A very long and seemingly thorough article. Yet wildly biased and full of holes that no journalism professional should accept.
The story fawns over a study that reports a 6.5 percent overall decline in miles driven per person from 2005 to 2011. It mentions several real factors driving this trend (pun intended) but goes on to accept just one factor as the key point: our nation's young people -- the Millennials (aged 16 to 23) -- have decided that they don't need cars and they don't want cars. The story uses this finding to further conclude that America's love affair with the automobile is over and that public policy should shift in dramatic ways to reflect the approaching new reality.
The summary above makes the article seem much more professional than it really was. Among numerous faults:
-- The study was conducted by US PIRG, an advocacy org that isn't even close to neutral on this topic. Just go to their website to see their deep commitment to expanding public transportation and all the left-leaning, urbanista political baggage that follows. The fact that US PIRG was taking sides on this topic long before its study was produced is not mentioned in the article. For me, this was enough to disregard the article as useless media herd-ism. But I just couldn't resist the rest.
-- The first "micro" person whose experience tops the story as an example of the "macro" trend was a 22-year-old model living in Lincoln Park, a rather trendy part of Chicago, which has the nation's highest parking rates thanks to a stupid privatization plan. She says having a car in a high density part of Chicago is a burden. Imagine that.
-- The next micro example was a 31-year-old woman (a non-Millennial by the story's own definition, doesn't anybody edit anything anymore?) who says she hasn't owned a car since 2004. Even more amazing, this non-Millennial doesn't even live in America. She lives in Barcelona Spain.
-- But wait, there's more! Our ex-pat trend setter is quoted saying she'd rather buy a "Hermes Birkin" handbag than buy a car, because she'd use the bag more than she'd use the car. Wow! Now I'm kinda unhip, so I had to look up what a Hermes Birkin bag actually is. I learned that these bags are made of very politically incorrect calf, ostrich and/or crocodile leather and sell for $7,000 to $150,000!!! Yeah, this rich, ultraconsumer chick is a "good example" of a US trend.
-- Ugh. Could this get worse? Yep. The story talks about a driving slow down that seems to be most clearly evident in big cities like Chicago and New York, yet the story was published in Utah. And then without any Utah driving trend info. Way to serve your readership, Deseret News. You didn't even bother to quote a Salt Lake urbanista. Why not? Couldn't find one?
-- No single person not living in a metropolis was quoted. No young parents were quoted. No young men were quoted (the gender group that historically has loved cars more than any other). And not one car owner was asked to provide any perspective on being rendered irrelevant in the new world. Also unmentioned in the piece: the inconvenient truth that even now, roughly 70 percent of Millennials are drivers. Interesting how a couple of rich girls in big cities can illustrate such a massive trend.
The report itself
So then I read the 30-page-plus US PIRG report to see how they came up with their trend conclusions. They very scientifically listed a bunch of factors that affect driving rates: the economy, gas prices, saturation of demand, changes in technology plus attitudes and preferences. Then the report states that no one economic or demographic factor can explain the trend, so it must really be about the changing values of a new generation. The summary text and conclusion text gives great weight to the attitude factors.
The report tries to reject the economic factors often raised by "skeptics" by going on and on about how unemployment rates do not perfectly match up with the declining amounts of driving. Therefore, we cannot assume that once the job picture improves that driving miles will bounce back. In making this allegedly data-driven point, the paper omits or glosses over four gigantic factors:
1. The unemployment rate for teens (not specified in the report) was quite horrible during the years tracked in the study: 2001 to 2009 on one key chart; 2004 to 2011 in another. (Yeah, there is a problem with mixing and matching time periods, but I digress). Others say July 1999 was the peak of teen employment when 8.8 million young folks ages 16-19 had jobs. It's kinda important for a young driver to have a job to cover the gas and insurance, right? Well, by 2009, the number of working 16-19 year olds had dropped to 5.6 million. That year, that age group had a 24 percent unemployment rate, not far from three times higher than the US rate of 9.5 percent. Yet the US PIRG report would have us believe the decline in Millennial driving is about choice. Hmmm.
