Post from Harry Hutchinson:
It was a big surprise to read that more and more young people these days are not getting driver’s licenses. According to stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, the earning of a driver’s license as a step to adulthood and an entree to freedom no longer resonates as strongly with adolescents as it once did. There has even been a drop-off in driving populations among adults in their 20s and 30s, too.
One reason may be that the young aren’t fired up to go out and see the world because the Internet is bringing the world to them.
Maybe. But to a guy who gets uneasy sitting still too long—like more than a half hour—that news hinted at a profound cultural shift, maybe even more profound than years ago when a majority of Americans switched from scotch to vodka.
A hundred and nine years ago, the gasoline engine began the transformation of 20th century civilization. In that year, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Co., which took a plaything of the rich and made it available to farmers and factory workers; two friends in Milwaukee started Harley-Davidson Motor Co., and gave the country an enduring symbol of macho freedom. In December 1903, the gasoline engine took off in the Wright Flyer. The stories of these events and their consequences have been chronicled for ME magazine by Frank Wicks, an ASME Fellow and mechanical engineering professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. He wrote about “The Remarkable Henry Ford” in May 2003, about William Harley and Arthur Davidson in July 2003, and was one of the lead contributors to the magazine’s December 2003 supplement, “100 Years of Flight.”
So after 11 decades, has the automobile lost some of its allure? Sure, if you live in New York or a few other big cities in the U.S., you may not need a car. But what if you’re anywhere else? How do you get to the mall or the supermarket?
Then I thought about my own experience. My home is in an old suburb in New Jersey, which has stores—four commercial centers, in fact.
The train station is a short walk from the house. One of my bicycles is for play, which usually involves hill climbing, and the other is designed so the rider can keep clean even wearing a suit. It takes me to the supermarket and other local destinations.
The short of all this is: Like the younger generation, I haven’t been using my car so much of late. It sits in the driveway for days at a stretch. Major causes to move it are to convey a passenger, or to pick up laundry or a pizza, both of which I haven’t figured how to handle without damage on a bicycle. Sometimes the weather is too dangerous or just plain nasty for bicycling.
The car does get an occasional workout. It will, for instance, take me to Indiana on a long weekend to scout out Dillinger crime sites, or follow I-95 to North Carolina where they serve Brunswick stew. But I’m the dinosaur in my family.
My daughter lives in urban New Jersey, specifically so she won’t need to rely on her car and is close the job opportunities and entertainments she likes. She takes the PATH train to New York where she can transfer to the city subway. One of her biggest uses of the car may be when she drives out to the ’burbs to visit me. Her significant other lost his car when it was stolen off the street years ago and hasn’t needed to replace it.
We’re far from saying so long to the car culture, but this is interesting. Is it really a trend? What, if anything, does it portend? Increasing demand for light and heavy rail systems? A slowly developing market for new transportation opportunities? Maybe Internet controlled or autonomous cars? A new iPad with wheels?
Or is this just an aberration, and one day we’ll all be jumping into the coupe, in jeans, white socks, and sideburns again?