Youth Taking the Exit Ramp?

When he was 9 or 10, my now-14-year-old son said, “Don’t worry, Dad, my generation is going to solve the environment.”

Maybe he was onto something.

In a major positive trend for ordinary people/a major crisis for the investing class, it seems that, even in our car-pushing social environment, younger residents of the United States are starting to vote with their feet against cars-first transportation.

Advertising Age, with great worry and a search for “blame,” reports:

It’s a rarely acknowledged transformational shift that’s been going on under the noses of marketers for as long as 15 years: The automobile, once a rite of passage for American youth, is becoming less relevant to a growing number of people under 30. And that could have broad implications for marketers in industries far beyond insurance, gasoline and retail.

In 1978, nearly half of 16-year-olds and three-quarters of 17-year-olds in the U.S. had their driver’s licenses, according to Department of Transportation data. By 2008, the most recent year data was available, only 31% of 16-year-olds and 49% of 17-year-olds had licenses, with the decline accelerating rapidly since 1998. Of course, many states have raised the minimum age for driver’s licenses or tightened restrictions; still, the downward trend holds true for 18- and 19-year-olds as well (see chart) and those in their 20s.

It’s not just new drivers driving less. The share of automobile miles driven by people ages 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Census data show the proportion of people ages 21-30 increased from 13.3% to 13.9%, so 20-somethings actually went from driving a disproportionate amount of the nation’s highway miles in 1995 to under-indexing for driving in 2009.

The environment is the reason Gen Y-ers most often give for wanting to drive less, [researcher] William Draves said.

[Draves also] sees the fundamental economic transformation wrought by the internet (and, apparently on the internet; research firm J.D. Power & Associates found that Gen Y-ers don’t talk about cars nearly as much as their elders in social media.) This demographic will be working on “intangibles” in professional jobs, not on tangible things that require physical presence, Mr. Draves said. “Time becomes really valuable to them,” he said. “You can work on a train. You can’t work in a car. And the difference is two to three hours a day, or about 25% of one’s productive time.”

The news gets even better:

In fact, Mr. Draves predicts a resurgence of urban living in denser housing surrounding train stations. As a result, suburban shopping malls and big-box stores such as Walmart, Target and club stores that rely on people hauling big purchases away in cars stand to suffer.

Before you scoff, consider Walmart. Few, if any, retailers are quite as dependent on the car. Walmart has yet to find a highly profitable small-store concept that fits densely packed urban areas; it’s disproportionately strong in rural and suburban areas and has had trouble penetrating big cities with mass transit.

When gas prices dropped sharply in late 2007, Walmart started posting its best same-store sales results in years. The rebound in gas prices was just as tough on Walmart as the drop was favorable. The retailer’s year-over-year customer traffic turned negative last year just as gas prices shot past their 2008 levels, U.S. Chief Operating Officer Bill Simon said in a March speech to analysts.

The auto-pushers, of course, are keenly aware of this and are hatching their plans and talking points:

The economy, rather than any longer-term secular trend, has impacted driving and licensing among younger people, said Paul Taylor, chief economist with the National Automobile Dealers Association. “If job prospects improve,” [NADA said, “people will want the personal freedom and mobility that owning a car provides.”

And social polarization, they know, is part of what compels car ownership:

Driving is more likely “delayed than denied,” argued NADA’s Mr. Taylor. “That age cohort may eventually get married and have children. Living near work is something you do when you’re young and single, and when you start picking out schools and amenities you want for your children’s development, people are less willing to live near the office.”

Interesting times ahead…

Mugyenyi and Engler on China’s Replication of Cars-First Policy

Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler, who are apparently writing the same book as me, have a highly valuable report on today’s Counterpunch.

traffic jam Apparently, China’s Stalinist-capitalist ruling class has quite consciously copied the American system/unchecked corporate capitalism’s somewhat more bumbling but still tightly logical pursuit of cars-first transportation as a pillar industry:

According to Mugyenyi and Engler:

The Chinese government understands, in the words of The Economist, that “the car industry more or less invented modern industrial capitalism.” Which is why, according to The Financial Times; “China’s car-centred model of development has been a mainstay of economic growth in recent years…the spin-off benefits from burgeoning car sales have been enormous. Each car requires several thousand parts, hundreds – if not thousands – of suppliers, roads, car parks, driving schools, petrol stations and other service industries.”

For the past 75 years the automobile has been the number one source of capitalist profit. An industry with a voracious and varied appetite, automakers are among the leading consumers of copper, aluminum, plastics, iron, lead, rubber, textiles, vinyl, computer chips and steel. 9 of the world’s 10 biggest corporations in 2007 were car and oil companies (Walmart, the largest, is highly dependent on the private automobile).

The Communist Party has worked vigorously for China to join this capitalist heaven. In 1994, the auto industry was named one of five “pillar industries” by the government. “The Chinese government wants to emulate America’s rise to industrial glory by making the car industry a pillar of economic growth,” noted The Economist.

So, it looks like the USA and China, through car-induced energy waste and oil war, are going to be the center stages on which the human race will either make it or break it in this pivotal century.  Killing cars-first is an absolute requirement, and hence a very high priority, for those of us living in the belly of these beasts.

Keep an eye out for Mugyenyi and Engler’s book, Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay, which Yves Engler says will be out in 2011.

My own book, Courting Carmageddon: Capitalism, Transportation, and the Approaching Collapse of the United States, should appear around the same time, from Monthly Review Press.