This summer, Sarah Mohammed is going on a road trip. She and three of her friends plan to drive from Montreal, where they live, to the Okanagan Valley. “We’re going to work on some orchards and vineyards in the Interior of B.C.,” says Mohammed, 23. The trip is to mark her recent graduation from the University of King’s College, in Halifax. “I just finished school and I want to do something different,” she says. But on the long drive west, Mohammed won’t be taking any shifts behind the wheel—she doesn’t have a driver’s licence. “Oh, I won’t actually be driving. I’m just being a leech,” she jokes.
Mohammed didn’t go out of her way to avoid learning how to drive. “It’s just something that kind of happened, because of the places I lived,” she says. As a high school student in Toronto, “I just didn’t bother.” At university in Halifax, “everything was very accessible by bike or bus, and it wasn’t really necessary.” Now, in Montreal, she walks, bikes or takes the subway. Mohammed worries that, once she gets to the rural B.C. Interior, she’ll be dependent on her friends for lifts. Of the four heading west, only two can drive. “I’ll pretty much be at their mercy,” she says.
Mohammed isn’t alone. She’s one of a growing number of younger people who shrug their shoulders at the idea of getting a driver’s licence, leaving car companies fretting and older generations perplexed. Getting a licence used to be a rite of passage—one that brought younger people together, gave them access to jobs, opportunities and the glories of the open road. It meant adulthood, and freedom. “That moment when the keys got passed from dad or mom to you, and you could drive by yourself, was a liberation,” says Steve Penfold, who teaches a course on the history of the automobile at the University of Toronto. “It said, ‘I’m trustworthy enough to drive a car. I’m bordering on adulthood.’ ” People remember their first car “like they remember nothing else,” he says, and often they gave the car a name.
That feeling of freedom and coming of age was glorified in classic American movies and TV shows like Grease, The Dukes of Hazzard and American Graffiti. “Our idea of adolescence was invented in the 1940s and ’50s, and cars were an important part of that,” says Max Valiquette, managing director of strategy at Toronto-based ad agency Bensimon Byrne and a frequent commentator on youth culture. “Like making out in the back seat of a car, or going to a drive-through.” Penfold has studied 1960s fast-food parking lots as “a meeting place for youth,” where they’d hang out and flirt with the carhop, “and you couldn’t get there without a car.” On a Friday night, teenagers often did little else for fun but drive up and down the street. The ones with a driver’s licence were heroes; others squabbled over who could ride shotgun up front.
Not anymore. “From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased,” begins a recent report from Frontier Group, a think tank, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund. “Then, at the turn of the century, something changed.” From 2001 to 2009, the number of “vehicle miles” travelled by Americans aged 16 to 34 dropped 23 per cent. “It does come as a surprise,” says Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG, co-author of the report. “It’s been such an article of faith that we’re driving more and more, with more road congestion, more highway buildup, in a vicious cycle.” But that’s not the case—and the decline is happening in other countries, too.
In another new study, researchers from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) found a drop in younger licensed drivers in more than half of 15 countries they surveyed, including Canada. Among 25- to 34-year-olds here, 92 per cent had a licence in 1999; 10 years later, 87 per cent did. In Canada, this decline occurred in every age group from 16 to 54.
In the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Norway and South Korea, the percentage of younger people with a licence also fell. One-third of all licensed drivers in the U.S. were under 30 in 1983; today, it’s less than a quarter. This can’t be pinned entirely on the recession. The drop in licensed drivers “predates the economic downturn,” Baxandall says. Young people who have jobs and are doing well financially are also driving less.
Instead, they’re opting for alternatives. Bike culture is flourishing, with bike-sharing networks popping up everywhere from Montreal to Washington and Honolulu. In 2009, Americans aged 16 to 34 took 24 per cent more bike trips than in 2001—even though that age group shrank in size by two per cent. They also walked 16 per cent more often, and increased the number of miles travelled on public transit by 40 per cent, according to the report Baxandall co-wrote. A 2011 survey from Zipcar, the car-sharing service, notes that 55 per cent of millennials (18 to 34) are making an effort to drive less, partly because of concern over the environment, and partly because of the cost of owning a car.
