“It’s not advantageous to have a car, and sometimes it’s disadvantageous,” said Kate George, 30, who does most of her travel around the District on her bike or by Metro. “It’s a lifestyle you get used to, and you see your friends without cars and you realize you don’t necessarily need one.”
Has the passion gone out of America’s fabled love affair with the automobile?
Nationally, the number of miles driven by people younger than 35 dropped by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to research by the think tank Frontier Group. More than a quarter of those in that age group don’t own a driver’s license.
The study that Frontier Group released in April attributed the shift away from driving to several things, including a doubling of gas prices since 2001 and the ability of people on buses and subways to stay plugged into their social network without feeling guilty about distracted driving.
The lack of desire to drive has been influenced, in part, by economics. One in five people ages 25 to 34 lives with parents or grandparents. In the last decade the percentage of people younger than 35 without a driver’s license has risen to 26 percent.
The bleak economy wasn’t the determining factor in the desire to drive less. People younger than 35 who had jobs drove 2,100 fewer miles in 2009 than they did eight years earlier, Frontier reported.
“When I was 16, if you didn’t have a car you couldn’t get to your job,” said Jeff Lemieux, 49, who grew up in Springfield, Mo., and had an awakening when he moved to take a job in Washington 25 years ago.
“We were introduced to public transportation for the first time,” said Lemieux, who lives in Greenbelt and bikes to work in the District. “Now my wife and I share one car, and we probably ride our bikes 10 times as many miles as we drive our car.”
In rural America, a license and an automobile may remain a necessity for young people. But so does fuel economy, so the car of choice may be a four-cylinder that gets 32 miles per gallon rather than the muscle car of yore. Now, 75 percent of the people who buy the iconic Chevrolet Corvette are older than 45.
“If you look at Main Street America on weekends, they’re still driving up and down Main Street,” said Michael T. Marsden, a professor of American studies at St. Norbert College who has researched the subject. “Has some of the excitement shifted to other media? Of course it has, but that has been replaced to some extent by the older generation that now purchases the muscle cars and actually does the cruising on weekends.”
In places like Washington, however, congestion has stifled the sense of freedom drivers once found behind the wheel, said Timothy K. Gilbert, who chairs the automotive marketing department at Northwood University in Florida.
“When you begin to look at the vehicle as more utilitarian you begin to look at alternatives, because it’s only a method of transportation,” he said. “The way people look at the automobile reflects maybe not uncertainty as much as ambivalence.”
Is ambivalence the death of romance?
“Are we really ever going to get over the love affair? I doubt it,” Marsden said. “Automotive culture, that love affair is a deep one. And we may have to compromise, we may have to shift, we may have to redefine it, but it’s a pull.
“It’s a deep, deep pull.”