The Great Shift Away From Driving
Anna Eshoo wants to hear the case for HSR on the Peninsula, and we’re going to make sure she hears it loud and clear. Starting today, with an examination of the great shift away from driving.
As I’ve argued many times before, the debate over HSR is fueled in part by a generational divide. Older Californians who are convinced that driving will always be our primary form of travel don’t see the need for passenger rail, and in an era of declining real estate values, it’s easy for them to see HSR as a threat that isn’t necessary to the community’s survival.
Younger Californians, however, generally don’t have the same attitude. They recognize that driving is not the basis of travel on the Peninsula even today, and have no desire for it to be so in the future. Instead, they are joining their counterparts across the country in moving away from driving.
It is a fundamental and massive shift with enormous implications for the future of California, the Peninsula included. As a recent article in Advertising Age explains, the digital revolution is driving a decline in car culture:
The internet has wreaked havoc on the music industry, airlines and media, but it just may be doing the same thing to automobiles.
It’s a rarely acknowledged transformational shift that’s been going on under the noses of marketers for as long as 15 years: The automobile, once a rite of passage for American youth, is becoming less relevant to a growing number of people under 30. And that could have broad implications for marketers in industries far beyond insurance, gasoline and retail.
For generations – as far back as at least the 1920s – the automobile was THE symbol of freedom for American youth. If you were a teenager, you wanted a car so you and your friends, or your sweetheart, could escape the oppressive gaze of your parents and the rest of society and go off to your own place, to your own world. I can still remember being in high school in the early 1990s and counting down the days until I turned 16 and could get my driver’s license and experience that freedom for myself.
But that appears to have undergone a dramatic change since 1995 (the year I finally turned 16). In the 15 years since, there’s been a huge decline in the number of young Americans who have driver’s licenses and own cars, part of a 30-year trend as shown in the following Ad Age graphics:
Ad Age delves into the numbers to show this is no fluke:
Certainly it’s hard to believe for anyone stuck in traffic on the way to O’Hare airport in Chicago, a bridge or tunnel into Manhattan, any freeway in Los Angeles, or the newly repaved four-lane highway to a suburban Walmart. But look around, and the people in the other cars are likely to be in their 40s or older….
It’s not just new drivers driving less. The share of automobile miles driven by people aged 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Census data show the proportion of people aged 21-30 increased from 13.3% to 13.9%, so 20-somethings actually went from driving a disproportionate amount of the nation’s highway miles in 1995 to under-indexing for driving in 2009.
What’s driving the shift? Part of it is the internet, which is radically changing how we get around, why we need to travel, and which modes of travel suit our new online lives:
William Draves blames the internet. Mr. Draves, president of Lern, a consulting firm which focuses mainly on higher education, and co-author of “Nine Shift,” maintains that the digital age is reshaping the U.S. and world early in this century, much like the automobile reshaped American life early in the last century.
His theory is that almost everything about digital media and technology makes cars less desirable or useful and public transportation a lot more relevant. Texting while driving is dangerous and increasingly illegal, as is watching mobile TV or working on your laptop. All, at least under favorable wireless circumstances, work fine on the train. The internet and mobile devices also have made telecommuting increasingly common, displacing both cars and public transit.
The environment is the reason Gen Y-ers most often give for wanting to drive less, Mr. Draves said. But he sees the fundamental economic transformation wrought by the internet (and, apparently on the internet; research firm J.D. Power & Associates found that Gen Y-ers don’t talk about cars nearly as much as their elders in social media). This demographic will be working on “intangibles” in professional jobs, not on tangible things that require physical presence, Mr. Draves said. “Time becomes really valuable to them,” he said. “You can work on a train. You can’t work in a car. And the difference is two to three hours a day, or about 25% of one’s productive time.”
As someone just barely in the Millennial/Gen Y category, I can vouch for this. I would much rather take a train or a bus than drive if I can help it. Why? Because on a train or on a bus, I can still use my laptop, my iPhone, my soon-to-arrive iPad. I can get work done that I simply cannot get done if I am driving.
I learned this just last weekend. I spent 12 hours of my weekend driving from Monterey to Anaheim and back. I fell behind in emails, work, and even blogging. I would have loved to have had those 12 hours back, but sitting behind the wheel of a car driving somewhere between 75 and 80 mph, I couldn’t have interacted online without risking my own life and posing a serious hazard to others on the roads.
It’s not just HSR advocates and consultants who have noted the shift. The auto companies themselves are very well aware of this trend, which risks their long-term business strategy:
Ford Motor Co. sees the trend as well, which is why it has introduced features such as Sync in its cars. “I don’t think the car symbolizes freedom to Gen Y to the extent it did baby boomers, or to a lesser extent, Gen X-ers,” said Sheryl Connelly, global trends and futuring manager. “Part of it is that there are a lot more toys out there competing for the hard-earned dollars of older teens and young adults.”
Digital technology “allows teens to transcend time and place,” she said, “so they can feel connected to their friends virtually.” New options like Zipcar also make it easier to do without permanent car ownership, she said.
Millennials “are an important customer to us,” said Ford’s Ms. Connelly. “But we also understand the context in which they use cars has changed. … It has nothing to do with performance or getting you from point A to point B. It’s just a change in what people expect to be delivered.”
Ford understands exactly what I was saying earlier – that the notion of “car = freedom” that was so dominant in the 20th century is no longer dominant in the 21st century. For the young people I know – especially those still under 18 – having their own cell phone, their own laptop, their own Facebook page is generally more important than having a car.
Having a license and a car is still important, but primarily as a means of transportation – getting to school, getting to work. And since that can be achieved by other means, especially if we provide the trains and buses to do it, it correspondingly reduces the desire and need to drive. When gas prices rise again, younger people will desperately seek out alternatives.
