Kids these days. Are they assimilated into car culture as ruthlessly and inevitably as ever?
My frame of reference goes back a few years.
When I turned 16, I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license, but I wasn’t very interested in having a job. I got my license, and started driving my mom’s car occasionally.
Then my mother told me that I’d have to pay the difference in our family’s insurance premium. I said, Fine. I just won’t drive. (The classic posture of a 16-year-old who rebels against only the non-provisioned aspects of life.)
Our insurance agent said, Uh. As long as you have a 16-year-old male with a driver’s license, I’m going to have to charge you the higher rate — even if you say you won’t drive.
So on a sad and solemn day, not unlike the ceremony when a bull becomes a steer, I turned in my license. I felt like less of a man. But I lived.
For the next two years I lived a life where I had the potential to drive, but did not. Around the time I turned draft age, Ronald Reagan was president, and I had become aware of the politics of oil. Thank you, Iran Hostage Crisis.
I started to contemplate life without owning a car. Could I purify myself of my involvement in this dirty business? What would be the personal consequences? Could I get by with just a bike and public transportation? These idealistic thoughts were in the hypothetical phase, and never made it to the investigating phase.
One day, near the end of my senior year of high school, my mom announced, I just bought you a car. Now you can start looking for a job.
Well, there went that idea.
It was a piece of junk: an old Chevy Vega with a giant bite out of the front fender — like it had been attacked by a shark and barely survived.
It had an eight-track player, which at the time was already an anachronism.
I think she paid about $125.
I nicknamed the car Haig, after Reagan’s Secretary of State.
(It was General Alexander Haig, old people will recall, who contributed to the “vital national interest” rationale for military action in order to protect America’s access to all the world’s yummy oil. And did I mention I was draft age?)
Thanks to Haig (the car), I developed the habits of car ownership until they became second nature. I learned to accept the costs and nuisances of car ownership as facts of life.
I learned how to disconnect the fuel line from the carburetor, poke it into a soda can, crank the starter so that a little gas would go into the can, reconnect the fuel line, and prime the carburetor with gas from the can so that Haig would start.
I got a job too.
I’d bike commute occasionally — frequently even — in good weather. It took more than 20 years before I would first make bike commuting my norm, and then revisit the idea of not owning a car.
So what about kids these days?
Do they have the nascent geopolitical consciousness that I was developing when I hit driving age? Will that inform their choice to drive or not to drive?
Or is it just a whole lot easier to text and spend time online?
I have a 16-year-old in my life now; one without a drivers license: my stepson. Sure, he’d like a driver’s license — in the same theoretical way that he’d like a pet crocodile. But his life goes on pretty much unfettered without it. We live in a bike-friendly, walkable city with a pretty good bus system.
When it comes time to motivate him to start making some money, it’ll be much more effective to leverage his cell phone and Internet access than it will to leverage anything to do with his access to a car.
And this all concurs with some recent evidence that “American teenagers are increasingly losing interest in driving.”
In 2008, just 31 percent of American 16-year-olds had their driver’s licenses, down from 46 percent in 1983… The numbers were down for 18-year-olds too, from 80 percent in 1983 to 65 percent in 2008, and the percentage of twenty- and thirtysomethings with driver’s licenses fell as well. And even those with driver’s licenses are trying to drive less; … more than half of drivers under the age of 44 are making efforts to reduce the time they spend packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes.
“American youth have fallen out of love with automobiles” because of the rising cost of driving and the fact that they are “living their lives online,” says Wall Street Journal auto columnist Dan Neil. No longer do teenagers need to drive to each others’ houses or the mall to stay in touch with friends; they do it online.
Although this Website is not necessarily about promoting car-free living, I find much encouragement in the evidence that car ownership and driving is decreasingly seen as compulsory.
I like to think that my stepson, faced with the same dilemmas I faced of earning a living and mobility, will find the idea of living without a car less hypothetical and less daunting than I did at his age.
I’m sure as hell not giving him a car.