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“We’d Rather Work on Our Fixies”: Cars Fade Into the Background

7:44 AM PDT on September 20, 2012

What is it with kids today? They just don't seem to be that interested in driving.

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Over the weekend, the LA Times ran a long story about Crenshaw Boulevard, a corridor under transformation by light rail. The story's subtitle was: "Optimism and anxiety travel along its route, as a revived rail service push and an auto-free younger generation herald changes for one close-knit community."

Auto-free? In LA? Yes, LA is undergoing major changes from the car-centric sprawl of yesterday. But, auto-free? Here it is from the LA Times:

This is the L.A. intersection in its emerging 21st century incarnation: full of cars, to be sure, but also kids in school uniforms on bikes and a steady stream of pedestrians heading to and from the Expo Line, which opened in April.

The story showcases the enthusiasm over the coming of rail, where even business owners being pushed out of their locations by rail construction are ardent supporters.

Cars used to be an essential element of LA's youth culture -- from cruising in low-riders in the 60s and 70s to an 80s and 90s rap scene centered around big cars -- but things are changing. The Times notes that many of the car dealerships are closed or have moved. But more importantly, gasoline no longer runs through the veins of the city's youth.

In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department cracked down on the Sunday night cruising ritual, which barely exists now. More recently, African American teenagers, like teenagers across Southern California, have traded an obsession with cars for ones with smartphones and bicycles.

"Personally I don't really want to drive that much because I don't want to pay for gas," said Terry Monday, a 17-year-old high school student.

"Me and a couple of friends, we'd rather work on our fixies," he added, referring to customizable fixed-gear bikes that have become popular among L.A. teenagers, "or spend money on clothes or on our phones."

At dusk on a recent Sunday evening, it was easy to see evidence of the shift. At the corner of Crenshaw and Imperial Highway, a gleaming burgundy Chevrolet Impala convertible carrying three middle-aged African Americans idled at a red light.

Before the light could turn, a half-dozen African American and Latino teenagers passed by on their bikes, some of which were as carefully polished as the Impala. Three more teenagers on fully detailed bikes went by, then another four, laughing as they raced east into the darkness.

If you're thinking this is just an LA phenomenon, think again. A CNN headline yesterday blared, "Young Americans ditch the car."

"The share of new cars purchased by those aged 18-34 dropped 30 percent in the last five years, according to the car shopping web site Edmunds.com," the story reports.

To some extent, this is old news. U.S. PIRG let us know this spring that young people were driving 23 percent fewer miles per year than they did in 2001 -- and that they're biking 24 percent more. We've heard that car companies are already panicked about the shift and are trying everything they can think of to market their automobiles to the young. For young men in particular, cars just no longer hold the same cachet they used to in the James Dean era.

CNN reporter Steve Hargreaves dismisses the notion that the decline in youth driving is just evidence that the recession is making cars unaffordable. In part, he says, "The re-urbanization of America is giving more people access to public transportation."

But mostly it's about Facebook. (Isn't everything?) He quotes an analyst, speaking at an oil conference, of all things, saying, "What we used to do in cars, young people are now doing online." (Can't you just picture the mood at that oil conference? A bunch of suited executives wringing their hands over how all kids today want to do is tweet and update their status?)

Cars used to be the connector, bringing people to their friends and the wider world. The internet now serves that function. Combine that with urbanization and public transportation that allows people to get around without an automobile, just in case they ever do want to see their friends face-to-face (and not just on Gchat) and who needs a car?

Even General Motors spokesperson Annalisa Bluhm has to admit that the next generation just isn't that into her company's product. She says that less than 15 percent of the "Gen Y" age group considers themselves "car enthusiasts," while 30 percent of baby boomers did. For them, the model of car they got defined them. But Gen Yers just don't look for their identity behind the wheel. "They have a number of things that validate them," Bluhm said.

While GM might be making peace with that reality, Ford still appears to be denying it. Ford U.S. Sales Analyst Erich Merkle was paraphrased in the CNN article saying, "Young people may defer buying cars until the economy improves or they may live out their 20s in urban areas, but at some point they will have families, move to the suburbs and need vehicles."

Right... except fewer people are moving out to the suburbs, at least the auto-oriented suburbs. More and more people want to live in walkable urban centers. This whole urban living thing isn't just a phase that young people go through, like slam books and slumber parties. It's a cultural shift away from the aberration of the past 60 years, when people shunned cities for the outskirts. That trend ran its course, exposed its pitfalls, and ended. We are now living through that societal correction.

So, maybe today's youth is just so satisfied with Twitter and Instagram that they don't actually want to get together. Or maybe getting together is just a more streamlined undertaking now than it used to be. Less horsepower, less combustion, but just as much mobility.

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