But the biggest reason for the move away from driving is the Internet—in some ways, it has replaced the need for a car, since how we connect has completely changed. According to the Zipcar survey, 68 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds said they sometimes use social media to connect with friends and family instead of going out to see them. The Michigan study found that having a higher proportion of Internet users is associated with lower licensing rates among young people. If given the choice between having Internet access or a car, 46 per cent of all 18- to 24-year-old U.S. drivers say they’d take the Internet, according to technology researcher Gartner Inc. “Virtual contact through the Internet is replacing the need for physical contact,” says Michael Sivak, head of UMTRI’s Human Factors Group and the Michigan study’s co-author. “They just don’t need to be with others as often as they did in the past, because they can connect other ways than physically.” Car manufacturers are all too aware of the shift. “For many baby boomers and Gen Xers, the car was a really important status symbol,” says Sheryl Connelly, manager of Ford global consumer trends and futuring. “Today, it’s a cellphone, and a lot of kids are getting one before they turn 16.”
Everyone can now shop, watch movies, play games, listen to music and catch up with friends online. When kids do leave the house, many would rather take the bus and stay connected. Texting is the dominant daily mode of communication for teens, according to the Pew Research Center—but in every Canadian province, there’s a ban on using hand-held cellphones while driving. “When you talk to people about why they don’t drive, they’ll say that when they’re driving, they’re not connected,” Baxandall says.
For young people of any generation, “freedom is the most important thing,” Valiquette says. “Cars used to represent that.” Now, after insurance payments and parking permits and missed time on texting and Twitter—not to mention the process of getting a driver’s licence, which, with the graduated system, can take years—cars represent the opposite. “They’re a burden.”
Growing up in Winnipeg, Erin Klassen had no interest in getting her driver’s licence. When she turned 14, her family moved to North Bay, Ont.; there wasn’t much of a public transit system there, Klassen says, “but a lot of my friends were a couple of years older, and they could pick me up in their car. It was never an issue. I’d throw them some money for gas, or buy them a coffee when we went out.” In the final year of her bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto, she and a roommate drove to the East Coast. “She borrowed her father’s car and I couldn’t drive,” Klassen says. “I was in charge of keeping her awake, and the music.”
Klassen, 28, now works from home in west-end Toronto; she’s the editor of an online magazine. She still doesn’t drive, and neither does her live-in boyfriend. In her neighbourhood, “we have markets, clothing boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants,” she says. “I can walk to get the things I need.” Her boyfriend will probably get his licence eventually, but “I honestly can’t see myself getting mine.”
Of course, getting around without a car is much more easily accomplished in a city. Households in urban areas are 2.5 times more likely not to own one than those in rural areas, but younger people—those at the forefront of the trend away from driving—tend to prefer living in cities. According to a 2011 National Association of Realtors survey cited in Baxandall’s report, 62 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they’d prefer living in a “smart growth” community (with a mix of homes, restaurants, libraries and decent public transportation) instead of contributing to sprawl.
For some people, the idea of driving can be nerve-racking. Emma O’Neill grew up in the small town of Arnprior, Ont., where getting a licence was “a great thing, because it meant you could go to the city—Ottawa,” about an hour away. But she was nervous, and says she only got her learner’s permit at her parents’ insistence. “My dad took me out in his truck for the first time, this huge massive thing. It was fun, but I was really scared.” O’Neill later moved to Toronto for school and let her permit expire. In Toronto, “I don’t really have any friends who drive cars,” says O’Neill, 23. When she goes back to Arnprior to visit, she walks or bikes around town, or gets a lift from her parents.
One powerful incentive for getting a licence is still parenthood. Stephanie Kale grew up in Windsor, Ont., and lives in Ottawa; she didn’t need to learn how to drive until she had a child almost three years ago. Then she got her licence and bought a car one week later. “My daughter was my motivation,” says Kale, 32, who left her downtown apartment for a less expensive place further from the city core. Now she’s in a better financial situation, and she’s tempted to move back downtown and use her car less.
