Tapping the brakes
Younger people and the shift away from driving
Published: September 19, 2012
On the other hand, Fiedler — who grew up in the suburbs — is fired up by what he sees as Detroit's various attractions: "Concert of Colors, the Trumbullplex, the Magic Stick, the Detroit Film Theatre, the DIA and many other entertainment and art venues don't exist out in the suburbs."
These benefits, he says, far outweigh any potential drawbacks.
"Despite concerns about safety that won't go away, I would always rather bike in Detroit than the suburbs. [Motorists] are much more hostile in the suburbs than the city."
He's also put off by the idea of having hours of his time devoured by commuting to and from work.
"I always wanted to work somewhere close to where I lived," Fiedler says. "If I wanted a job farther away, I would consider moving closer. Having a partner that possibly works in a different area than you and having to choose where your children go to school and transportation to and from school complicates things, but younger folks usually don't have those complications. So live, work, eat and entertain where you live because ... it's easiest that way. Why not?"
Fielder's views reflect a broader trend. Recent U.S. census data shows growth for a number of major cities with young people contributing to the growth. New Orleans saw a 4.9 percent increase, Austin, Texas, a 3.8 percent increase, and Denver a 3.3 percent increase.
And while Detroit's overall population continues its decades-long decline, there is clearly an increase in young people in a number of key neighborhoods. "I definitely believe it's happening, though the extent of it is hard to estimate," says Data Driven Detroit's Kurt Metzger, the acknowledged dean of Detroit demographers.
In response to new Detroit arrivals, new businesses are springing up. Among them are car-sharing services such as Zipcar or the newly founded RelayRides, which helps car owners rent out their vehicles for an hourly or daily fee.
"There are a lot of benefits to car-sharing in terms of the environment and the economy," says RelayRides founder Shelby Clark. "We feel that we're really democratizing the benefits of car-sharing, and for the first time making it so that no matter where you live, you can have car-sharing in your neighborhood in under five minutes."
RelayRides currently has vehicles available in 47 states, including Michigan, where cars are available for rates as low as $7 an hour.
Clark believes young adults leaving the suburbs and relocating to major cities will be attracted to the company.
"There's been a broad shift among the millenials, Clark says. "The core premise is that access trumps ownership."
"Society is becoming increasingly urban," he adds. "In a lot of those areas, you don't have to have a car every day. Car sharing is an easier, more affordable way to access mobility."
To address the concerns of those who might be hesitant to rent out their vehicles, car owners are covered for as much as $1 million under RelayRide's insurance liability policy. Potential car renters must go through a screening process that includes a driving background check. Renters are also covered by a $300,000 policy and provided 24-hour roadside assistance.
"People really value the peer-to-peer connection," Clark says. "Usually, whenever you meet up with the car renter, you look the person in the face. People really respect that. They treat the car much more as if they were borrowing it from a friend instead of if they rented it from a big company. They care about leaving the car in good condition."
RelayRides also uses social media — including Facebook and a peer-to-peer online rating system that allows both renters and owners to rate their experiences online.
Car owners "get to look at the renter's reputation," Clark says. "They will also get to see if they have any shared social connections on Facebook. Only if they feel comfortable, they'll rent the car out."
RelayRides has also recently partnered with General Motor's OnStar assistance program, which allows renters to lock and unlock a vehicle with their smartphone.
"Automakers are thinking about car-sharing as well," Clark says. "It's an opportunity to expose the product to consumers and for extended test drives, and also build relationships with consumers."
With younger people driving less, U.S. car companies have been trying to create new ways to keep them interested in purchasing vehicles.
"We're trying to understand how the younger base wants to be communicated with," says Jason Russ, head of Dodge Advertising. "It can be hard ... kids are drawn more to technology than they are cars."
Dodge's latest experiment is the 2013 Dodge Dart. A $15,995 starting sticker price, customizable body and interior, and many technological features — including an 8.4-inch touch screen, voice activation capabilities, USB ports and auxiliary jacks for smartphones or other devices — are all intended to attract younger buyers. Certain models get as much as 41 miles per gallon. Other add-ons include GPS and Sirius Travel Link — a touch-screen service starting at $1.99 a month that provides weather, movie, sports and gas price listings.
"Technology seems to be one of the things that the millennials seems to aspire to with the evolution of smartphones, tablets ... things like that," Russ says. "Anywhere we think we can reach the young influential set from the technology standpoint ... that's where we're looking to go."
Russ explained that the Chrysler brands interact with the younger community through social networking sites, concerts, sponsored events and sweepstakes. Currently, Dodge is co-sponsoring a contest that will send 12 participants and their guests to a music festival and a concert by rapper-actor Pitbull. In addition, one participant will win a Dart customized by Pitbull.
"We used that as a springboard to get the Dodge Dart into an area we'll know we'll have the audience that we're looking for," Russ says. "Pitbull is very popular right now and he's got a very strong audience; he does very well in terms of reaching out across demographics."
Chrysler has also been forming relationships with television networks such as MTV, VH1 and Comedy Central.
"Any way that we can try to find where they're living, breathing, the way they consume media ... that's what we're trying to continually understand ... because that evolves every day," Russ says.
The long-term impact this recent trend will have on automobile sales is uncertain. But there are definitely people who are interested in changing the way we all think about transportation.
"I look forward to buses, bicycling and walking as 'transportation,' not 'alternative transportation,'" Fiedler says. "Because the word 'alternative' assumes that there is a main, normal, correct or better way of doing something. For the longest time, the nuclear heteronormative family has been seen as the 'normal' or 'correct' way to be. Other families are seen as 'alternative' lifestyles. But the truth is that there is no 'correct' way to live. I think that is what we are seeing. Younger folks don't necessarily want to live in the suburbs and drive ridiculous amounts of time to access daily necessities. This is a pretty reasonable thing to want, but as long as it is called an 'alternative' people will continue to feel shamed for living in such a manner."
David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, an avid cyclist throughout his career, tried to boost his favorite mode of transportation while opining for The New York Times in May. At 60 years old, he's several decades removed from the core demographic in this discussion.
The piece, entitled "This Is How We Ride," focused mainly on New York City's inaugural bike-share program. But Byrne also strikes a chord that easily resonates with a much younger crowd.
"I got hooked on biking because it's a pleasure, not because biking lowers my carbon footprint, improves my health or brings me into contact with different parts of the city and new adventures," he writes. "But it does all these things too — and sometimes makes us a little self-satisfied for it; still, the reward is emotional gratification, which trumps reason, as it often does."
For Schroeder, abandoning his car is part of a larger pursuit. Forget about being stuck in an office cubicle or behind the wheel. He's looking for a more interesting way to live.
And if that means encountering some inconvenience along the way — whether it's spending four hours on a train to get back to Battle Creek (which is how long it took on one recent trip) or finding a way to work when it's raining out, then so be it.
At this point in his life, not owning a car only adds to the adventure he seeks.
"If I don't have anything [figured out] by the time I'm 30, I know I probably dicked up," he says. "But you shouldn't measure your life in years and milestones. It frees you up to just be able to be happy."
If the younger generation continues to shift away from using the automobile and the trend develops into a sustained societal change, we could be witnessing the start of something profound.
"Cars are old hat," Didorosi says. "It's like a big, metal child that eats and eats expensive fuels and is prone to hurting itself.
"It's obvious why young folks want public transit and bikes," he adds. "It's just better."
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