isn't worth it.

In the days of "American Graffiti" and after, getting a driver's license was a rite of passage. It was the first "adult" thing you could do (legally, anyway). Driving an overpowered, supercharged Detroit monster was one definition of being an American. (Driving a stick shift was one definition of being European.)

From "Route 66" to "Thelma and Louise" to "Pimp My Ride," cars and driving were a central part of the postwar American experience.

That seems to be sliding down history's coal chute.

Maybe not, says Sharon Carty, editor of AOL's Autoblog.

"If cars weren't as expensive and young people didn't have as many financial obligations, I think they'd be just as excited" to own a car as in past generations, she says.

It could be they are just delaying getting driver's licenses until they actually have a car to drive.

Social media, some say, have reduced the need to travel to see friends. Skype or texting works. In "American Graffiti" days, you'd impress with your wheels. In cyberworld, it's with the coolest app.

Jordan Perch - a millennial car-loving analyst at DMV.com, a website devoted to motor-vehicle information - says that something else is going on here, a "profound change" that hasn't been much researched.

There are "changes in how millennials feel about driving, about the utility of driving vs. the cost to society of driving," he says. Millennials are "more likely to have an environmental focus and be involved in environmental advocacy."

They see cars as not only overpriced, but also oversized and harmful to the environment.

There is some truth in that, and it's one reason I've heard such hate for cars from the narcissistic bicyclists who love themselves for being "green."

Being anti-car is an idea - like drinking at least 64 ounces of water a day or you will die - they learn in school, where cars are routinely demonized.

Perch shies away from saying that, but agrees that attitudes, not just economics, have changed.

Cars are no longer cool to a growing number of teens, he believes. If so, the great American love affair is doomed.

I don't think so. Once we get off oil and the internal-combustion engine - that's not far off - the kids will come speeding back.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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