Young Americans are just not into driving the way their elders are or did at their age. They are less likely to own cars or use cars. The drives they do are shorter. Meanwhile, the bus is looking good to them.
A new report confirms this trend and offers reasons that millennials — we're talking 14- to 31-year-olds — seem less drawn to the automobile thing. They're sure not singing car songs as the baby boomers did. No "Little Deuce Coupe," no "G.T.O.," no "Hot Rod Lincoln."
But the report, by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Frontier Group, misses what I see as the biggest factor. Driving is no longer a coast down the great American open road. It's become a pain and a drag — drag as in "a boring or tiresome thing."
From 2001 to 2009, the average number of miles driven by 16- to 34-year-olds fell by an astounding 23 percent. There are economic reasons, for sure. The Great Recession whacked millennials especially hard in the job area. They are therefore shorter of cash — and less likely to get married, have kids and pursue other activities conducive to car ownership than previous generations at their age.
They've also shown a greater passion for living in urban or otherwise walkable communities. These are neighborhoods where automobiles are not the only way to get around and at least remnants of a public transportation system survive.
Our gadgets make it all easier. Millennials lead in using apps to car share (Zipcar) or summon a ride (Uber, Lyft, Sidecar) with minimum hassle. Other apps quickly display public transit options, connections and schedules. And time not spent behind the wheel of a car is time freed for texting, emailing, tweeting and whatever.
What really killed the American love affair with the car? The hell of American driving.
Oh, there still exist some heavenly road experiences in this country: drives at dawn through West Coast wine country, two-lane dreamscapes in rural regions sprawl has yet to wreck.
But the typical car experience takes place in the exhaust of suburban congestion. What younger adults recall as children is being strapped in the back seat as Mom lurched the vehicle through a soulless crudscape of drab chain retailing. They've done the six lanes of stop-and-go — bored out of their skulls and worried about Mom's frazzled nerves.
They don't want to do this anymore. And if it means sharing a 700-square-foot apartment downtown, so be it. The more young people — or any people — establish their nests downtown the faster America's long-suffering town centers will mend.
So yea, millennials.
Something in the report did evoke a smile. We're in think tank land, which means the most elemental activities take on tech-speak labels. In this case, it's the reference to walking as another "mode" of transportation.
Since the caveman, walking's been the default — with every other way of getting around being the instead-of.
But perhaps the authors are right. Perhaps locomotory momentum has become just another option on the multiple choice: "Do I put on shoes today or strap on the jet pack?"
At least they didn't refer to sidewalks as the "pedestrian interface."
The mission going forward is to build up the public transportation system to serve Americans' changing needs. Conservatives of yore framed public transit as a devious plot to force Americans from their five-bedroom spreads to apartment houses along bus lines.
But a bus-and-rail boom was not the big thing accelerating multifamily home construction during the Great Recession and beyond. It was market forces, guys. And the Americans leading that market are the millennials, yearning to hang up the car keys.