Tapping the brakes
Younger people and the shift away from driving
Published: September 19, 2012
An annual study conducted by AlixPartners, which analyzes multiple automakers and auto suppliers, offered gloomy figures for automakers, showing there are 5 million fewer potential car buyers than there were just five years ago.
"Younger people have so many alternatives today with the Web," says Tim Yost, also of AlixPartners. "Cars don't seem as interesting" to them.
Ferndale resident Alexander Wojcik, 24, got rid of his vehicle three years ago. He says he has no intentions of getting back behind the wheel. Instead, he gets to work and school by bicycle.
"I don't see the point in owning a car," Wojcik says. "I survive without it. Both of my jobs are within a mile from my house, and school is close as well, so anything I need is within reach."
The KRC Research and Zipcar survey also found that 45 percent of younger people have made a conscious effort to reduce driving.
"The last time I bought gas it didn't cost as much as it does now," Wojcik says. "Why would I go back to that?"
The way he sees it, when a young person is deciding how best to spend limited resources, cars come up short.
"You can have an amazingly functional, stylish, well-built bicycle for a thousand dollars," Wojcik says. "You spend a thousand dollars on a car, it's going to go to shit in a year."
Wojcik adds that the environmental consequences of owning an auto are also a concern.
"I think, globally, bicycles are better and more popular than ever because their [environmental] impact is zero," Wojcik says. "You're not causing any harm. When you drive a car it impacts a million things. That aspect of it, as we're becoming a more educated society, is becoming more prevalent — the idea that it's a good thing to the environment, the world, even to small communities."
By its very nature, a decrease in driving creates higher demand for reliable, efficient public transportation — the dearth of which has long been an issue in metro Detroit.
Andy Didorosi, 25, is trying to help change that. His recent start-up, the Detroit Bus Company, is providing a new way to get around town. The $5 per-ride service covers nearby suburbs and downtown Detroit neighborhoods. An iPhone app allows customers to track the buses they're waiting for.
Didorosi says he created the company because he felt the city needs more reliable transportation in order to grow. The ridership of his fleet of eclectically painted buses generally is a mix of young and old, with the average age hovering around 35 to 40.
"These are people who saw the city crumble and are still venturing downtown, still fighting for it and spending their dollars down there," Didorosi says via e-mail. "It's very motivating."
The selling point to Detroit's resurging neighborhoods (such as downtown, Corktown and Midtown) for the younger crowd is their transformation in recent years into smart growth communities — neighborhoods with apartments, stores, restaurants, entertainment, schools and access to public transportation nearby.
A National Association of Realtors survey from March 2011 found 62 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds would prefer to live in smart growth communities.
Given that, Didorosi sees the potential for young people providing a boost to public transit in Detroit, if the money for vast improvements is made available.
The ways he sees it, young people are gravitating to places with the best public transit, be it San Francisco or Copenhagen. Detroit, he says, would be wise to follow that lead if it wants to become a magnet for youth.
Better public transit, he contends, will "create its own demands and bring commerce to the corridors [in which] it operates."
The finding of Sivak and Scholette's study, which correlated lower licensure rate with higher Internet usage, seems absolutely reasonable to Didorosi.
"The fact is, social activities across the board are in decline, and public transit and cycling are among the very few places where you can meet new people and branch out. Transit is a crucial crossroads where you can have the conversations and build the relationships that really matter," he says. "We've been imprisoned in our cars-of-one for far too long here in Detroit. It's time to reconnect."
In response, more cities have begun to adapt to the increased interest in cycling, although sometimes grudgingly. Schroeder says he's seen that with the residents of his hometown Battle Creek. There, he says that "people are hesitant with change, even if it's putting a new line on the road" for bike lanes.
While older folks might be resistant to such change, many younger people are becoming a non-driving force behind it.
"As a younger person, I moved to the city because I can't stand the suburbs," says Jason Fiedler, communications and programming director at the Hub of Detroit/Back Alley Bikes. "Strip malls and McMansions don't ignite anything within me."
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