Seeing the back of the Automobile Age
Can this really be true? Are young people in the global north really falling out of love with the automobile?
The Economist (paywall) has said it discerns a change, most significantly in America, “the country most shaped by the car”. In 1997, 43 per cent of 16-year-olds in the United States had driving licences, but in 2020, the most recent year for which figures are available, the number had fallen to just 25 per cent. More to the point, says the newspaper, “One in five Americans aged between 20 and 24 does not have a licence, up from just one in 12 in 1983. The proportion of people with licences has fallen for every age group under 40, and on the latest data, is still falling. And even those who do have them are driving less. Between 1990 and 2017 the distance driven by teenage drivers in America declined by 35 per cent and those aged 20–34 by 18 per cent.”
The same sort of trend is apparently visible in Britain, in most European Union (EU) member states (except for newer ones such as Poland) and especially so in big European cities such as Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Paris and Vienna.
It’s true there are a basket of reasons for the falling popularity of cars, not least the rise of online shopping, home film streaming, precarious employment (so, less money), longer spells in education, taxi apps such as Uber and Lyft and higher insurance premiums for young drivers.
But there’s a cultural shift discerned by The Economist, as well as some academic researchers for cars’ increasing unpopularity, too: worry over climate change.
It is one of the first clear indicators of the growing force and momentum of climate change as an argument for changing the metric of entitlement in the rich world. As well as a profound remaking of the city, with roads being reclaimed from cars. Schemes to make the car less welcome in cities have come a long way on both sides of the Atlantic. A congestion-charging zone started in London and was adopted by Milan and Stockholm. Later this year, New York may get it too. And even as we speak, local authorities in many British cities are introducing “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTN) by blocking off streets. My own local area in London has LTN schemes.
Parking is also being targeted with Oslo removing almost all on-street parking spaces from its city centre. In Paris, the mayor of Paris has done the same, as well as adding other car-unfriendly initiatives such as narrowed streets and a proposal to turn the French capital into a “15-minute city”. It is a reference to the rule coined by Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti that people throughout history have been unwilling to spend more than 30 minutes travelling to and from work (placing a limit on the size of cities). [ Click here to read my Economist piece on the importance of the commuting ritual.]
Meanwhile, in the US, New York has banned cars from Central Park. Several other American cities have done away with the obligation for property developers to provide some free parking around their buildings. And California has done the same, state-wide.
Taken together, these initiatives do suggest a shift. Could it really be that we’re looking at the tail end of the Age of the Automobile? Back in 2015, Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, suggested it would be wise to prepare for the end. He explained his reasoning by listing three big breakthroughs that changed the American way of life: the Erie Canal in the early 19th century which connected the Midwest farm belt with the Port of New York and the eastern seaboard; the railroad connecting the two oceans and the continent in between; and The Interstate Highway System which served the car. But now, he said, fiber-connectivity demands something else. He may have been prescient.
Originally published at https://www.rashmee.com