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Throughout the rich world, the young are falling out of love with cars

The Economist: “That could have big political ramifications. For Adah Crandall, a high-school student in Portland, Oregon, a daily annoyance is family members asking when she is going to learn to drive. Ms Crandall, who is 16, has spent a quarter of her life arguing against the car-centric planning of her city. At 12 she attended a school next to a major road down which thousands of lorries thundered every day. When a teacher invited a speaker to talk about air pollution, she and her classmates were galvanised. Within a year, she was travelling to Salem, Oregon’s capital, to demand lawmakers pass stricter laws on diesel engines. Yet her family still nags her to get her driver’s licence. “[It’s] seen as this ticket to independence. It’s so glorified,” she says. Ms Crandall admits her life would be easier if she had access to a car—she would spend less time on buses, and could drive to the coast with her friends. But she hates the idea that she should have to. “Why in our society is our identity so tied to car use?” she asks. “If I choose to comply and get my driver’s licence it would be like giving in.”Few technologies defined the 20th century more than the car. On the surface, the love affair with the personal automobile continues unabated into this century. The number of drivers on the world’s roads continues to rise almost everywhere. The distance driven by American motorists hit a new peak last year, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration. But there are hints that this is changing. People like Ms Crandall show why. Getting a driving licence was once a nearly universal rite of passage into adulthood. Now it is something that a growing minority of young people either ignore or actively oppose, into their 20s and beyond.That, in turn, is starting to create more support for anti-car policies being passed in cities around the world. From New York to Norway, a growing number of cities and local politicians are passing anti-car laws, ripping out parking spaces, blocking off roads and changing planning rules to favour pedestrians over drivers. Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, boasts of “reconquering” her city for its residents. Campaigners detect a sea change. Even a few years ago “there was a sense that we were the weirdos,” says Doug Gordon, a founder of “The War on Cars”, a podcast based in New York. Now, he says, “more and more elected officials are adopting positions that were [until recently] on the fringe.” After a century in which the car remade the rich world, making possible everything from suburbs and supermarkets to drive-through restaurants and rush-hour traffic jams, the momentum may be beginning to swing the other way. Start with the demography, and in the country most shaped by the car. The average American driver goes much farther every year than most of his or her rich-world contemporaries: around 14,300 miles (23,000km) in 2022, which is about twice as far as the typical Frenchman. Nearly a century of road-building has resulted in sprawling cities, in which it is hard to get around in any other way. The city of Jacksonville, Florida, for instance, spreads across 875 square miles. With around 1m residents, that makes it only about twice as densely populated as the whole of England, only around 8% of which is classified as “urban”. The Supreme Court said in 1977 that having a car was a “virtual necessity” for anyone living in America. By 1997, 43% of the country’s 16-year-olds had driving licences. But in 2020, the most recent year for which figures are available, the number had fallen to just 25%. Nor is it just teenagers. One in five Americans aged between 20 and 24 does not have a licence, up from just one in 12 in 1983. The proportion of people with licences has fallen for every age group under 40, and on the latest data, is still falling. And even those who do have them are driving less. Between 1990 and 2017 the distance driven by teenage drivers in America declined by 35%, and those aged 20-34 by 18%. It is entirely older drivers who account for still increasing traffic, as baby-boomers who grew up with cars do not give them up in retirement. A similar trend is well-established in Europe. In Britain the proportion of teenagers able to drive has almost halved, from 41% to 21%, in the past 20 years. Across the countries of the European Union there are more cars than ever. Yet even before the covid-19 lockdowns emptied the roads, the average distance travelled by each one had fallen by more than a tenth since the turn of the millennium. (The exceptions were relatively new member states such as Poland.) Even in Germany, where the internal-combustion engine is an economic totem, drivers are pushing the brakes.

The trend is especially strong in big cities. One study of five European capitals—Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Paris and Vienna—found the number of driving trips made by working people was down substantially since a peak in the 1990s. In Paris the number of trips made per resident has fallen below the levels of the 1970s…”

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