The BBC is pondering why car ownership is down amongst teenagers. I had to laugh at some of the awkward wording in it (There was no internet in the 60s, why would you word a sentence around teenagers preferring internet access more than owning a car more than teens in the 60s?) and this glazed-over “romance” of the automobile, but they are right that it is in decline, which I am glad for. I am 22 years old, never had a driver’s license, never plan on getting one unless I have to. My reasons for refraining from driving are a bit different from what the BBC offers and what I suspect the typical teen’s answer is, but I have a few ideas of my own on why car ownership is declining.
I never got a driver’s license because my sensory processing disorder and my autism make all the variables that pop up during driving unbearable. I failed my driver’s test multiple times, and finally decided to quit for the sake of my sanity. I felt a bit sad that I would never feel the high of getting my license, which Kurt Vonnegut said was unlike any other, but I had less of a pressing need for it, because I didn’t socialize much, my best friend was at a boarding school which had strict policies around “outside time”, so there was little chance for meet-ups, and I preferred staying at home anyways.
I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get one though, and my peers didn’t have autism or SPD. But they were bright enough to notice that cars were, in essence, holes in the garage into which you tossed buckets of money. Repairs, insurance, oil changes, registration, there’s a lot that goes into the maintenance of a car, and it sucks away at a $10 per hour salary of the average high schooler on Maui pretty quickly, and more or less drains a college student. What’s the point of owning a car if you are going to be too broke to do anything fun with your friends anyways?
That brings me to my second point on why car ownership among teens could be declining in the U.S: Many of us middle-class kids are “gifted” with parents who are constantly worried about our safety and want to always make sure we’re not getting into trouble. Their hovering and their anxiety about our well-being have made it easy to simply ask them for rides for wherever it is we are going. They’ll usually, in my experience, gladly do it, because they want to observe where we are going, who we are going there with, and what it is we could be doing there. Why own a car when they would restrict your access to it anyways, such as through GPS tracking devices and a strict schedule, when you can ask them for rides for free?
When you’re in your late teens or out of them like I am, another set of reasons pops up for not rushing to get a license. Most universities charge a mint for a parking space on campus, and in the two universities I’ve attended, bus passes for the year were included in our tuition, meaning cars were somewhat superfluous, especially if the city were kind enough to have late night shuttle buses which passed through the best spots downtown. One car between a group of friends was usually reserved for longer trips, where we’d all chip in for gas, and that was it. Otherwise a car was an unthinkable luxury. I’m lucky I now live in a city which is less car-centric. I can depend upon my bike or the bus to get where it is I need to go.
There’s also something unmentioned in the BBC article: Economics aside, I’ve met many people in my age group who are concerned about the ongoing environmental degradation that a car-centric culture causes. Owning a car is cost-prohibitive, but even if I could afford one, and even if I could drive, I would refrain from doing so, even the more environmentally “sound” ones, your Hondas and Priuses, take their toll, and contribute to a continuing culture of planning houses far from essential services, which is exceptionally problematic if you are disabled and car-less, and an all around ecological disaster in the long run. Students in my age group who live in college towns can afford to live without cars, since we are typically childless and may have the luxury of work-study jobs on campus rather than jobs that are far from our place of living and university, and the city planning is structured with the university in mind so most of what you need is pretty close, so we can make that choice.
I don’t find anything romantic about cars. I’ve written before on how car-centric city planning negatively impacts my life, but if this signals a larger trend, I’ll be very happy. Americans, Canadians, anyone and everyone needs to get over their love affair with cars. They may signal freedom to some, but to me, their larger implications are less about freedom and more about confining the young, the disabled, and other populations through making the world cater to those who can use cars.