Ask The Right Why
Stu Bykosky pondered the decline of driving in the Delaware Valley in his latest article, “Kids to cars: Drop dead“. I agree with Stu that figuring out the answer why is intriguing, but I don’t think he asked the right “why”.
The auto industry doesn’t understand millennials. That’s the take away from this article in Fast Company… and the point of this article in The Atlantic, the gist of this article in The Atlantic Cities, and a prominent feature in this other Atlantic article. Stu quoted an editor at AOL’s Autoblog, who said that kids these days would be “just as excited” to own a car as prior generations, provided the economy was better. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that someone working at AOL has a mentality stuck in the 90s.
But the fact that the rest of this massive industry cannot understand 77 million Americans should give us all pause – maybe they aren’t asking the right questions. Ascribing the wrong reasons to this shift in driving habits can have disastrous ramifications for public policy. This article in The Atlantic Cities highlights the importance of getting these predictions right – US PIRG developed three potential scenarios on the future driving habits of millennials: (i) they will eventually start driving as much as previous generations, (ii) we are experiencing a permanent shift, meaning the amount of driving has plateaued, or (iii) the driving in America is in a permanent decline. The article then showed three federal agencies’ predictions for future driving habits — all based on simplistic historical trends, and incredibly higher than the more nuanced PIRG predictions.
All these articles ask a variant of “why are we driving less?” But perhaps they’re asking about a symptom of a bigger shift, and not the underlying cause – they’re asking “why is my nose running?” instead of “why do I have a cold?”
But lets ask that initial question, why are we driving less, first.
It’s not the economy – we’ve had enough recovery now to rule this out as a driving factor. Some suggest social media and smart phones make us less reliant on cars for freedom. While communicative technology is certainly transformative in many ways, too many writers are too quick to credit the Web 2.0 for driving every social trend, and I doubt anyone really ever thought who needs a car when I have an iPhone (I would forgive the writers if they were all critically thinking technological determinists in the vein of Marshall McLuhan, but I’m pretty sure they’re just lazy). Others, like an analyst at DMV.com interviewed by Bykosky, argue that attitudes towards driving have changed. Specifically, they argue that greater environmentalist ethos is at fault. While I agree there has been an attitude shift, I don’t think it’s environmentalism: according to the Pew, only 32% of millennials consider themselves “an environmentalist”, compared to 42% for both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. Bykosfky, as is his wont, constructed a lovely little straw man of the villainization of driving at the hands of teachers and “narcissistic” bicyclists.
My theory: millennials are living in cities more than any previous generation. Some of our parents are opting to move back to the city, too, a move unseen in previous generations. In a city, cars just aren’t necessary like they are in suburban, exurban and rural areas. Given the choice, many city slickers chose not to own a car, and that’s simply not seen as a viable option when you live in the ‘burbs. This is the modern inverse to the idea that Eisenhower, Robert Moses and Ed Bacon – by promoting highways and planning urban areas around driving – sparked the post war urban exodus.
The car has for so long held an esteemed place in the American economy, that thinking of it as the side effect of a trend, rather than the very heart of a movement, seems a bit foreign. But, lets I’m assume I’m right for a second (it’s MY blog post, after all). Instead of asking why people aren’t driving, we really should be asking why people today are preferring cities.
I think cities have simply done a better job competing for residents recently. Across the glove, urban crime rates have plummeted dramatically. Manhattan and Center City are safer neighborhoods than some in the suburbs. Extreme weather doesn’t reek havoc in a city as much as it does in the ‘burbs – fewer tree branches hang precariously over power lines, and walking is an option when the roads aren’t. American palates seem more discerning than before (as evidenced by the successes of Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Chipolte and craft beer compared to their competitors), making access to a number of good restaurants and food markets more desirable than in the past.
Asking the right question is a condition precedent to finding the right answers. We need to start asking the right why.