2.The US PIRG report also says nothing about the stagnation of middle class income, a huge problem that has been going on for more than a decade. Let's consider this a moment. In 2001, average household income was about $53,500. By 2011, that measure had dropped to about $50,000. -- the lowest since 1995. That's about a 6.5 percent decline in household income. And overall driving miles per person in America was down 6.5 percent. Interesting. But to US PIRG the critical measure to consider was unemployment all by itself, which utterly ignores trends affecting the majority of people who actually have jobs.
3.Then there's the hardly relevant matter of gas prices. While income stagnated for middle class folks, the price of a gallon of gas rose from $1.43 in January 2001 to $3.07 in January 2011. That's a 114 percent increase against flat and declining household incomes. The US PIRG report does not dwell much on gas prices; it mentions them as a contributing factor but little more. That's not good enough.
4.Then there's perhaps the single biggest reason why Millennials aren't driving as much as previous generations of young people -- the astounding, obscene explosion of college costs. Assuming they get jobs, college grads are stepping into the working world burdened with debt their parents cannot comprehend. So yeah, there might not be much spare change laying around for gas money. This issue goes utterly unmentioned by US PIRG.
Then we could factor in the effects of the housing bubble sending people into bankruptcy; soaring costs of health benefits; and fast-growing ranks of retirees reducing their driving miles as they age. Frankly I'm surprised that driving miles have dropped only 6.5 percent.
A more likely explanation
Instead of people choosing to get rid of their cars, one might speculate that Americans are going to self-harming lengths to keep them. As costs rise, people are devoting ever-higher percentages of their incomes to owning and operating cars. Why? Because cars are vitally necessary for the vast majority of working Americans -- even in our biggest cities with huge public transit systems.
One might speculate that people are doing such illogical things because they actually like their cars. They like them so much that they choose to cut spending in other ways before slashing their car spending. Sounds to me like the American Auto Love Affair is very much alive -- but now it's more heartbreak than joy.
So on to the final, saddest point of this mess of media mediocrity.
US PIRG specifically says the US government should refrain from investing more money in highways, and shift funds to invest more in the public transit that non-drivers need. Which is what it was saying before it conducted the report. But now, the interest group has pages of "facts" claiming -- and celebrating -- the end of the Driving Boom. They say these new Millennial attitudes will be permanent, even once the economy improves.
I say there is a dangerously real chance that the reduced driving miles could be permanent -- and it won't be driven by silly spending on $7,000 handbags.
It's still about jobs, people.
We really are living in a largely jobless recovery. GDP is up, Wall Street is rocking, but "we" the members of the vast but shrinking middle class are not getting decent raises or even hired back to the jobs we lost. A fair number of homeowners have downsized to apartments -- not to move downtown for the cool factor but because their houses were seized in foreclosure and their credit ratings are crushed. Meanwhile, more college grads are living with their parents than ever, and those strapped households aren't spending extra for wheels.
These are not good things. And we haven't even talked about what happens to the picture when really huge numbers of Baby Boomers retire without enough savings. We've only just begun to see the impact of this.
A lot of Millennials assume, a bit pessimistically, that Social Security won't be around for them. If that is so, the young folks would be wise to take the bus and use the savings on car payments and gas and all that to pump up their 401-ks. But the kids aren't saving money by not buying cars.
Instead, the creative class stupidly spends house mortgage level rates to rent high-cost downtown apartments while giving up any hope of owning property as a nest egg 30 years down the road. Even the blunted house values of today are vastly better than zero equity. And they pay all that rent for the privilege of paying a fortune for smartphones, overpriced food, overpriced coffee, high priced movies and even higher priced concerts.
No worries, right? By passing on the Jag, Barcelona lady has freed up some cash for a six-figure purse.