The transformation of mobility, restrictions in cities and demographic changes have caused the car to be a less important option among young people and, even if they wish to have a license, they are increasingly finding new ways to get around.

The plan was clear to many people: turn 18, go to driving school and get your driver’s license. The car, that object of desire that drove the thoughts of young people, meant freedom, autonomy and even maturity. Today, its image has changed: new mobility options, demographic changes and restrictions in cities have relegated it to a less important role. The role it used to play has been taken over by cellphones. Perhaps the explanation is that cellphones are what we use to book scooters and bicycles, the alternative to driving a car.

There are several reasons for this: to the decline in interest among young people we must add rising  fuel prices, job insecurity, the eventual development of public transport networks and the different options for car sharing. It would be necessary to carry out an exhaustive study of each country to determine this progress, but some data help to corroborate it.

A recent census of the General Directorate of Traffic (DGT) in Spain certifies this: the number of citizens with a driving license has been decreasing in the 18 to 24 age group in recent decades, from approximately 20% to 8 %. Thus, in 2008 a total of 873,587 new licenses were registered, while in 2017 it dropped to 358,282. This study indicates that 58% of generation Z (people born after 1995) have obtained a driver’s license, compared to 81% of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). This last group is the one with the highest percentage of the population with licenses, ahead of those belonging to Generation X (1965-1985), with 78%, and millennials (1985-1995), with 74%.

And a survey carried out in 2014 by the KPMG consultancy of 200 senior officials in the automotive sector showed the concern of executives about the loss of customers in the lower strata of the age pyramid: 54% said that those under 25 years of age did not feel the “need to own a vehicle.” Now, this same consulting firm is already contemplating a paradigm shift, although it is confident that this loss of interest will be combined with the success of new, more sustainable, models.

Because that is another added concern: sustainability and the rejection of fossil fuels also play a role when choosing our mode of transport. And life today doesn’t help: if we take a quick look at the situation a couple of decades ago, there are crucial elements that show this transformation. The first, already mentioned, is the progress in mobility around urban centers, where the majority of the population resides. The second, parallel to this, is the proliferation of new ways of getting around. Another fundamental aspect is the gradual incorporation of teleworking, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And finally, job insecurity, maintenance costs and the fluctuating price of gasoline.

“The scale of values of young people has changed. It can be said categorically that there are many priorities that come before owning a car,” says Guillermo Ricarte, general director of the CreaFutur foundation, which analyzes consumer trends. “Preferences have been changing. First it was clothes, then eating out and now technology,” he sums up. “But the decisive factor is economic: there is no purchasing power,” he says. Ricarte believes that it is increasingly easy to drive without actually owning a car, by renting or sharing, and considers that the lack of purchasing power has caused a shift from ownership to temporary use: objects are chosen that do not imply a commitment, which can be used and abandoned.

At the Spanish Association of Automobile and Truck Manufacturers (Anfac) they point out that the economy is not helping, nor is concern about the future. “What happens is that, as life expectancy has lengthened, so has the life expectancy of buying a car and being an active driver,” reflected David Barrientos, head of communication for Anfac, in a report in the magazine Seguridad Vial.

Everything seems to have been delayed: from getting a driver’s license to moving into one’s own home. In certain circles, they directly blame the continuous economic crises since 2008: unemployment is added to a feeling of uncertainty, of not seeing any progress in this sense. And that gives rise not so much to a rejection of a means of transport, but to the resignation to live in the present. In any case, according to the National Confederation of Driving Schools, getting a license is still a pending issue in the minds of the Spanish.

It is still chosen for emergencies or in cases where the advantages are clear, but other options, such as combining public transport or moving around on a scooter or bike, take precedence. The psychologist Josefina Albacete says that, before, having a car was synonymous with freedom. Now it is perceived as a complication: you have to look for parking, share expenses… Meanwhile, there are dozens of options just one click away: request a taxi service and split the price, rent a bicycle or scooter by the minute, wait for a bus or, for longer journeys, look at car-sharing apps.

“The scale of values of young people has changed. It can be said categorically that there are many priorities that come before owning a car”

Carsharing, according to the auditor Grant Thornton, already has 15 million users in the world, 400,000 in Spain (Madrid is the second city in Europe with the most shared cars on the road). In addition, Spain positioned itself as the world leader in motosharing in 2018; the number of vehicles available through these services increased by almost 500% in the country, from 1,491 motorcycles in 2017 to 8,920 motorcycles the following year.

In the United States, according to a survey on the habits of young people published by the BBC, 12% of people between the ages of 21 and 30 have stopped driving compared to the same sample of the previous generation. For them, not even the image of that straight line of asphalt heading towards eternity among wild nature pushes them to take the wheel and feel free, immortal.

The idea of sliding into a parking space with a convertible and the roar of the engine every morning have gradually been forgotten, with users thinking more about clothing or the latest technology. “It’s much more exciting for teenagers to have a new iPhone than the latest fashion: you can do much more interesting things,” a 19-year-old girl told The New York Times. “The important thing is to be connected,” she added.

“The change in preferences in transportation by young people leads to doubts about the position taken for granted by governments, i.e. that driving will grow rapidly and progressively. This is something that should be taken into account when making infrastructure and budget decisions”, underlined the 2012 Frontier Group and US PIRG study titled Transportation and the New Generations. This report looked at how what after World War II was a symbol of maturity has now become an expensive accessory. Despite the increase in income per family unit or possibilities when traveling, the use of public transport increased by 40% in the US and the purchase of bicycles by 23%. Cars don’t even boast the status they used to grant drivers in the middle of the last century.

In France, for its part, a survey on the website revealed that 47% of the French considered the car as “a simple practical object” and not as “a means of escape.” An impression that was strengthened among those over 65 (52%) and among executives (53%). Only 29% of those surveyed still felt that the car was “an object that made them dream.” “This evolution corresponds to the wear and tear of a myth, that of the car as a synonym for freedom,” summed up Frédéric Micheau, deputy director of the French Institute of Public Opinion (Ifop).

“The change in preferences in transportation by young people leads to doubts about the position taken for granted by governments, i.e. that driving will grow rapidly and progressively. This is something that should be taken into account when making infrastructure and budget decisions”

Couldn’t it also have to do with the change in social mentality? It is possible: experts agree that concern for the environment, car-sharing platforms and the spirit of the ephemeral are elements to be taken into account. “Everything is much more volatile,” explains Josefina Albacete. “Before, what people most wanted as soon as they turned 18 was to have a car and be free. Now it is the opposite. Freedom does not depend on an object, except for your cellphone and your cosmetics. But just as we are becoming more similar to other European countries in terms of renting a home instead of buying it, or in the use of bikes (even though we are far from Holland or Germany in this sense), we are beginning to follow the same trends regarding geographical mobility and instability.”

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