Why? Because in addition to the changing nature of American life, which renders car ownership/driving much less important and desirable, the cost of driving is another huge factor that is “driving” younger Americans to alternative means of transportation (forgive the pun):
The economy, rather than any longer-term secular trend, has impacted driving and licensing among younger people, said Paul Taylor, chief economist with the National Automobile Dealers Association. Unemployment has led some younger consumers to drive less, and the cost of insuring a 16-to-19-year-old driver alone can discourage cash-strapped parents from allowing them to get licenses. State licensing requirements and restrictions by many high schools and colleges on driving are also a factor.
Mr. Draves, however, notes that the shift began well before the recession or the preceding run-up in gas prices. The real-estate markets most profoundly affected by the bursting housing bubble — such as Las Vegas and other Sunbelt metro areas — are boom towns built around highways with no substantial train transportation. Real-estate markets that have been less affected or quicker to recover include Boston and San Francisco, which have strong urban rail systems. In New Jersey, Connecticut, Boston, Denver and Chicago, housing prices near new or existing train stations have either been among the first to recover or have seen less depreciation during the bursting of the housing bubble.
The stats in the Ad Age charts seem to bear out Draves’ point. And keep in mind that NADA has a clear economic interest in framing the shift as a temporary one, since they want to sell more cars to young people. Draves is also bolstered by the evidence he gave showing that real estate markets with strong urban rail systems have held up pretty well. That includes the Peninsula, by the way.
Some argue that as the Millennials get older, they’ll buy more cars:
Driving is more likely “delayed than denied,” argued NADA’s Mr. Taylor. “That age cohort may eventually get married and have children. Living near work is something you do when you’re young and single, and when you start picking out schools and amenities you want for your children’s development, people are less willing to live near the office.”
Again, NADA is missing the boat here, deliberately so. Taylor assumes that Millennials wil start to act like their parents and grandparents once they start families. But why would they do so when they haven’t exhibited the same behavior when they’re young?
In fact, from what I can see, Millennials are keeping to their less-dependent-on-driving habits as they start families. A number of my urban Seattle friends have bought houses and started families in the last 2 or 3 years. Every single one of them bought a house in the city of Seattle. Every single one of the prioritized access to a bus or light rail line in that purchase. Some bought townhomes or condos over homes they were looking at in the suburbs because the urban home freed them from dependence on the car.
“OK,” you might say, “that’s Seattle. What about California?” While some Millennials do still move to the suburbs, many more aren’t – or are prioritizing buying homes in places where they don’t have to drive as much. My sister is a good example of this. She’s unlike me in a lot of ways, including the fact that she’s much more comfortable with driving, sprawl, and the 20th century model of California urban life than I am.
But when she bought her new home in Anaheim, she and her husband (a car fanatic) also prioritized ways to reduce their need to drive. They bought near a Metrolink station so he could get to his job in LA without having to drive. They bought near the school where she teaches so she didn’t have to spend a lot of time in her car. They bought near a major shopping center so they could walk to the stores without always having to drive there.
The article goes on to mention that State Farm insurance is also noticing this trend and acting accordingly:
The trend of Gen Y driving less is definitely on the radar of State Farm, said Tim Van Hoof, director-marketing communications at the No. 1 insurer, and it’s changing how it goes to market. The company just launched a new campaign targeted at younger customers that “tries to start a broader conversation,” about life, renters and homeowners policies, rather than just auto, he said. Of course, cars won’t disappear, nor will the changes happen overnight. Mr. Draves predicts that by 2020, the combination of younger people driving less and boomers retiring will cut mileage driven in the U.S. by half.
That seems a reasonable conclusion to me. It’s not that Millennials won’t drive, it’s that we’re driving less, a shift driven by economic realities and the new, digital way we live. Electric cars aren’t going to make any difference, since they’ll cost about the same and won’t enable us to use our digital devices while driving anyway. In other words, electrifying cars won’t make a damn bit of difference to this trend.
It’s yet another reason why HSR is a necessary part of California’s future. It will help enable the shift already under way to a future where driving is much less central a part of our lives, where our transportation needs match our digital and economic needs.
It’s also a way that HSR will improve life on the Peninsula, enabling it and other California cities with HSR stations to benefit from the new 21st century economy and way of life, where young people can bring their incomes, families, jobs and spending to these communities and keep them prosperous and thriving well into this century.
Those who insist on seeing HSR as a threat basically want to turn the Peninsula – or whatever city they live in – into a giant old folks’ home, where there’s no new economic activity, where young families and new jobs have gravitated to cities and regions that didn’t shun mass transit, where people are shackled to their cars because those who had wealth and power insisted on trying to pretend the 20th century was still viable, like Canute trying to hold back the tides.
UPDATE: Matt Melzer reminded me of this Wired Magazine article from February pointing out that young people understand there is an inherent conflict between using online tools – in this case text messaging – and driving, and that the response should be to shift away from driving:
So what can we do? We should change our focus to the other side of the equation and curtail not the texting but the driving. This may sound a bit facetious, but I’m serious. When we worry about driving and texting, we assume that the most important thing the person is doing is piloting the car. But what if the most important thing they’re doing is texting? How do we free them up so they can text without needing to worry about driving?
The answer, of course, is public transit….
Texting while driving is, in essence, a wake-up call to America. It illustrates our real, and bigger, predicament: The country is currently better suited to cars than to communication. This is completely bonkers.
Once again: America is changing. The way we interact is changing. The way we travel is changing. Anyone who thinks that we’ll just keep on driving the way we did for the last 60 years is simply not paying attention to the nation around them.