Farewell, My Auto

So, for the first time since I was 18, I am soon going to be without a car.  That's no small emotional transition for a southern California native who grew up in a culture where if you hadn't been in the car for an hour, you hadn't gone anywhere.   It was a world in which every boy in high school counted down the hours until you were old enough to take the driving test.  Since back then it was age 16, you pretty much started counting down when you turned 12.

When I moved to New York City twelve years ago, I had my car shipped out from San Francisco.   And even though the cost of garaging and insuring a vehicle in New York are ridiculous, I always felt that it was worth the price.  I even started planning how to convince my apartment building to install a charging station for the plug-in hybrid I would buy next.

But no more.  Two things changed my mind.  The first is that traffic in New York City, never good, has gotten dramatically worse in the past decade.  Driving, always difficult, is now just about impossible: there is almost no time that you can count on a trip without severe congestion somewhere along the line.  And the second is that there are now four Zipcars in the basement parking garage of my building, available for hourly rental whenever I really must have a car.

Suddenly I'm far more sympathetic to the thesis that automobiles are becoming less interesting to the Millennial generation.

The open road is not exciting if you spend most of your time sitting in traffic, and it's going to get worse: the US is still the fastest growing industrialized nation on earth and we'll add 15 million more licensed drivers just in the next three years.   Even the smallest towns I visit these days have rush hours and traffic back-ups.

Add to this the fact that more Millennials are moving back into city centers or close-in suburbs, where there is either mass transit or services like Zipcar.

Obviously, once you start a family, the car becomes more important, so it's not as if the automobile industry is going to collapse.  But it will be a fundamental shift in the American psyche when the car--once a symbol of pleasure and freedom--becomes just another somewhat onerous duty of adulthood.