The headline is attention-grabbing: Is Digital Revolution Driving Decline in U.S. Car Culture? The percentage of 16-19 year-olds in the US who have a driver’s license has been in steady decline since 1978. The explanation for the decline goes something like this: teens have an irresistible urge to text and stream videos to their laptops, both of which are illegal in cars, which sucks, but can be done without hassle on trains. There’s another segment that can’t even be bothered to board a train. They’re perfectly happy with whatever comes down the broadband pipe.
The ramifications are enormous, of course–if the trend holds up. Suburban sprawl will stop in its tracks. Walmart, which has been circling around major cities for years without establishing a presence, will be in retreat. Target will also be in trouble as fewer people will own cars to haul away all the stuff they buy. Walkable neighborhoods and eCommerce will flourish. A post-automobile culture will start to emerge.
Or so we can hope. The reporter, Jack Neff, talks to a guy from the National Auto Dealers Association who points that that being carless is possible when your worldly belongings can fit into a backpack. Once a person gets a Baby Bjorn and a respectable credit rating, however, things change. This argument could be dismissed as boilerplate industry PR, but the NADA guy has a point. A train pass and a Zip car membership will only get you so far.
It would seem, then, the trend away from car ownership may be real, but maybe not as dramatic as the driving habits of teenagers would indicate. I don’t know what’s the matter with teenagers these days. I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license and my own car. (Which, incidentally, I promptly smashed up.) I suspect that the effect of the Internet is exaggerated. Over the past 30 years cars have gotten better; it’s the destinations that have gotten worse.