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Commentary: Americans, particularly millennials, have fallen out of love with cars

By Mary Wisniewski Chicago Tribune

Car ads sell a romantic fantasy. They often feature a driver on the open road taking the curves along a mountain or speeding through a curiously depopulated urban landscape, rugged and free.

But in the real world, congestion and the high cost of car ownership may have cooled the romance between Americans and their cars, especially for younger adults, according to a national survey.

Almost half of more than 1,000 consumers surveyed do not enjoy most of the time they spend driving, said a study by Arity, a Chicago-based transportation technology and data company created two years ago by Allstate Corp.

The numbers are starkest for millennials. More than half of adults between the ages of 22 and 37 surveyed said a car is not worth the money spent on maintenance and that they would rather be doing something other than driving.

Samuel Kling, 30, of Evanston, Illinois, who commutes to his downtown Chicago job by bicycle, said he knows how to drive but has never owned a car and does not want one.

“It is expensive. It’s a headache in the city. I’d have to worry about parking,” Kling said. “I’d have to worry about insurance, repairs, finding a trustworthy mechanic and gas. I don’t really see the benefit, except maybe once in a blue moon going to Ikea, in which case I could rent a Zipcar.”

Celia Magnone, 26, of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, does not even have a license. She uses the CTA and Uber ride-share service to get around, and said most of her friends who do have licenses do not own cars.

“I think it’s more than the cost,” Magnone said. “It just doesn’t seem as necessary anymore.”

The Arity study found that drivers of all ages report spending about 335 hours a year in their cars, or almost three times as much as the 120 hours spent on vacation.

A third of consumers surveyed agreed the time they spend sitting in cars is “very frustrating.”

Millennials in particular feel the pain, with 59 percent saying they would rather do more productive tasks than driving. Less than half said they enjoy most of the time they spend driving.

“There is a lot written about the fun of the open road. I don’t think that necessarily has changed as a desire,“ said Lisa Jillson, leader of research and design for Arity. But she noted seeing the country on a road trip is a lot different from commuting in stop-and-go traffic every day.

Among baby boomers, who grew up with car songs like “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Thunder Road,” 61 percent say they enjoy most of the time they spend driving. Baby boomers are also most likely to think they are good drivers, at 92 percent. Boomers drive the least of all groups, likely because retirement and grown children mean less daily driving is required.

A friendly attitude toward cars decreases in younger generations, with 16 percent of millennials saying they could live without having access to a car, compared with 13 percent of Gen X respondents and 9 percent of boomers. Millennials live in households that have 1.5 cars on average compared with 1.7 for older adults.

Millennials are also more likely than older adults to use ride-share services, the most popular alternative transportation option.

All this does not mean that millennials are not buying cars – a National Automobile Dealers Association study early this year found young adults are buying them at a higher rate now than they did 11 years ago. Association spokesman Jared Allen said the hangover from the 2007-09 recession meant that young adults delayed decisions such as buying their first car until later in their lives than earlier generations did.

But although they buy cars, young adults do not appear to have the same relationship with their vehicles as boomers have, Jillson said.

“Millennials might be buying cars but sharing them more often, or they may have cars they use on weekends only and therefore invest less in it, because they’re going to use ride-share during the week,” Jillson said. “The place the vehicle is in the mindset of younger consumers is shifting because they are being offered more opportunities and more options.”

Jillson said concerns about the environmental impact of cars did not seem to be a “big driver” of perceptions.

Kling agreed the recession made more people of his generation cautious about big spending decisions, especially since many are burdened by heavy student loan debt. But he does not think the shift in attitude toward car ownership is just economic.

“There’s also a cultural shift in people just not seeing the benefit of having a car,” Kling said. “It’s really not a good way to live in the city.”

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