The Commuting Surplus

The share of automobile miles driven by people aged 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration's National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year. Meanwhile, Census data show the proportion of people aged 21-30 increased from 13.3% to 13.9%.

According to the experts, young people don't want to drive anymore, and the Internet is to blame! Aside from criticizing journalists for lazily falling back on not one, but two tired tropes (kids these days + the Internet) to generate interest in something that is not incredibly newsworthy, I wanted to see what else might be causing a decline in US car culture.

I see automobiles as the most prominent (and for many years, almost the only) designed object in most American's lives. For years, they were also an overt expression of identity. In movies, in cities and towns everywhere, life seemed centered around the car. Sections of cities were destroyed and new cities built for them. Like any strategy predicated on growth, it had to come to some end, right? With the design force Apple and multiple websites and interactive products, there are other options Americans to express themselves.

It may be that American youth is less interested in what's being offered by auto manufacturers. I don't have any data, but perhaps cars today are too conservative and aimed at broader market segments, with fewer interesting variants to be appealing. Smaller, cheaper cars for years have been overlooked by manufacturers as worthy of their attention. Practically speaking, people must be doing something with their time, and it seems they all want to be online. All along cars have been just a means to socialize, and now its a lot easier to do that using Facebook and Twitter and mobile apps. It's very hard to use these while driving.

Another aspect not covered is how the rise of hacker and maker culture comes into play. Cars can't be hacked so easily anymore (exception noted), with blackbox computers and sophisticated engines and drivetrains. Computers and websites can be easily customized and are vastly cheaper than cars, too. The economy has been in a prolonged recession and new cars are inaccessible for many.

Lastly, it seems collaboration and environmental concerns are powerful motivators for people to consider public transport, sharing services, and living in denser urban areas.

Compared to older generations, Millennials participate in and are more open to collaborative consumption programs, such as media, car and home or vacation sharing. - Millenials Prefer Sharing Over Ownership

In many ways, they are trying to undo what their parents and grandparents did when they fled the cities for "greener" pastures.

The challenge for designers is systemic, and has been for some time. Its a massive service design challenge in some ways, and one that seems to be coming from the bottom up, rather than the corporate-driven suburbanization effort. Better urban planning and a much wider array of transportation options are needed for people who want to use their cognitive surplus.