DON GONYEA, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET 88")
GONYEA: This tune from 1951, "Rocket 88," is often called the very first rock 'n' roll song. And no wonder, it's about a car. Almost as soon as they started rolling off the assembly lines, automobiles became synonymous with freedom. And in the post-World War II boom, our relationship with cars intensified. It was about horsepower and status, being American, and for young people, rebellion.
For generations, cars inspired countless songs, books, movies. But now, there are signs that our car culture is losing some of its shine. And that's our cover story today. Is America's love affair with the automobile over?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET 88")
GONYEA: The film "American Graffiti" just turned 40 years old. It celebrated the deep relationship between American teen culture and the automobile, back in the early 1960s.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN GRAFFITI")
GONYEA: A lot has changed since those days. Studies show that teenagers are driving less, getting their licenses later, and waiting longer to purchase their first new car. NPR's Sonari Glinton hit the streets to find out why.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When you're a teenager, there are so many things you desperately want to find. You want to find friends, fun, a future, freedom. Well, how do you get those things? In "American Graffiti," it seems so much simpler. The kids find all of that just by getting in their cars.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINES)
GLINTON: "American Graffiti" is set in Modesto, Calif.; it was filmed elsewhere. In the film, the teenagers spend a whole lot of time tooling around in their cars - looking, cruising.
I wanted to see if any part of the city was like the movie. So on a couple of hot summer weekend nights, I drove around Modesto. With its downtown and its long, wide streets, the city seems a perfect place to cruise. But that's not what was happening. Celene Murillo and her friends were among the many teens I saw dropped off at the movie theater. Celene is 19, and she doesn't have a driver's license.
CELENE MURILLO: You know, if there was something that was actually forcing me to get out there and like, actually get my license, then I probably would. There's like, you know, your parents, so you have something to depend on. And so maybe that's why.
GLINTON: Celene says her parents don't mind dropping her off around town, and she doesn't mind either. Blanca Correa is 16, and she doesn't have a driver's license - and no immediate plans to get one.
BLANCA CORREA: I've never actually thought it was that important.
GLINTON: In Modesto?
GLINTON: If you and your friends want to get around, how do you and your friends meet up with each other?
CORREA: Well, they pick us up, and we leave.
GLINTON: So Blanca says she can get around asking friends for rides. And if it's important, her parents will give her a lift. Neither see a license, in and of itself, as a symbol of independence. They're not alone. Buying a car, even a used one, is tough for teens who aren't financially independent. But getting the driver's license, that's different. That's a sign of intent.
Twenty years ago, three-quarters of kids would've had their license by the age 18, according to AAA. Only about half do now. But what do young people with more financial independence - say, in their early 20s - feel about driving?
MEGAN KURTZ: Well, I'd better always have a car because how else would you get places? I'd better have a car.
GLINTON: That's Megan Kurtz. She's the only one of her group that owns a car. I found Kurtz, Mackenzie Yates, Katie Gills and Mike Clubb at an In-N-Out Burger. Clubb says he wishes he could afford a car.
MIKE CLUBB: My girlfriend drives me everywhere. That sounds sad and like, 20 years ago, I'd be considered pathetic. But it's almost normal now, to be that way.
GLINTON: Clubb says for many of his friends, the web and social media can take the place of a car.
CLUBB: You can visually communicate with each other like that - like in the snap of a finger - other than, you know, spending 10 bucks in gas that you don't have and then seeing the same, exact thing.
GLINTON: Katie Gills says cruising just to cruise, even in Modesto, is a thing of the past. She says just driving around your town has given way to documenting your life on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Gills says young people in Modesto definitely drive, but it's with a different purpose.
KATIE GILLS: They're not likely to just aimlessly go. They have to plan.
CLUBB: It has to be Instagram worthy.
GILLS: It has to be worth their popularity. Like, they have to cross an event off their list. You know what I mean?
GLINTON: It has to be Instagram worthy.
CLUBB: Yeah. It has to be pretty, or somebody has to look and be like oh, man, I wish I could've done that.
CLUBB: And if nobody sees, like, it's not really worth the time to go and share it with the world.
GLINTON: In modern-day Modesto, cars are vitally important, but not in the same way they were in "American Graffiti." They don't represent freedom, individuality, a rite of passage, a way to meet up with friends.
Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
GONYEA: OK. So let's talk about this. Micheline Maynard is a veteran journalist, a lot of that time spent covering automobiles and transportation. She now oversees a research project called "Curbing Cars: Rethinking the Way We Get Around."
Micki, you just listened to Sonari Glinton's report there. Can you confirm for us that what he was talking about there from Modesto, Calif., is a trend throughout the country? Are young people less interested in getting their driver's licenses and owning cars?
MICHELINE MAYNARD: Yes, they are. Those kids that Sonari Glinton talked to are the microcosm of what's going on among teen drivers. It's something like 28 percent of teenagers who have their driver's licenses at 16 - which is down 20 or 30 percent from a quarter-century ago. And even by the time they graduate, you still have a big portion of teenagers who haven't taken driver's ed and don't have a license.
GONYEA: Why not?
MAYNARD: Couple of reasons. The most often - reason cited, in a new University of Michigan study, is that they just don't have the time. Many states have now changed teen driving laws, so you have to spend a certain amount of time in the car with a parent. There are limits on when you can drive. And people just shrug and say, you know what? I don't need to get a license right now. I'm not going to bother.
Another reason is that cars are very expensive. The average car now costs over $31,000, and that's before you factor in insurance, which is very high for teens even if they're on their parents' insurance. It means their parents have to pay more for them to be on their insurance. Gas costs $4 a gallon, in a lot of places.
And then I think the third factor that teens cite is the fact that someone can drive them around, like the young man whose girlfriend in Modesto is driving him around. So they can get rides from friends, and rides from parents; and they don't see a need to own a car of their own or get a license, even.
GONYEA: So all of this sounds like very bad news for the auto industry, still a big important industry in the U.S. Are the big automakers worried about it?
MAYNARD: The automakers are perplexed about how to appeal to potential drivers who are between, say, about 16 and 22; and then to the millennials, who are in their 20s; and even the generation Y, which is in their 30s. Some of the messaging that's going on is targeted in shows like "American Idol," where Ford has been a sponsor for years. And they've tried to show driving is fun, is something you can do with your friends.
Another tactic is to realize that younger people are interested in technology, and so put a lot of technology into their cars, make them just as comfortable with the technology in automobiles as they are with their mobile devices.
GONYEA: So reconcile these things for me. You say driving is, indeed, down. But I live in Washington, D.C. And yes, we've got mass transit and yes, we've got bike paths, but the roads are plenty clogged. And in rural areas, people absolutely need their cars.
MAYNARD: Right. So what we talk about at Curbing Cars is something that is referred to as driving light. You probably will still own a car, but you also use an alternative to your car, when you can. You try out a bike-sharing program, you walk somewhere, you take public transportation. And public transit is seeing record demand, at this point in time.
You might try an hourly rental car. You might try ride-sharing, which is something that apps on mobile phones have made possible in the last couple years. So I think people are looking at transportation now not as just "I get in the door of my car, start it and drive away." It's "I use my car when I need it. But if there are other, cheaper, faster ways to get somewhere, I'll use that as well."
GONYEA: So can we get sentimental here, for a minute? We both grew up in the Detroit area, at a time when people adored their cars, right? It was part of who we are. Were you a Chevy family, were you a Ford family, right?
GONYEA: "Rocket 88," the first-ever rock 'n' roll song, was about a car; Bruce Springsteen writing about "Thunder Road"; and movies and books. Is our love affair over with the automobile? Are they just transportation?
MAYNARD: I think the automobile has shifted from a subject of adoration, for most of the public, to something that's adored by a portion of the public. And other people are moving on to other interests, and putting the car in a different place than - you know, than it has been in America for the past hundred years. Even if you couldn't afford to buy one of the first automobiles, you were fascinated by them. But what we're seeing now is a move from the car out of some people's hearts and basically, into their garages, maybe, where they should've been all along.
GONYEA: Micki Maynard, thank you.
MAYNARD: Thank you, Don.
GONYEA: Micheline Maynard is the editor of the website curbingcars.com. This all gets me thinking of the cars I've owned. The full list, in order: a Maverick, an Impala, a Chevette, a Subaru, a Volvo, a Camry, a Chevy minivan and a Malibu. And it occurs to me that these were all more practical choices than anything else. Not a lot of sex appeal or romance in that mix.
But that's not to say I didn't get attached to a few of them. And at some point, in every one of these cars, there was a moment when I rolled down the windows and cranked up the tunes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUNDER ROAD")