A Millennial Waltzes Into the Sunset of the Private Car Moment
I’m a 19 year-old college student and I have no intention of ever owning a car.
Once I graduate, I will exclusively apply for jobs in cities that will facilitate the quality of life and cultural milieu I’m looking for. Some people call them “superstar cities;” think New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles. They are dense, progressive and unique, and they also happen to be the Meccas of the techno-media economy.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just my generation who are flocking to these cities. Look up. Do you think we can afford those glittering high-rise condos that are going up all over the place? No, boomers- with their lifetimes worth of assets and investments -are actually moving into cities at a faster rate than millennials. Between 2006 and 2013, nearly twice as many people between the ages of 55 and 64 moved into San Francisco as those aged 25 to 34, according to the policy think tank SPUR. The influx of these two demographic groups has dramatically increased real estate and cost of living expenses in cities, which is a major problem because progressive urban governments have balked at increasing the housing stock for far too long.
Despite these economic incongruities, I’m willing to do just about anything to live out my urban fantasy, so I’ll devote a huge proportion of my income to rent. Most of the remainder will go toward entertainment, as my peers and I rewrite the staid and crumbling conventions of adulthood.
Say what you will about my plan (and that of millions of my peers), but be aware that it has major consequences for Detroit, Silicon Valley, Washington, and Wall Street. With all of my other expenses, there is absolutely no way I’ll have the $9,122 a year AAA estimates are necessary to own and maintain a sedan. And that’s without considering all of the additional expenses and stresses of owning a car in a city, like higher gas prices, parking tickets, and traffic jams. But my reasons for eschewing car ownership aren’t just economic.
My peers and I understand the severity of climate change, and make choices accordingly. I don’t want to be responsible for any more carbon emissions than I have to be. And driving isn’t just unhealthy for the environment, it also promotes a more sedentary lifestyle. Finally, every time someone of my generation gets behind the wheel, we put ourselves at risk for a ticket or an accident because of our collective addiction to our phones.
Some smartphone features like playing music or making calls can be accomplished with hands free technology, but social media requires seeing and being seen. Taking selfies and scrolling through Instagram are pretty much impossible behind the wheel, and always will be (until self driving cars, but I’ll get to that in a moment). Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan found, “A higher proportion of Internet users was associated with a lower licensure rate,” which means that the more people use the internet, the less they’ll want to drive. And no one in their right mind would argue that the internet is getting any less ubiquitous.
But just because I’ll be living without a car doesn’t mean I’ll be willing to sacrifice mobility. Quite the contrary. In my quest to live the lifestyle I mentioned earlier, I’ll need to move through the city late at night, when transit is much less frequent, even in a place like New York City. In nearly every other American city, transit is currently an inefficient mode for most intra-city journeys. Biking and walking are also important options, but they can’t completely fill the gap left by private car ownership. This is where Lyft, Uber and other ridesourcing services come in.
The proliferation of instant communication and hyper-competitive institutional environments has led people to value speed and efficiency more than ever before. Ridesourcing is often the fastest way to move about the city, and is therefore emerging as a preferred mode of transit. For instance, I’ll choose a $15 Lyft ride over a $2.50 subway ride in order to get an extra half an hour of sleep so I can be at my best the next day at the office.
This hypothetical decision sheds light on the most troubling element of my inquiry; those of us who will be able to live in Superstar cities will be (and already are) overwhelmingly wealthy and well-educated. Although foregoing car ownership makes economic sense for someone like me, it is rapidly becoming a great privilege to live in a city that facilitates a car free lifestyle. Barring major economic and cultural changes, an ever increasing number of rich people will pack into these cities, meaning more business for Uber and more barriers of entry into the techno-media economy for underprivileged people.
The lucky boomers who live in those glittering condos may not be aspiring to the same social life as I am, nor are they as tech literate, but they will make the same types of decisions about when to order a car, rather than walk or take transit. If anything, they’ll be ordering cars a lot more often, because they’re older and have more money than millennials. Carpooling options like Lyft Line and UberPool will make these services even more appealing for everyday use. And of course, one can never underestimate the allure of the user experience of ridesourcing. Sexy apps that allow you to watch your car drive up in real time are more fun to use than other forms of transportation. They make you feel like the master of this brave new digital world.
When I was born, Google didn’t exist and cellphones were bricks. I’ve grown up to never underestimate the pace of technological innovation. By the time I’m middle aged, ridesourcing will have turned into massive fleets of self driving cars, which is all but inevitable now that Google has entered the game. Transit systems will be extremely smart and integrated; imagine version 20.0 of the system currently being developed in Helsinki. It doesn’t matter how meta-ironic or faux socially responsible car company marketing becomes- they’re fighting a losing battle.
If I were a car executive, I’d get on the next plane to Silicon Valley as fast as possible.