Millennials Choosing Buses And Bikes Over Buicks

Millennials are now driving less, waiting longer to get licensed, and turning more to public transportation and car-sharing. So is America's so-called driving boom over? Guest host Celeste Headlee asks Paul Eisenstein of TheDetroitBureau.com.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

From teens with drive, we turn now to young people who have no interest in driving. This is National Bike to Work Day, and a substantial number of millennials choose bikes or public transportation or their feet to get around instead of cars. That's according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, which concluded that the 20th century driving boom is over.

Paul Eisenstein has written about this trend. He's the editor of TheDetroitBureau.com, and he joins me now. Welcome.

PAUL EISENSTEIN: Hi, Celeste. Good to be with you.

HEADLEE: We've heard inklings about this in the past. Young people, we've heard, are choosing not to buy cars. Many aren't even getting their driver's licenses. What's new in this report?

EISENSTEIN: Well, this new report really puts a very big lasso around all the various trends that are occurring. And what we're seeing is that, almost at every level, even among older drivers, there seems to be a shift away from the incredibly heavy dependence on automobiles that has defined America, really, since Henry Ford rolled out the first Model T more than a century ago.

But, as you mentioned, the real change is occurring among the millennials who seem to be saying, well, we'll drive if we have to, but give us reasons that we don't.

HEADLEE: It's been reported that 20-somethings drive about 20 percent less today than their parents did at the same age. What's driving that?

EISENSTEIN: Well, a lot of different things. One of them, by the way, is, of course, the cost of driving, which has become so much more than it was in the past. Many parts of the country now are at or near record prices for fuel. Vehicles have become more expensive than ever, insurance and so on. So that's a factor.

We're also seeing a return to urbanization. Even here in the Motor City, which has lost tremendous amounts of population in the city overall, there is a big push back into the city core, where they're about to launch a new mass transit system.

HEADLEE: We should point out that many of these people that are moving back into urban centers are these millennials, are the young people.

EISENSTEIN: Exactly. They're folks that are more willing to change their lifestyle and, in many cases, they can because they don't have families.

HEADLEE: Well, and there's the important point. These young people who are in their 20s with no children, once they reach 30 or 40, will they all move out to the suburbs and buy two cars?

EISENSTEIN: Even the automakers are now envisioning that there will be a shift away from the sort of level of car ownership that we saw in the past. Up until recently, it was common for drivers to have more than one vehicle each. You would have a two-member household with three vehicles, in many cases. There's been a drop in that at all age brackets, so a lot of auto makers right now, Ford in particular, Mercedes-Benz, are trying to figure out - well, how do they make up for this?

And some of these auto makers are buying into new car sharing programs like Zipcar. The good thing for them is that, if they win over buyers, you know, if the young millennial living downtown says, I'm just going to rent a car occasionally, and they like a Ford, the maker is hoping that, when they move to the suburbs in future years, they'll remember that and buy a Ford when they finally go to the suburban life.

HEADLEE: Assuming that they ever do. But, if it's true that the 20th century car culture is over, as people are beginning to hint, that really has amazing impacts. I mean, people often don't realize this country was built, in many ways, to accommodate cars, many cars, multi-lane highways, houses with three-car garages, shopping centers with acre upon acre of parking spaces.

If this is true that the driving boom is over and I grant you, that's a big if, how do we look in, say, 40 or 50 years?

EISENSTEIN: America is a country built in the image of the automobile. If you want to get a look at what happens when you build a city around a very different model, you need to only go to Amsterdam, where I was barely a week ago. There, you see as many bicycles on the road as you do automobiles. You have parking structures that were built for bicycles, rather than cars. You have mass transit everywhere you go and it is a very functional, effective system.

Could we see that in the United States? Perhaps the closest model we have is New York City. Maybe a few other places, like Boston and Washington, where they also have effective mass transit. It is possible. It does work.

Changing America across the country is not going to be easy. You're probably going to see it mostly in big cities, but there's no question. The driving boom as we saw it over the last century is clearly changing.

HEADLEE: And that, of course, has a downside for the economy, I assume, at least in terms of manufacturing.

EISENSTEIN: Well, certainly it could be a problem if we start to see a significant drop in the number of new cars sold every year, but the auto makers are already figuring on that. If you notice what's happening, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and most of the foreign manufacturers are increasingly shifting their resources to sell in emerging markets like China or Brazil. In fact, China is a larger car market than the United States right now and, by some estimates, will be larger than the U.S. and Europe combined within a decade.

So it's sort of funny. Many of the traditional car markets, the United States and Europe in particular, are moving away from a driving-based culture while some of the emerging markets that have had to rely on bicycles and mopeds for many years - they're moving towards the driving culture that we may be giving up.

HEADLEE: So what's your bet here, Paul Eisenstein? You're the expert. You think this trend will last or will we see these millennials change their minds once the first baby is born?

EISENSTEIN: I think we're going to see a lot of millennials, as they start to raise families, return to the familiar suburban life, but I think the shift is permanent. It may not be as grand as some of the studies, like this one from PIRG suggests, but there is a new urban vitality. There's a new push for mass transit. Even Amtrak is approaching the point where it could start breaking even.

HEADLEE: Holy cow.

EISENSTEIN: Yeah. And so I do believe that the total dependence on the automobile that we have seen for the last century, particularly the last 60 years, will be very different as we go forward.

HEADLEE: Paul Eisenstein is the editor of TheDetroitBureau.com. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Detroit, Michigan. Thanks so much, Paul.

EISENSTEIN: Good to be with you, Celeste.

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