People who can’t drive sometimes end up feeling like a mooch. If Mohammed’s friends want to drink, she can’t be the designated driver. On their road trip, “it’s just crappy because it will always have to be one of them,” she says, referring to her two friends who have their licences. They’ll be bringing an arsenal of technology to B.C.—including a MacBook Pro laptop—but the driver can’t use it on long boring stretches of highway, while Mohammed can check her phone and text any time. Even in Montreal, her inability to drive can leave her feeling dependent. When she spoke to Maclean’s, she was about to have her wisdom teeth removed; a friend would be dropping her off at the appointment and picking her up afterwards. “I can’t be that person for someone else,” she says.
Despite these inconveniences, some people, like Dan Dubuc in Vancouver, B.C., say they’d rather not drive because of the environment. “I’m holding out until I can buy a reliable vehicle that isn’t powered by fossil fuel,” says Dubuc, 24, a student at Langara College. Maybe so, but it’s hard to believe that if a driver’s licence had the cachet it once did, so many would be holding out too. And such criticisms of the car are fairly recent. In the 1960s, “there was a godlike sense of the car being important,” Penfold says. “You might have had one guy on the margins who didn’t think the car was a positive force for society,” but these days, more people share Dubuc’s attitude, making cars seem less cool than ever.
With youth unemployment in Canada roughly double the national average, the cost of owning a car could discourage many young people from driving. But cars are getting more affordable. It took on average 18.8 weeks’ worth of income (before tax) to pay off a new car in 2011, according to auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers. Ten years before, it would have taken three weeks longer. “Vehicle ownership in Canada is going up, not down,” says DesRosiers, who adds that up to 90 per cent of the demand for new vehicles comes from existing car owners.
Car companies are trying to catch the interest of aloof younger buyers by creating vehicles that are an extension of their smartphones. Chevrolet MyLink, an “infotainment system,” lets a driver connect her smartphone with the car to access personal music libraries, video and photo albums on a colour touchscreen (the latter two only work when the car is going less than five kilometres per hour). The Ford Sync system can stream music from the driver’s phone through the vehicle’s sound system, and reads incoming text messages aloud, among many other features. Companies also use heavy product placement to make sure their products stay visible to younger drivers. “One of our most famous was the Camaro in Transformers,” says Rob Assimakopoulos, general director of marketing and communications of GM Canada. Ford, which has set its sights on social media marketing to reach millenials, launched its Fiesta in North America by recruiting bloggers to drive the car and create buzz. An ad for the Chevy Sonic, which played during the Super Bowl, featured the band OK Go using the car as a musical instrument—a very different way of perceiving vehicle performance.
Some manufacturers have accepted the fact that, for a growing number of people, cars are no longer an expression of personal identity. Peugeot, in turn, has launched a European program called Mu: members can visit a dealer to rent out whichever “mobility solution” best suits their needs that day, whether it’s a scooter, van or bike. Maybe this is the car dealership of the future. Maybe we’ll see more “self-driving cars,” like one Google has developed, suggests Rudi Volti, professor emeritus of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and an expert in car culture. He wonders if “a more European situation” will emerge, where people have cars but tend to use them for making day trips, and not for commuting to work. “I think there’s always going to be a place for the private automobile,” he says. “It’s not just the freedom; it’s the ability to be with whomever you want, or nobody at all.”
But ironically, today it’s actually easier for young people to be with whomever they want without a car. “You can have a conversation with 15 people online,” Valiquette says. “That didn’t exist 40 years ago.” The licensed driver, once the source of envy among his friends, is stuck talking to the passengers in his car. Those passengers, with their smartphones in hand, are the ones to envy: they can chat virtually with anybody.
Mohammed hopes to get her driver’s licence one day. “Someone mentioned to me that having your licence, it’s a coming-of-age thing. On the grand list of stuff you’ve got to do in life,” she says, “that’s one that needs to be checked off the list.” Eventually.